Urban sprawl in Nevada. Photo by USDA NRCS

Explaining Land Use Implications of Autonomous Vehicles: Meet Dr. Jonathan Levine

, Kendall Science Fellow | July 9, 2018, 11:33 am EST
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This post is a part of a series on AVexperts

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will change more than our streets, and over time could change the structure of cities, towns and neighborhoods.  As explained in our policy brief Maximizing the Benefits of Self-Driving Vehicles, “self-driving vehicles could increase the use of personal vehicles, exacerbating sprawl, congestion, and pollution. Alternatively, the use of self-driving vehicles predominately for shared rides could reduce the need for parking and expansion of roads, creating the potential to repurpose public space for uses such as businesses, green space, and walking and bicycling infrastructure.”

Meet Jonathan Levine, a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on the intersection of transportation and and land-use policy.

How AVs and other changes in transportation affect sprawl will depend on policies regarding land use. Why is land use policy important in realizing a positive role for AVs in a clean transportation future? Meet Jonathan Levine*, a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Dr. Levine’s research centers on the potential and rationales for policy reform in transportation and land use. He is also interested in the design of institutions for emerging transportation systems – which may be based in large measure on self-driving electric vehicles – to serve metropolitan-accessibility goals.

I had the opportunity to meet Professor Levine as both of us served on the Policy and Social Justice Panel at the U.S Department of Transportation Center for Connected and Automated Transportation’s Global Symposium on Connected and Automated Transportation and Infrastructure in March 2018. I asked him about the importance of land use considerations as autonomous vehicles become more prevalent on American roadways.

RCE: There is a lot of speculation not as to if, but when self-driving vehicle technology is coming.  People are talking about what changes this technology will bring to vehicles and our transportation choices, but your work takes a broader view, including land use.  Can you explain briefly what you mean by land use, and why this is an important element of transportation systems?

JL: Land use is the question of what happens and where across a metropolitan area.  Land-use patterns can be concentrated or spread out, centralized or decentralized, and mixed- or single-use.  The purpose of transportation is not movement per se, but access, or the ability to reach destinations.  Thinking of it in this way, an assessment of the quality of service provided by transportation systems must consider both the speed of movement and the location of destinations.

RCE: What are the potential pitfalls if we do not address land use concerns?

JL: In general, if we do not address land use, there will be an ultimate impediment to access to transportation for consumers and constituents. Two examples of this impediment include parking and zoning. In many cities, when a new residential or commercial building is constructed, there must be a minimum number of parking spots attached. This requirement of parking increases housing costs in the area. Furthermore, when zoning laws encourage low density development, that density is eventually capped and cannot increase.  Both pre-existing land-use policies would impede development of a customer and constituent base.

RCE: What are some of the benefits we could see if we get changes in land use right? How do AVs play into making these easier or harder to achieve?

JL: Policy is important in achieving positive outcomes regarding land use. Too often in history, leaps in technology in the transportation system led to increases in the footprint of cities. What AVs could potentially do is encourage infill development in the cities, reducing their outward expansion making their per-capita environmental footprints smaller. The benefits are not restricted to cities; employing AVs to operate in coordination with public transit to encourage transit-oriented development can make suburbs more attractive to live in.

RCE: Here in the Washington DC metro area, we have what some call the “East-West divide,” where much of the region’s wealth and opportunity is concentrated in the west, and much of the poverty and social burden in the east. Improving transportation connections between east and west is one way to bridge the gap, but your work points in a different direction.  Can improving accessibility to destinations address challenges like the East-West divide?

JL: AVs could potentially address this access challenge in the area. They can be flexible and adaptable and need to work with sharing to reduce costs.  The accessibility approach would focus on areas of low transit accessibility and high proportions of people who are unable to rely on the private car for many of their trips.  With transit-AV coordination, shared AVs can help fill in these accessibility gaps.  Coordination might come in the form of congestion pricing or other access controls such as high-occupancy-vehicle lanes in heavily traveled transit-rich corridors, regulations or incentives spurring AVs to fill in the gaps, and extension of transit subsidies to shared AVs under certain circumstances.

RCE: What should community leaders keep in mind as they prepare for AVs to re-shape our cities? Do you have any recommendations they should advocate for to achieve the best outcomes?

JL: The future of AVs in cities and regions is not just a matter for technology and business-model development.  Policy at the state and especially municipal level will shape AV futures for better or for worse.  In many cases, the relevant policies are holdovers from an earlier auto era; in this sense planning for AVs is already underway without community leaders being aware.  But these holdover policies need reform to position cities and regions for a desirable AV future.

In addition, community leaders should recognize that the data currently being produced by on-demand mobility are immensely valuable.  They should seek leverage to gain access to that data for planning for integrating shared mobility in the short term and AVs in the longer term.

 

* Dr. Jonathan Levine is a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. His current work focuses on the transformation of the transportation and land-use planning paradigm from a mobility to an accessibility basis. Dr. Levine was recognized along with his colleagues with the 2010 Chester Rapkin Award for best paper in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, and in 2001 the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded him the Excellence in Urban Policy Scholarship Award. He is the author of Zoned Out: Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land Use (Resources for the Future 2006) and The Accessibility Shift: Transforming Transportation and Land-Use Planning (forthcoming, 2019).

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