Futuristic movies often show giant future mega-cities (Fifth Element, Blade Runner, Minority Report, etc.). Is the future mega-city accurate?

Assertion 1: Self-driving cards will become increasingly common. Crusty old codgers (like future me) will continue driving themselves into the 2050s, but by that time the majority of cars on the road are automated.

Assertion 2: Car companies (or Google, or Uber, or someone) build sharing services where an owner of a car can 'rent' his automated car to the sharing service while he/she is not using it. The automated cars basically work like Uber at that point, you sign up for one on your phone and it comes and picks you up.

Assertion 3: Due to global warming/peak oil/any reason you want, the price of car ownership has gone up relative to income.

Given these conditions, would more or less people live in densely populated areas?

Definition: A densely populated area has greater than 10000 people per square mile. These are areas where it is inefficient to drive everywhere and as many people use transit as drive. Not many cities have areas this dense, but examples are here.

Rhetorical questions related to the main question:

  • Is it better to own your own car in the suburbs, where traffic is lighter, or in the city, where there are lots of other people to rent your car?

  • Do autonomous cars have any use for rural people?

  • Does mass transit survive? Does it survive in super-dense places like New York? Would more places get super-dense like New York?

  • If few people drive themselves, do governments still pay for roads?

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    $\begingroup$ I honestly don't think that cars alone could have such an impact. Yes, suburbs arose partly out of the efficiency and economy of mass transit, but there were plenty of other issues involved, too, from race to quality of education to crime rates to population density itself. An improvement in transportation can only go so far to counteracting all the other factors. Plus, commuting will still be popular via railroad; in my part of the country, it's possibly the best way to get from suburban to urban areas on a daily basis. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Dec 15, 2016 at 1:14
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    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 76.4% of Americans drive alone to work. If about 3/4 of all people in the US change their mode of transportation to work, won't that have a big impact on how cities are laid out? It certainly did when those 3/4 of all people started using cars. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Dec 15, 2016 at 1:17
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion You're asking about a type of area where most people do not drive to work. $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Dec 15, 2016 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion They're still going to use the same mode of transportation; it's just going to be someone else (i.e. a computer) behind the wheel. That's not going to require any major infrastructure changes, aside from maintaining the fleet of cars. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Dec 15, 2016 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ Big reason people drive long distance to work is a working spouse that keeps them from moving closer. Regardless of gas prices, needing to drive, or global warming living close to work will always be nice. $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2016 at 1:22

4 Answers 4


Short-Term no: Sprawl will increase

Long-Term yes: Density will increase, sprawl will decrease

As a geek, I can't wait for self-driving cars: in fact I worked on a prototype at Masdar City which was kind of like a self-driving car (it was self-driving, but not the kind you're talking about).

As an Urban Planner I'm worried.


My biggest worry in the very near-future is that wealthy who purchase self-driving cars will do so in order to have hours of a commute where they can take care of work on their laptop for the duration. This makes it more convenient to live further from work.


In a world where we have fully automated cars, we will likely be so populated within urban growth boundaries, that we'll find much higher density.

So Yes & No: Cities will become more dense.

[EDIT as requested]

The reason that autonomous vehicles will increase sprawl is that it makes it more palatable to drive longer distances when you can spend that time reading, typing, or even eating or watching TV. It also increases safety dramatically. So a commuter is more comfortable to live further away, because on the ride in, they could take their breakfast, and on the ride out they could watch their favorite sports team (examples).

The reason that there might be increased density, in the longer term, is for finding a place to put people that doesn't obliterate our ability to grow crops, infringe on protected areas, etc. But this is less related to autonomous cars, and more related to the OP's question whether we'll see the cited urban landscapes.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you give some more explanation as to why these things would happen? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Dec 15, 2016 at 2:25
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion Edit made, as requested. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Dec 15, 2016 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ If they can do work on their laptop while commuting, why would they bother to physically travel to a work location, rather than working from their homes? Or, of course, a convenient beach or ski resort :-) (Note that I've been doing this myself for more than a decade.) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 16, 2016 at 4:09
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - They can maybe answer e-mails or cut down the time they have to spend in-office in exchange for their office work. Or, maybe I should have said they could do personal stuff (watching funny videos of cats, or checking stackexchange, et al). Also how do I get a job like yours. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Dec 16, 2016 at 6:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Mikey: Well, I got my job by working a lot of menial jobs for a dozen years to get the money to go to college, got BS and later MS in computer science, and got good enough at a specialized area of it that I could contract out. There are probably easier ways, though :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 17, 2016 at 4:46

The consensus so far seems to be that self-driving cars will see us to the Megacity Of The Future, but I'm going to buildoff @Mikey's Short-Term worry, because I frankly think that makes much more sense. And I have reason to believe so.

I live in Houston.

Unlike just about every other major city in America which was built during the 1800s in compact little clusters (necessitated by the average walking speed and distance of your average American at the time, because that was how you got around. That or horses.), Houston was built up after the era of the Interstate, and it shows.


The thing is, Houston grew up with a pre-existing network of Interstates (10 and 35), many US Highways, and a sprawling grid of subsidiary highways. Why buy a 10 foot box downtown when the same cash could buy anyone in Houston a two bedroom house just outside town?

This trend just kept continuing; Houston now has THREE HIGHWAY LOOPS, each loop, like the ring of a tree, showing the size of the city at various ages. We've upgraded another highway to Interstate specs (US 59 is now I-69), and most spoke highways are being expanded.

US 290, a main feeder road into Houston, was one of the first places to be sub-sub-suburbed; traffic is a nasty snarl that never seems to ever abate. It's rush hour all day; the HOV lane shuts down once a month due to congestion. They're doubling the lanes of the highway, but by the time they're done it's gonna be at capacity again.

Because, in general, people want space. They want a yard, and a fence, it's The American Dream.

This is not to say that there aren't serious city-folk who love New York. We have a few here; they all live in the Galleria. They live in a world of foot traffic and high rises. We have public transit as well; it's fares are constantly sucked out to build highway infrastructure. But Public Transit doesn't scale out well over vast distances, which end up leading to that nasty gridlock.

And this is why self-driving cars will enable spread out sprawl, as opposed to centralized cities!

Self-driving cars deliver us cake, and help us eat it as well. Point to point travel is always more efficient to the rider in time and energy expense. The reason the busses don't reach out to my area is because there would be too many stops necessary to build the type of hub-and-spoke system they depend on to be efficient. But Self-Driving cars gives me the convenience of a bus ride (cheap, shared with others) but with the efficiency of owning a car (leave when I want, direct travel).

Uber and Lyft and Google will, of course, do what they can to encourage people to live closer to where they work to save money (I mean, save the Environment.) on maintenance and fuel, but that's just an added expense. I already pay extra in wasted fuel, wasted time, car maintenance, etc. I'd continue paying a premium to live out where I am, because I want breathing room. And as self-driving cars take over more and more of the bandwidth on roads, I see more and more people able to afford the "premium" to live out in the sub-sub-suburbs, because the cost will be spread over everyone.

The rich will own their own self driving cars to save the inconvenience of having to use an app and wait. Many people will utilize self driving cars to get where they need to go. Busses will still flourish where they can run at capacity, but many "almost always empty" lines will be replaced by automated mini-busses. Job schedules will become more flexible, as you can give your RideID to your boss, and they can see you're actually on your way. People will be able to spend more time "socially networking," even if they aren't actually sitting next to each other. Self driving fleets, able to optimize highway traffic, will double, triple, or more the amount of people able to travel on a highway, and the increased speed of computation power will make high speeds possible. EVERYONE will be the cool guy doing 120 on the highway. My 35 minute commute will go down to 10, and I'll still be able to live outside the city.

City centers, as hubs of commerce and business, however, will still be your huge shining cities on the hill. The expectation is that those huge, shiny towers are residences full of people; I see it more likely to be just like Houston; huge business blocks and commerce buildings. The high efficiency of the automated autobahns will allow more business to be concentrated at the centers, where transactions can be handled faster and inter-business shipping becomes more efficient. Additionally, shipping bandwidth into and out of a city will be much wider, without the rush hour inefficiencies requiring businesses to spread out from the main hub (I even see companies like FedEx running "priority trucks" that pay extra just to be able to pass other traffic, even during high-volume times).

You're still getting your huge, fancy cities with shiny towers, but they're not jammed full of people like some kind of Dystopian future; they're 24 hour hubs of commerce, and their happy and healthy employees will be able to use the Cars Of The Future to spread out, each to their own preferred residential density, using highly efficient point to point traffic to reclaim the hours of life we all lose.

I look forward to it!


Self driving cars will have many unexpected effects. People will become wealthier, since they no longer need to pay for a vehicle, insurance, upkeep etc., that is amortized by Uber or other car owning companies by using the car 24/7, rather than the estimated 4% of the time average car owners use their vehicles. Self driving cars will always be much more expensive as well since they are more complex, have higher maintenance needs and will carry a considerable liability insurance premium until issues of liability have been settled by decades of case law, so few individuals will own them.

While the amount of traffic may look the same, may more people can actually be carried by self driving cars, both through car pooling or sharing, and the fact the cars themselves will be working cooperatively to avoid traffic congestion, creating greater flow through.

One other feature of areas with high density of automated vehicles is the building density may become higher as well. Most commercial plazas, airports and factories will not need large parking lots, since the car will drop you off and another will be there to pick you up when you order it. Parking garages in the downtown core will also be less common. Alternatively, the needed parking spots and roads could be converted into extra green space, depending on the desires of the residents.

While you might think this could encourage sprawl, the fact the companies owing the cars need to amortize them through high usership suggests that they will be mostly found in places which already have high degrees of population density. It makes more sense to deploy the cars in Manhattan than Montana, for example.

This suggests that areas of urban sprawl and exurbs will condense down into tighter knots of urban density where people will find it cheaper and more convenient to use self driving cars, while less densely populated suburban and rural regions will still be home to conventional vehicles, or some sort of very inexpensive automated SUV or pickup truck like utility vehicle will become popular in the small service towns and hamlets which dot rural and farming regions. Automated delivery vans will also be quite common everywhere as well.


There will not be a large effect.

The reason lies in your definition:

These are areas where it is inefficient to drive everywhere and as many people use transit

This inefficiency is due to a number of factors - parking, getting gas, finding a convenient place to get picked up, traffic in cities, etc - not just that cars are expensive.

If you make cars cheaper, you will not solve problems related to traffic, nor parking / storing these new cars, nor picking up passengers; you will, if anything, contribute to the current problems by adding more cars to manage.

Adding more cars would be a logistical problem, and while it could be profitable, it would not solve the majority of the problems present in the first place.

Therefore, people will continue to use other forms public transit, and perhaps transit systems will be adapted as a result from increased use (greater population and less people in cars). Maintaining other forms of transit will keep people happy enough to stay without moving out, and self-driving cars won't necessarily attract an abundance of new people.

Things will be different, but the population will not be affected greatly.

If you need a mechanism to increase the population in cities, provide cheap housing, jobs, economic growth, etc - or to decrease it, do the opposite - but simply altering transportation defined as inefficient will not draw nor lose people.

  • $\begingroup$ You do solve parking, as with self-driving cars there's no need to park the car close to your destination. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Dec 27, 2017 at 18:50

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