Automobile-centered, low-density development was the defining feature of population growth in the United States for decades. This development pattern displaced wildlife, destroyed habitat, and contributed to a national loss of biodiversity. It also meant, eventually, that commutes and air quality worsened, a sense of local character was lost in many places, and the negative consequences of sprawl impacted an increasing percentage of the population. Those impacts led to something of a shift in the national attitude toward sprawl. More people than ever are fluent in concepts of “smart growth,” “new urbanism,” and “green building,” and with these tools and others, municipalities across the country are working to redevelop a central core, rethink failing transit systems, and promote pockets of density. Changing technology may disrupt this trend. Self-driving vehicles are expected to be widespread within the next several decades. Those vehicles will likely reduce congestion, air pollution, and deaths, and free up huge amounts of productive time in the car. These benefits may also eliminate much of the conventional motivation and rationale behind sprawl reduction. As the time-cost of driving falls, driverless cars have the potential to incentivize human development of land that, by virtue of its distance from settled metropolitan areas, had been previously untouched. From the broader ecological perspective, each human surge into undeveloped land results in habitat destruction and fragmentation, and additional loss of biological diversity. New automobile technology may therefore usher in better air quality, increased safety, and a significant threat to ecosystem health. Our urban and suburban environments have been molded for centuries to the needs of various forms of transportation. The same result appears likely to occur in response to autonomous vehicles, if proactive steps are not taken to address their likely impacts. Currently, little planning is being done to prepare for driverless technology. Actors at multiple levels, however, have tools at their disposal to help ensure that new technology does not come at the expense of the nation’s remaining natural habitats. This Article advocates for a shift in paradigm from policies that are merely anti-car to those that are pro-density, and provides suggestions for both cities and suburban areas for how harness the positive aspects of driverless cars while trying to stem the negative. Planning for density regardless of technology will help to ensure that, for the world of the future, there is actually a world.
Northeastern Univ. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016)