Self-Driving Cars and Land Use: An Interview with Becky Steckler and Nico Larco

February 25, 2019 | 9:40 am
Photo: joiseyshowaa/Flickr
Jimmy O'Dea
Former Contributor

Take a look outside. If you’re in a city, you might notice a lot of space has been devoted to roads and parking lots. Will automated vehicles (AVs) change how we use roads? Will we no longer need parking lots if we’re being shuttled around by cars that are constantly being used? Will the expected convenience of AVs create demand for even more roads? What can cities do to ensure AVs improve the livability of their communities?

To answer these questions, I sat down with land use and planning experts Becky Steckler and Prof. Nico Larco of the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon. Becky and Nico study the effects AVs could have on cities’ development, sustainability, equity, and budgets. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Ok, let’s start with the big one – in the United States, transportation planning has largely focused on personal vehicles and roads. How could autonomous vehicles change that equation for better or worse?

Nico Larco: On the one hand, roads are going to be exactly like they are today. On the other hand, they’re going to be used quite differently.

People talk about a complete reshaping of our infrastructure, but the truth is that when you talk to any of the tech companies or vehicle manufacturers who are developing these cars, all of them are designing AVs to operate on roads that look like the roads that we’ve got today.  There is not the funding or political will for large scale changes to our infrastructure.

That said, how the space is used might change a good amount.  We often say that AVs already exist in our cities, it just so happens that there are drivers in them. What we mean by that is that Uber and Lyft today are exactly the model of how we will use AVs – we call it up, it shows up, we get in, it takes us somewhere and then it goes and does something else.

If you start thinking about using AVs that way, then the pick-up and drop-off along streets becomes a huge new part of how streets function. It takes up space and it takes up time to load and unload passengers.  This is already changing the way streets are used.

Becky Steckler: As a parent, I’m excited about the possibility that these vehicles might do a better job of noticing when my kids are biking on the road or trying to cross the street. The potential for safe streets is pretty exciting.

So, if we’re doing more drop-offs and pickups with AVs, do you see a re-purposing of space currently allocated for parking?

Nico: With all these changes, parking seems like a really inefficient use of space. As you’re reducing parking along the street itself, that opens space up to be used for something else, like new bike lanes or e-scooter lanes. You can try expanded sidewalks or parklets, or you could potentially think about more lanes for vehicular traffic.

If cars that would otherwise be parked begin hitting the road, would we actually need more road space to accommodate AVs?

Nico: It’s likely that ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft will become cheaper and easier to use with AVs, and throughout history, anytime we’ve had transportation get cheaper and easier, we tend to consume more of it. That means there’s a possibility that we will have more induced trips, more congestion, and more vehicle miles traveled. So, streets might actually become more congested.

What should cities be doing now to prevent the busy, congested road scenario?

Nico: We talk to cities a lot about making sure they get their priorities right today, and that their community goals are front and center in this whole transition. If these goals aren’t clearly laid out when AVs arrive in our cities in huge numbers, there’s just going to be a push for more asphalt to handle more car trips.

Becky: We need to ask, “What kind of communities do we really want?” Do we want places where it’s pleasant to walk and bike, and where we run into our neighbors and talk to them? AVs could provide an opportunity, if we take advantage of it, to re-develop our cities into these really wonderful places and fill in space that’s currently a parking lot with housing or places of employment that bring us closer together. This could be a great opportunity for many cities across the country.

Could you talk a little more about the form these re-developments could take?

Becky: In many locations, what we need is housing that is easily accessible to transit, or is close to downtown, close to jobs, close to schools. But there are other possibilities too. It might be greenspace, like putting in a park or even just planting more trees that make a street more pleasant to walk around. Cities are going to have to think about what is needed in different neighborhoods.

Nico: In terms of parking lots, it won’t be the same everywhere. Downtown areas in some cities have minimal or no parking requirements or very small parking requirements – they’re not going to see a lot of changes. The buildings are already taking up most of the land.

Then you have other cities that have a tremendous amount of parking downtown, like parts of Cleveland, Houston, and Phoenix. These large expanses of parking can be re-developed. In suburban areas there will be even greater re-development opportunities at large big-box type stores or office parks, where parking takes up a lot of space that can be used for something else.

Parking has been detrimental to many cities in the United States. It spreads things out, doesn’t let things be close enough that you can walk to them, and you wouldn’t want to walk to them because it’s such an aggressive auto-dominated environment. Repurpose that parking, and cities can become much more livable.

What are your thoughts on how AVs will influence other forms of transportation like walking and biking? Will changes in road design encourage more of us to use these modes, or will cities be designed for higher-speed, efficient movement of robot cars that scare bikes and pedestrians away?

Nico: AVs, in some ways, are presenting a fantastic opportunity by asking, “What do you want to do with a new transportation system?” We could enact policies that encourage walking and biking, or we could continue prioritizing vehicles.

Unfortunately, if you look at mistakes we’ve made in the past, you find we have pursued development patterns that have led to environmental degradation, social isolation, and climate change.

If we think of AVs as a step beyond what we already see happening with TNCs, we can look at the effects of TNCs to understand what the effects of AVs might be. And the data so far is not great.

Bruce Schaller did a great analysis earlier this year looking at a few metro areas in the US, and he found that Uber and Lyft-type services are cannibalizing transit, biking and walking. So, we’re getting more car travel, and we’re taking away from the modes that we really want to grow. But whether this trend continues is completely a policy question.

What if we did things like congestion pricing, or an empty-seat tax? Then, all of a sudden, we would be putting the cost of these externalities into the cost of the trip, which might actually lead us to make healthier and cleaner decisions.

Becky: Many cities realize that if they are going to achieve their goals, especially reduced greenhouse gas emissions, then they have to replace those vehicle trips with other types of trips. Improving biking and walking infrastructure is an important step in reducing these emissions.

Any time I start a trip, I take out my map app, and I have all these different options. Should I take transit? Should I take a bike? Should I take a scooter? Should I use Uber or Lyft? And I can see how long it’s going to take, how much it’s going to cost, and what route it’s going to send me on.

As many cities prepare for AVs, especially cities concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, they’re really thinking about how we move people to the lowest carbon mode. How do we prioritize our bike and pedestrian infrastructure? How do we make sure smarter choices are more comfortable and convenient?

I’m excited by the opportunities. If you’re building origins and destinations closer to each other because you’re not building the parking that pushes it farther away, it really increases the opportunity for people to walk and bike. There’s kind of a magic quarter mile to- and from- transit where people are more likely to walk to it, if they feel safe and comfortable doing so. It seems like so many more cities around the country are really focusing on walking and biking, and with more space in our cities opening up to put our homes and destinations closer together, we could see many more people turning to those modes.

I like the framing you mentioned earlier of cities having these goals in place before the technology surprises them and they just rush to accommodate more vehicles. Could you say more about planning for AVs?

Becky: If we could’ve envisioned what the car would’ve done to our communities, back when it was introduced by Henry Ford, I’d like to think that we would’ve done things differently. But today we have the tools to envision what the future could look like. I think everybody is afraid of the possibility of unleashing AVs and having tons of empty vehicles roaming around without passengers or delivering a single cupcake – which sometimes happens with Uber Eats. It’s important that we figure these things out now.

Nico: My advice to cities is, “Make sure you get your priorities right.” Based on climate and equity goals, cities should know the kinds of modes to prioritize: walking, then biking, then transit, then freight, then single occupancy vehicles. Then figure out what the levers are in this new mobility landscape to support the modes that are the most important.

For the most part, we already know what works. AVs are not going to change some of the basic smart-growth and pedestrian-oriented design principles we should be implementing, but they can help provide the space needed to implement some of these principles.

Dense, walkable, mixed-use development – those are the key pieces. I’m living in the Netherlands right now while on sabbatical. Just traveling through Europe, over and over I’m reminded that density is the number one key, and that’s always been the biggest uphill battle in the US.

This idea is almost irrelevant to AVs, aside from the potential for getting more of that parking land back, which might facilitate more density. Communities that are interested in equity issues, economic vitality, and climate goals are going to be pushing towards modes of transportation that are not the single occupancy automobile.

Where’s the urban planning community on this? Are there still schools of thought that just want to get as many cars through a stop light as possible?

Becky: It really depends on where you live. Professional planners are supporting their elected officials, and they need to respond to the pressures and concerns that those elected officials have. The response to emerging technologies will look very different in Seattle, where they are heavily investing in transit instead of parking (and it’s one of the few places in the country where transit use is actually increasing) than in Dallas, where they have much more sprawl and it’s going to be tougher to walk around, especially in the summertime when it’s so incredibly hot.

The professional planner’s role is to provide the different options and be able to illustrate the benefits and challenges of different types of policy approaches. If you want to have healthier people, then you have to build places where it’s easy and comfortable for people to walk and bike.

For the industry, and especially for traffic engineers, the priority for the last 50 years has been to move vehicles, but I think that’s really starting to change.

There’s obviously going to be a transition to this new technology. What’s that transition going to look like?

Nico: The deployment is going to be geographically differentiated. The first wave will be cities that have large streets, gridded or straightforward street patterns, and that don’t get too much snow. As the technology gets more sophisticated, we’ll begin seeing it in more complicated situations.

Boston’s probably going to get AVs later than Miami, just due to the layout of the streets. Europe is probably going to be later than that with the smaller width of their streets.

The strange part is, when deployment happens, it’ll be stepped, not gradual. If deployment occurs through fleets, then what’s going to happen is one day, Waymo is going to point to your city and say “Okay, here are your 5,000 AVs. Ready, GO.”

Just in the last year, Waymo has ordered 82,000 vans. They ordered 20,000 in January 2018 and another 62,000 in June 2018. So, they’re not going to be deploying just one or two vehicles at a time.

So, the deployment is going to be geographically differentiated but also really stepped. You might go from nothing, to a hundred, or even a thousand AVs. So, cities could see the impacts of AVs, potentially, in short order.

Becky: It’s been interesting to watch how e-scooters have been introduced, where they were just dumped on cities without any kind of warning. In the lead up to AVs, cities are going to be thinking about these vehicles ahead of time. Some might even put a cap on the number they allow.

Who makes the decisions when it comes to reallocating road space and determining the use of the public right of way?

Becky: It’s usually the cities. It really depends on what jurisdiction you’re in. In most places, it is going to be cities that control road space, i.e., sidewalk to sidewalk, as well as the zoning. There are cases with county or state lands that have specific rules or regulations on them too, so it really depends on where you are across the country. But in most locations, when it comes to land use, it’s the cities that are in charge.

Nico: It’s a huge thing for cities to realize: that they own the operating environment for all these new technologies. They have a tremendous amount of power and say in what happens to road space. They need to take control and not just let these changes happen to them, but shape changes that are coming.

What should cities keep in mind as they’re making these decisions?

Nico: AVs are not just a transportation issue, e-commerce is not just a retail issue, these are everything issues. We need to get outside of just thinking about these issues in narrow disciplines because they are going to have far reaching impacts.

There are big revolutions heading our direction, if we want to have equitable, environmentally friendly, economically sustainable outcomes, then we need to build political support. We need to make sure we’re talking to people outside of just the transportation sector.

Everyone needs to think, “How will AVs effect the specific area that I work on?” If you’re interested in anything that has to do with cities, it will be impacted by these vehicles.


Becky Steckler, AICP is the Program Director for the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon. She has over 20 years of project management experience, with a focus on land use, transportation, economic development, and strategic planning projects. As the Urbanism Next Program Director, Ms. Steckler manages and conducts technical research on the secondary impacts of emerging technologies (autonomous vehicles, the sharing economy, and e-commerce) on land use, urban design, transportation, and real estate and the implications of these changes on equity, the economy, the environment, and governance. She is a member of the Oregon Legislative Task Force on Autonomous Vehicles that will make recommendations to the Oregon Legislature on enabling legislation for autonomous vehicles.


Nico Larco, AIA is the Director of the Urbanism Next Center and a Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Oregon. The Urbanism Next Center is focused on how technological advances such as new mobility, autonomous vehicles, e-commerce and the sharing economy are changing city form and development.  Prof. Larco assists cities and projects with future-proofing, has run workshops and charrettes nationally and internationally on this topic, and is currently coordinating work in this area with various municipal and state agencies around the globe.  He is also a Principal of Larco/Knudson, an urban design consulting firm.


The Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon is leading conversations nationally and globally around the effects automated vehicles could have on cities. Approaching the issue from an interdisciplinary perspective, Urbanism Next engages architects, city and transportation planners, developers, elected officials, and technology providers around the changing landscape of how people and goods move. The center is hosting its 2nd annual conference around these issues from May 7-9th in Portland, Oregon. More information can be found at