Urbanism Next
University of OregonUniversity of Oregon


How can we take advantage of emerging technologies to improve sustainability and environmental outcomes?

Emerging technologies have the potential to impact the environment in both positive and negative ways.

New transportation options may reduce our reliance on personal vehicles and single occupancy vehicle trips, but these new options also bring their own challenges. The variety of transportation options available also impacts where we live and how we choose to get to work, shop, and recreate, all of which can either promote sustainability or worsen existing environmental issues. Additionally, questions remain about whether or not e-commerce is reducing the overall number of trips made, with potentially positive impacts on emissions, or if trips are increasing as a result of the ease of e-commerce coupled with fast and low-cost delivery options.


Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions

Emerging technologies have the potential to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the extent to which they do relies on a number of important factors, including how these technologies impact travel behavior, and how they are powered. If the presence of new shared-use mobility options encourages mode shifts and reduces single occupancy vehicle trips, GHGs could decrease. There is some evidence to suggest that e-scooters, for instance, have contributed to a reduction of vehicle trips. However, research findings indicate that transportation network companies (TNCs) are increasing the total amount of vehicle miles traveled in urban areas and are contributing to ridership reductions on more efficient modes of transportation such as public transit, which has negative implications for GHGs. If new transportation options continue to run on fossil fuels, we could see an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and particulate pollution as these modes are used more heavily. However, if newer modes of transportation run on electricity, including automated vehicles, trucks, and transit, rather than gasoline and diesel, emissions could decrease. One study found that AVs with electric power-trains have lifetime greenhouse gas emissions that are 40% lower than vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines

Reduction of Impermeable Surface Lots

If demand for parking drops with the rise of AVs and new mobility options, many surface parking lots could be repurposed into other uses. Surface parking lots contribute to water pollution due to contaminants being picked up by stormwater runoff, and their asphalt surfaces retain heat which contributes to the urban heat island effect. Parking lots have many potential reuse options, including becoming parks and open spaces.

Potential for Increased Energy Consumption

If new transportation choices like AVs and the ease of ordering goods online make it easier for people to live further away from established cities and suburbs, we may see an increase in the number of people wanting to live in more rural areas. This could result in the development of current agricultural and natural lands and an increase in sprawl. Expanded metropolitan footprints and low-density development not only require increased amounts of energy for transportation, they also required increased energy use compared to more compact development.

Environmental Impacts of E-commerce

The increased ease of online ordering and associated growth of low-cost delivery options may be contributing to trip replacement, wherein people have goods delivered rather than making a trip to a store. However, it is also possible that trips are increasing overall as people to choose to take other trips instead, or may be ordering more for delivery then they would otherwise. The relationship between e-commerce and trip generation patterns are not yet well understood, but there is some evidence to suggest that the increased in urban freight is likely contributing to increased congestion. It is possible that increased routing efficiencies associated with goods delivery could have positive environmental impacts, but more research is needed. Additionally, there are important questions about the environmental impacts of packaging to consider as well.

Key questions

  • What legislative or policy actions can be taken to ensure that new mobility technologies are sustainable (electric, high-efficiency, etc.) rather than extensions of the current status quo?
  • How can new mobility technologies such as TNCs be used to increase efficiencies in transportation?
  • How can urban design harness the changes to transportation needs brought about by technologies such as TNCs and AVs to increase densification, rather than sprawl?
  • As demand for land uses such as parking decline, how can cities identify and prioritize land that could potentially be reclaimed and converted into parks and open spaces?
  • How can cities protect habitat and agricultural lands if emerging trends cause more people to want to live in previously undeveloped areas?
  • What opportunities exist for increasing green stormwater infrastructure as the demand for parking lots decline?

What to do

Interested in doing something practical with this information? The Nexus has two “What to Do” categories, Governance and Design, with suggestions of where to start, as well as examples of what’s been tried before.

  • Pages within the Governance category deal with policy, planning, regulation, and everything else a government agency of any size might need to consider.
  • Pages within the Design category, meanwhile, focus on the nuts and bolts side of things, from how streets should be designed to how new opportunities for infill can shape future developments.

Click the link below to get started.

More about what to do »


Policies, pilots, and approaches

Report – Industry
Bruce Schaller
Schaller Consulting

This report combines recently published research and newly available data from a national travel survey and other sources to create the first detailed profile of TNC ridership, users and usage. The report then discusses how TNC and microtransit services can benefit urban transportation, how policy makers can respond to traffic and transit impacts, and the implications of current experience for planning and implementation of shared autonomous vehicles in major American cities.

Journal Article
Jeffrey B. Greenblatt
Current Sustainable/Renewable Energy Reports

We review the history, current developments, projected future trends and environmental impacts of automated vehicles (AVs) and on-demand mobility, and explore potential synergies. Many automobile manufacturers and Google plan to release AVs between 2017 and 2020, with potential benefits including increased safety, more efficient road use, increased driver productivity and energy savings. Combining on-demand mobility and AVs may amplify adoption of both, and further lower energy use and GHG emissions through the use of small, efficient shared AVs.

Report – Academic
Nico Larco
Urbanism Next

The University of Oregon conducted research for the cities of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver to understand how the deployment of autonomous vehicles may impact greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Based on the range of possible outcomes, the cities hope to better understand the policies and programmatic choices available to mitigate negative impacts of AVs and ensure that they can accomplish the goals stated in their climate action, land use, and transportation plans. By working together, each city hopes to learn from each other—as well as cities from across North America—to achieve their climate-related goals.

Suggested reports

Communication tools

See something that should be here that isn't? Have a suggestion to make?

Please let us know