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Planning for the Urban Future of Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous Vehicles Commerce and Culture Vignette

HOK Director of Planning Brian Jencek coauthored an Urban Land column on the impact of autonomous vehicles on the future of our cities.

As part of HOK’s ongoing research on the topic, the article explores how people-driven design and the adaptation of self-driving vehicles could change our city streets and parking garages.

Excerpted from Urban Land:

As car ownership evolves to a subscription service with intelligent fleets of AVs, land currently used for parking will become available for conversion to other uses. A McKinsey & Company report predicts that by the middle of the century, driverless cars will cut the need for parking in the United States by more than 61 billion square feet (5.7 billion sq m)—more than the entire state of Delaware.

To prepare for 2030 and beyond, designers are envisioning parking garages as universal structures that, as personal vehicles (and the associated parking revenue) go away, can easily adapt to future commercial or residential uses on the same footprint.

Designing adaptive parking garages requires the input of site planners, architects, engineers, and interior designers, who must collaborate on an integrated design that encompasses everything from selecting the right site to designing a removable building enclosure. Other considerations include optimal structural rigidity, accommodating exiting requirements, and providing efficient MEP systems that will contribute to efforts to achieve carbon neutrality in future uses. Through this multidisciplinary collaboration, these garages can be designed as responsive facilities, ready to be converted into an office space, a hotel, shops, residences, or even a vertical farm.

Though incorporating flexibility for future conversion requires an upfront cost premium, this pre-investment will more than pay for itself. And down the line, it will allow an owner to avoid the need to tear down a garage and then navigate through a lengthy public planning process and the associated environmental impact report.

The impact of AVs on the built environment extends far beyond parking garages. Imagine a world in which land reclaimed from today’s streets actually contributes to a community’s broader culture and social fabric.

The arrival of self-driving cars brings opportunities to do much more than simply compress the size of streets, tweak curb heights, and regain a few feet of sidewalk space on each side. The 4.12 million miles (6.63 million km) of roadways in the United States, some of which pass through the country’s highest-value urban real estate, serve as an unparalleled land bank. As AVs leverage the “internet of things” to connect with the surrounding infrastructure, municipalities will be able to create truly universal streets.

Instead of approaching streets as places used almost exclusively for linear passage, planners will integrate pedestrians, cyclists, and AVs in radically different environments that promote health, well-being, culture, and commerce. These living streets of the future will become places that respond to adjacent development and that transform the first 30 feet (9.1 m) of space extending from buildings into an activity-filled, indoor/outdoor public realm.

As we advance beyond these “toes in the water” projects over the years and decades to come, planners will have abundant opportunities to reclaim the public realm for a greater purpose—increasing the value of real estate assets while creating healthier, more equitable communities.

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