YOU DON’T LOOK for the essence of a city in its monuments or its museums. You look for it in its streets, where the covenant at the core of urban life—the sharing of space—plays out. For the past century, the personal car has dominated that arena, shaping the streets and environments around it. Roads are straight and wide for faster travel; intersections are regulated to protect distracted humans; businesses are located near open spaces for better parking. But as cars start to drive themselves, we have some ideas for how urban planners of the future might reimagine those outdated layouts—and transform the city into a joyful mess of throughways and byways optimized not for cars but for people.
While main thorough fares will still exist (so self-driving buses and trams can quickly get people where they need to go), there won’t need to be as many. Autonomous tech will never be perfect, but limiting the places where cars can go fast should mitigate crashes.
Even little bits of green—a tree here, a parklet there—can improve mental health. Great news: With less space needed for everybody’s personal cars, nature can be everywhere. Also, why not move water runoff above ground as streams, for pedestrians to enjoy?
Imagine: no need for curbside parking or sprawling garages. But parking won’t go away entirely. It’ll be too expensive for taxi companies to operate their driverless vehicles during off-peak hours, so cities will scatter small “nests”—pit stops for autonomous vehicles—throughout their streetscapes. Larger “hives” will house facilities for vehicle maintenance and charging.
With parking meters and traffic enforcement cops off the streets (no more towing!), the city will need new ways to raise funds. One idea: a per- minute tax on driverless cars with empty seats—zombie- mobiles only congest roadways.
In roads optimized for self-driving taxis, ride hailers won’t have to dash across lanes to catch cars—pickup and drop-off stations will be strewn throughout cities.
Building height restrictions meant to reduce traffic and parking space requirements lose their justification in the self-driving city, so zoning laws can chill out.
Speed limits, stop signs, traffic lights: These are the trappings of a street scape built for needy human drivers. In this future, cars will know the rules. The only street signs you’ll see will provide ETAs for public transit. No delays, hopefully.
Self-driving cars won’t be infallible. In case they get stuck or stumped by things like road construction, humans in call centers (maybe former Uber and Lyft drivers) will be ready to take control and get them out of jams.
Side streets will serve people first, not cars. They’ll meander around buildings and restaurants, stores and schools. Everyone’s welcome: self-driving cars, cyclists, skateboarders, pedestrians. (Jaywalking, as crime and concept, has disappeared.)
Large self-driving vehicles will serve different functions at different times: take kids to school in the morning, make some deliveries during the day, take kids home in the evening, assist with birthday bar crawls late into the night.
When cars don’t park, no one enters buildings through the garage—they’ll always enter through the lobby. Architects expect that everything from apartment complexes to dreary office buildings will have more elaborate entrances. Time to invest in that koi pond startup.
Street droids will make house calls for mail, groceries, and supplies, while fleets of flying drones handle bigger orders. At the end of their shifts, the delivery bots return to the mothership—a self- driving van.