Are Self-Driving Cars a Game Changer for Downtowns?

Downtowns and town centers are the heart and soul of community.

Not only do they contain a community’s history and identity, but they are also unique living organisms that affect how human beings interact. Because they foster meaningful interactions and collisions in a connected environment, downtowns are necessary for competing in the future economy and are critical to any healthy economic ecosystem.

There is no doubt that the U.S. is amid a downtown renaissance. The renewed interest in downtowns over the last decade or so has been well documented, with people of many different demographic groups exhibiting changing preferences for development that is more compact, walkable, and mixed use. People have discovered that this traditional pattern of development already exists in their communities, in downtown centers that in many cases had been forgotten and neglected until only recently. This momentum behind downtown redevelopment and investment is heartening, and we’ll likely see it continue to grow into the future as new innovations in urban living take hold.

BUT, the downtown of the past is not the downtown of the future.

There are several cultural, social, and technological trends emerging and colliding that will no doubt transform the downtown ecosystem. One of the most exciting technological advances on the horizon is self-driving cars.

Self-driving or “driverless” cars have been well covered in the media as they come closer to being a reality for getting from Point A to Point B. Beyond their potential to totally transform the way we get around, self-driving cars will have big impacts on the downtown landscape in terms of both the physical environment as well as the investment environment. 

The number one challenge we hear from communities about attracting customers and investment to their downtowns is parking – there never seems to be enough. People like walkable, human-scale development, but they also want to park as close and conveniently as possible, desires that are fundamentally at odds with each other. Talk to downtown storefront business in any downtown anywhere in the country and 9 times out of 10, parking WILL come up.

It’s a major source of stress for businesses, customers, and real estate developers.

Self-driving cars will obviate the need for large quantities of parking. Whereas currently downtowns often try to provide large parking structures or lots nearby to minimize the walking distance for potential downtown customers, a self-driving car can simply drop off a downtown patron exactly where they need to be and then park itself in a different part of town where land is less constrained. It is also expected that there will be more car-sharing and, therefore, fewer vehicles overall that need to be parked. On-street parking may become a thing of the past.

This will allow less valuable downtown land to be dedicated to parking, and more high-value space in the urban core will be available for businesses, housing, greenspace, and other uses.

Despite our cultural misconception that parking is “free,” the actual cost of parking is rolled into the cost of development – and it’s not cheap.

In strong real estate markets, developers take on the cost of developing parking infrastructure. However, in many cities, municipalities must cover the cost of parking as the “public” side of the public-private partnership. In most cases, parking is over-built and the cost is ultimately passed down to taxpayers and consumers. As such, reduced parking requirements associated with self-driving cars will have a transformative effect on urban real estate markets.

Self-driving cars may be a complete game changer for downtowns—effectively removing what is frequently regarded as the biggest deterrent to investing or visiting downtown. From a purely convenience perspective, self-driving cars have the potential to put downtowns on equal footing with the suburbs. 

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