The Autonomous Future: Rethinking Cities to Capitalize on the Urban Mobility Revolution

Every day, more driverless cars are on the road, thanks to advances in automated driving technology and the increasing popularity of shared mobility. But what does this mean for our streets and cities?

Historically, cities have been shaped by their urban mobility systems. Most pre-industrial cities formed along the paths of horse-drawn vehicles. A few, such as Amsterdam and Venice, were planned around canals for boats. With the invention of the electric locomotive in the 19th century, cities expanded with streetcar suburbs. In the mid-20th century, the mass adoption of the car fueled suburbia and its car-oriented buildings, such as regional malls surrounded by expansive parking lots.

Amsterdam ca. 1554
L: Venice ca. 1907 R: The Southdale Center ca. 1958, photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

This century we are experiencing the development of a new system of transport. Driverless cars will not only change the way people travel, they will also fundamentally reshape the built environment.

In anticipation of this sea change, designers at KPF are advancing new solutions for clients to develop ‘intelligent’ streets and ‘future-proof’ buildings. This work is born from the firm’s larger aspirations for urbanism and sustainability.

The advent of self-driving vehicles – the urban mobility revolution of our generation – will dramatically impact our cityscape.

The intelligent street

Rethinking Streets

An opportunity afforded by autonomous vehicles (AVs) is that, because movement can be tracked, anticipated and coordinated, streets can be programmed to change by number and direction of lanes during the day. In addition, since autonomous electric vehicles (AEVs) travel more predictably and do not emit exhaust, they are safer to pedestrians, allowing for a more flexible use of roadways, and for streets without curbs.

For a global technology client, KPF designed a large-scale, tech-based district with an intelligent street system that tackles a fundamental problem: conventional streets are static, but people’s needs vary throughout the day.

KPF proposed an intelligent street that changes its program and configuration based on real-time traffic data to maximize convenience, interaction, and health.

The changing streetscape

During the morning, when people commute, there are passenger drop-off areas, benches and cappuccino carts. When people step out for lunch, that same space has terraces and food stands. When they’re ready to head back home, pop-up retail shops, mobile health clinics, playgrounds, and jogging trails arrive. And during weekends, the traffic lanes make way for concert grounds and festivals.

The intelligent street is populated with a variety of movable components connected to a system with sensors. The system learns and optimizes placement based on daily human behavior and need.

The intelligent street

Rethinking Parking Spaces

Another opportunity afforded by self-driving cars arises from their requiring less space for roads and, most importantly, parking. After an automated vehicle drops a person off, it can park remotely or, more likely if shared, pick up a new passenger and start its next route.

The impact promises to be significant. With more than twice as many spots than cars, most parking sits idle, consuming land resources. Some cities in the U.S. have dedicated almost one third of their footprint to parking alone. Even in the city of New York, known for its robust public transportation system, there are millions of parking spaces.

To help New York City officials understand the redevelopment potential of all off-street parking spaces such as surface parking lots and garages, KPF Urban Interface (KPFui) conducted a study called Spotless New York.

Spotless New York interactive web app

The KPFui study highlights that if only the off-street parking in New York City were to be redeveloped, it would create more than 3 million housing units, 3.1 billion square foot of office space, or eight thousand acres of new park, the size of ten Central Parks.

KPF has also been working with developers to “future proof” buildings, including attached or embedded parking structures. Instead of low ceilings and ramped floors, garages are designed with high ceilings and demountable ramps so they can be converted to office or programmed spaces later on. When self-driving vehicles inevitably reduce parking demand, the building’s economic life will extend.

Conventional parking garage vs future-proof parking structure

KPF’s design for a garage in Tampa is adaptable and flexible, with a dedicated speed ramp that allows the floors of the structure to be flat, so future spaces can be repurposed to habitable uses. The design also employs a structural system that can be reconfigured in the future with minimal impact — for instance, the building’s double-height, stepped columns would allow the removal of every other floor at lower levels with no impact to the structural integrity of the rest of the garage above.

Future-proof parking structure

Rethinking Transit Networks

A third opportunity afforded by automated vehicles is that they can dramatically expand transit options and reduce the cost, given that hiring drivers can be prohibitively expensive in more remote areas.

For the city of New York, KPF collaborated with leading specialists at MIT, IBM, and Arup to evaluate opportunities for an integrated AV transit system. The proposed network of AV corridors connects many areas of the city that are currently under-served by transportation — so called ‘transit deserts’. A phased plan introduces automated vehicles into the existing traffic of legacy vehicles with a dedicated AV lane, allowing a seamless transition to a fully driverless road. Meanwhile, the streets prioritize pedestrians and add acres of green space.

QNS Transit Line, Queens, New York

The potential of the automated street, as technologically sophisticated as it may be, is in some ways a throwback to the street in the era before the car. Back then, streets were places of social activity, places where people met. Since the introduction of cars, streets became less social, with pedestrians segregated by congested and dangerous traffic lanes. In contrast, a street for autonomous vehicles, if well-designed, can be both a connected and sociable place.

Driverless NYC

KPF’s experience in designing spaces optimized for both future and current mobility systems encompasses everything from automated streets to flexible parking garages to multi-modal transit stations. As driverless cars will impact cities around the globe, smart design can harness this unprecedented opportunity to revitalize the built environment and improve people’s way of life.

Little Italy, New York, ca. 1900
Driverless NYC