Ecocity Snapshots

Autonomous Vehicles: Heaven or Hell?

Shared autonomous vehicles, like this automated people mover, could help rather than harm cities.
Written by Rick Pruetz

by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

In 2018, manufacturers were claiming that autonomous vehicles (AVs) would be on the market by 2020. Out of concern that these predictions might be more than hype, several planning scholars and organizations promoted shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) rather than private AV ownership as the way for automation to improve cities rather than exacerbate the disruption caused by human-driven motor vehicles over the last 100-plus years.

Fortunately, the realistically-paced AV rollout has allowed states and cities extra time to adopt policies that advocate SAVs as a way to reduce congestion, VMT, greenhouse gas emissions, social inequities, and the disproportionate expense of individual car ownership by increasing the number of occupants per vehicle and supporting rather than competing with transit and other forms of ecomobility. There are indications that some (but maybe not enough) governments have used that extra time wisely.

In 2018, I expressed my AV hopes and fears in a 2018 piece for Westminster University reposted in this newsletter: Eco-city or Automotive City? Policies and Plans for Autonomous Vehicles. That year, the American Planning Association (APA) and other organizations similarly observed that the potential benefits of AVs will not automatically materialize. Governments were advised to grab the steering wheel before AV-mania drives cities to an even more chaotic level of auto-dystopia.      

Without government oversight, many who now drive single-occupant cars will simply ride solo in their single-occupant AVs, generating just as much congestion, pollution, and apprehension for pedestrians, cyclists, and other human users of the public right of way. The ease and comfort that AVs promise might also motivate many people to downplay proximity when making decisions about the distance between home and work, exacerbating sprawl as well as adding vehicle-miles to crowded highways.

Many optimists assume that AVs will reduce the need for the vast sea of parking that currently consumes most cities. But unrestricted, privately-owned AVs would still need to be parked. If not, these zero-occupant vehicles will be sent back home, instructed to find free parking in other neighborhoods, or ordered to roam the streets until their owners summon them, alternatives that will only make traffic congestion even worse.   

Many boosters extoll AV benefits that will only be possible with infrastructure reserved entirely for AVs. In developed cities, public right-of way is finite so any exclusive AV arterials would likely result from reductions in the space now used by transit, cyclists, and pedestrians. These optimists may acknowledge the difficulty of trying to take lanes away from car drivers, but they counter by imagining a future when there are no longer any human-operated vehicles. Presumably, everyone in this future will voluntarily surrender their car keys or governments will pass laws outlawing DWH (Driving While Human). However, the harder you try to take something away from some humans, the harder they fight to keep it. A less-naïve prediction is that AVs will have to coexist with human-driven cars for at least the long, long-term future. And it is not clear that this will be a peaceful coexistence since many human drivers believe that speed limits are merely guidelines and will be increasingly intolerant of robots programmed to obey all traffic laws.  

In 2018, APA adopted its Policy Principles for Autonomous Vehicles, which begins with the following Key Planning Principle:

Principle 1: APA strongly encourages development of a shared mobility model instead of private ownership for AV travel to exploit the benefits of AV in a way that does not perpetuate existing conditions that have led to sprawl, inequitable access to mobility, excessive pavement with corresponding stormwater management challenges, energy waste, and environmental degradation. Regulatory and financial structures should be put into place that will facilitate shared mobility by not disadvantaging it as compared with private ownership.

Planning for Autonomous Mobility, a detailed guidebook published by the American Planning Association, urges public officials to adopt policies that steer driverless cars toward this shared use scenario rather than allow their cities to become a wild west for AVs. However, as of the publication of that report in 2018, only five percent of the 500 most populous U.S. cities had any kind of AV policy.

Despite missing a few deadlines, AVs are methodically learning how to navigating the streets of San Francisco and other cities. Ultimately, some or maybe all AV manufacturers will be under pressure to maximize return on investment: a 2023 report projects an AV passenger car market of from $300 to $400 billion by 2035 (McKinsey 2023). Are cities ready, able, and willing to withstand the pressure and require AVs to improve rather than degrade urban environments?

A 2021 research project mentions meaningful progress in France, Canada, and London. But in the U.S. the researchers had to study strategies, recommendations, and guiding principles as well as enacted policies and regulations due to “,,, the lack of enacted regulations and plans regarding AVs and equity in the U.S.” (Emory, Douma, & Cao 2021). After reviewing the documents they managed to find, the authors concluded: “Most of the literature and existing policies on AVs consider, assume or recommend a shared or ‘Mobility as a Service’ model for AVs over the private ownership model that dominates car travel today.”

It is encouraging that many thought leaders in the U.S. are promoting shared AVs over private ownership. But it is worrisome that these researchers are finding words like “consider”, “assume”, or “recommend” in the limited number of documents that they are able to find rather than “shall”. Weak words will not be able to withstand a $400-billion juggernaut. There is no reason to assume that shared AVs are an inevitability. Unless cities adopt and defend strong AV policies and regulations, we could very well be doubling down on the mistakes of the past. This is no time to wait and hope that cities will experience an AV heaven rather than an AV hell.


American Planning Association. 2018. APA Principles for Autonomous Vehicles. Accessed at

Emory, K., F. Douma and J. Cao. 2021. Autonomous vehicle policies with equity implications: Patterns and gaps. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Accessed at

Mc Kinsey. 2023. Autonomous Driving’s Future: Convenient and Connected. Accessed 5-12-23 at

Pruetz, Rick. 2018. Reflections, Issue 25: Eco-city or Automotive City? Policies and Plans for Autonomous Vehicles. Accessible at   

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.