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Environment / Climate change

How can cities make the most of the space unlocked by driverless cars?

This summer, Oslo’s city council will give its plans to free the city centre from cars a strong push, and scrap hundreds of parking spaces. This step by local politicians is part of a wider agenda turning the Norwegian capital into the greenest and most sustainable city in Europe. Other major European cities, including Dublin, Milan, Madrid, and Paris, have announced their intention to follow the example and go car free, at least in some downtown areas.

Though converting today’s congested cities into havens for pedestrians and cyclists may currently seem ambitious, the emergence of driverless cars means it is far from a distant dream: what seemed like a vision of tomorrow’s world is now literally only a few years down the road. What driverless cars mean for urban environments is yet to be seen; but it is clear that they will offer the greatest advantages to cities with high population density.

Urban centres are the cores of economic productivity, but simultaneously the areas most hampered by road congestion, available land and environmental constraints. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to be a remedy to all three of these limitations; but they’ll require decisive and consistent policy action to do so.

That won’t necessarily mean putting legal restrictions into place: in a driverless city, changing patterns of car ownership will mean that parking spaces will simply become obsolete over time. In short, this means that carparks can be transformed and used in an economically more productive way.


This will have the greatest value in dense urban cities where space has a much higher value than in rural areas. For the 80 per cent of EU citizens living in an urban world the change will be transformative.

So it’s certain that the emergence of autonomous driving will entail a very serious review of the way we use space, road and otherwise. The process of that review offers great opportunities, not only to accommodate the needs of this new technology, but to utilise the very process, and the space liberated, to make a wider impact on improving the urban experience for all.

In this process citizens must be consulted actively so they have a stake in the way such spaces are transformed. They are the ones with the most in-depth and intimate knowledge of the particularities of private and public transport within their own communities. They are also most aware of the economic and social needs of the areas they live in. In the UK, this could mean giving citizens a greater say in drafting planning obligations under section 106 legal agreements, where investors are meant to contribute towards infrastructure or services needed for the proposed developments.

Whether freed-up space is used to extend existing houses and estates, allow new businesses to prosper, or develop leisure zones and cycle lanes will largely depend on local need. For instance, developing more green space can boost the overall well-being of citizens as a number of academic studies suggest.

Because urban planning has the greatest potential to impact their day-to-day lives, citizens are best placed to offer solutions or innovative ways to both integrate autonomous vehicles into their communities and how to alter urban space in light of the opportunities that autonomous vehicles usher in. In the long run, strategies of actively engaging citizens can help to promote social cohesion, share the benefits of new technologies more widely and reinvigorate representative democracy against the backdrop of increasing inequalities and the populist era.

Florian Ranft researches structural changes in economies at Policy Network and tweets as @FloRanft.

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