Source: reformatted Jeremy Person image

Source: reformatted Jeremy Person image

Self-Driving Cars: A Socio-Economic Conundrum

Planning for even the near future of our cities and towns can lead to rigorous thought experiments. One of the more fascinating of such considerations is the proposition of autonomous, or self-driving, cars. While these may seem too fanciful for debate in 2015, many current-market cars already feature self-parking, highway autopilot, and other conveniences on the way to fully autonomous vehicles. Preparing, now, for the changes self-driving cars will impose on our physical and social infrastructure is essential for when such cars start cruising down real roads. The following are cursory points, socio-economic issues worthy of further examination:


We have yet to know whether consumers will be able to rent autonomous cars for pick-up at one location and drop-off at another, and whether doing so will be comparable in cost to current bus fares. If this is the case, self-driving cars will prove a significantly more efficient mode of transportation than intercity bus transit, as they will be able to service more remote locations, and will require no stops other than entry and destination points. While subways and trains may still be preferred for their lack of traffic congestion, bus and taxi services would likely become superfluous. The positive implications of autonomous cars (e.g., lower-income or disabled workers with access to superior “public” transit) are vast, but so, too, are the negative, including large numbers of displaced transit workers and potential increases in car emissions from continuously running autonomous vehicles (this assumes air emissions standards will not have progressed much beyond where they are presently).


If autonomous cars move and park themselves, parking violations will likely decrease, along with parking permits, lots, and other auto-related expenditures. While some of these expenditures currently provide city revenue (indeed, for some municipalities, these auto-related revenues are quite significant), self-driving car parking permits and designated lots could compensate for such revenue losses. Furthermore, as these cars will be able to find more remote, uncongested parking areas, former prime-real-estate parking spaces could be repurposed into more lanes, decreasing traffic in high-volume areas; or into inviting outdoor spaces such as café patios and park benches, inviting shoppers and residents to linger longer and spend more.


It is unclear whether autonomous cars will be a public good or privately owned; and if the former, at what level of government they will be held and whether there will be market competition with private companies. While publicly owned cars might offer the benefit of affordable, efficient public transportation, governmental ownership of such a program could invite unnecessary bureaucracy and monopsony. In contrast, privately owned autonomous cars would provide competitive pricing at the cost of creating a larger societal and economic divide.


If public access self-driving cars become the norm in the next 20 years, our national landscape will evolve, provoking questions about how cities and towns will adapt. Many people will make decisions about where they live, based on the new commuting options autonomous vehicles offer. Depending on the cost of their fuel source (electricity, gas, or some combination) as well as their capacity, self-driving vehicles may propel one of two outcomes: If these cars rely on small-capacity fuel storage and low speeds, such as the Google Car prototype, cities may build at greater densities, separating themselves into living, working, and commercial quarters, with self-driving cars shuttling people between urban environments. If the cars can maintain conventional highway speeds and operate for longer distances without need for refueling, we may see additional post-World-War-II-style suburban sprawl, with an increase in bedroom communities and large office parks separated far from housing and retail.

Self-driving cars are sure to raise other important socio-economic issues. While we won’t have solutions, just yet, we can start thinking about and planning for them now. As these vehicles become more prolific, we can put measures in place to ensure the well-being of urban and rural dwellers, while addressing issues of social and economic equity.

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Sara Winters, an Associate at 4ward Planning, is currently focused on developing Excel programming.