Urbanism Next
University of OregonUniversity of Oregon

Metropolitan Footprint

When proximity to workplaces or goods and services is no longer necessary, what happens to already sprawling urban footprints?


What is driving change?

Change in Congestion

Transportation network companies (TNCs) are already contributing to increased congestion in urban areas and autonomous vehicles (AVs) are predicted to exacerbate the problem. The increase in congestion could put pressure on street design to facilitate increased travel speeds. In mitigating for this congestion, streets will continue to be a battleground of competing strategies, especially as on-street parking needs are potentially reduced, freeing up usable space in the right-of-way.

Change in Ease of Travel

Transportation network companies (TNCs) have already increased the ease of accessing on-demand door-to-door rides, and autonomous vehicles (AVs) may further increase the ease of travel. AVs may increase travel speeds to and from the periphery, raise the acceptability of increased commute times as drivers become riders who can make better use of their travel time, and reduce the need of labor’s proximity to employment. All of this may result in AVs allowing travelers to more easily reach further into the periphery and could have a dramatic impact on the extent of sprawl and the expanse of the metropolitan footprint.

Shift in Modes

An increase in on-demand rides coupled with a reduction in transit, walking, and cycling trips could have substantial impacts on urban design as it might increase the demand for additional vehicle travel space. Additionally, a reduction in transit use could reduce the vibrancy and viability of transit-oriented development. Shifting from transit, walking, and biking to autonomous vehicles (AVs)—ostensibly a mobile, enclosed, private space—could also reduce the vitality these more active modes add to street life.

Shifting Nature of Freight

One of the criteria that keeps urban design relatively compact is the burden of travel time to get to goods and services. Both suppliers and consumers prefer shorter travel times to acquire goods and services. A combination of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and e-commerce could reduce the importance of this preference for consumers as the delivery of goods masks consumer’s perception of the burden of travel.

Future Changes

Drone image of sprawling city in Arizona with canal at sunset

Photo by Avi Waxman on Unsplash

What Could Happen?

  • Sprawl could increase. Historically, increasing ease of transportation has been linked to expanded sprawl. Pressure for development in natural and agricultural areas around the periphery of cities may intensify as AVs allow commuting times and distance tolerance to increase. In addition to replacing potentially valuable agricultural land and habitat, low density development is typically more difficult and costly for municipalities to serve.
  • Retail could stop being an anchor. People may be willing to travel further for shopping and entertainment experiences when they can get basic goods delivered at home. Larger retail and entertainment complexes may choose to locate further out from urban cores to acquire the space they need at a lower cost.
  • Employment uses could move further into the periphery. Uses that have historically located within existing urban areas to be closer to workforce or clients could move further into the periphery of cities. This is particularly true for uses that require large tracts of land (such as corporate campuses) or create nuisances (such as some manufacturing facilities).
  • New suburban centers could be created. As suburban towns no longer need the vast amounts of parking around malls and big box stores, there is a new opportunity to fill these areas with offices, housing, or experiential retail to create suburban centers. Modeled after urban cores, compact development and transit can be incorporated into former parking and retail areas, potentially allowing some suburban neighborhoods to transform into more vibrant and walkable areas.


  • There are changing preferences for suburban living. The last few decades have seen both a resurgence of urban areas mixed with continued growth in the suburbs. Surveys show that Americans are almost evenly split between those who prefer smaller lots and walkable communities compared to those who want large lots and single-use zoning that forces increased car use. While urban areas grew at an unprecedented rate for many decades, more recently there has been increased suburban growth. With AVs, these two trends could point towards increased densification in urban cores while suburbs and metropolitan footprints simultaneously expand.
  • Closed shopping malls have left gaps in their communities. With shopping malls and retail already in decline, suburbs that were built around big box stores and strip malls or along highway stops are beginning to experience the impacts that these holes in the suburban fabric are having on communities. While defunct malls could be repurposed into other uses that require large amounts of space, like localized e-commerce fulfillment centers, these solutions don’t address the losses in amenities and labor nor the crime and blight challenges that communities face with store closures.
  • Experiential retail is increasing in popularity. Shopping experience is becoming a defining factor for brick-and-mortar retail in an e-commerce dominated world. For some consumers, shopping is not simply about acquiring a commodity, which can easily be accomplished online. Customers who are physically going to stores—especially higher-end shoppers—are less interested in a quick sale and more interested in being entertained and spending time in engaging and well designed spaces during their visit. This shift could drive a transformation from the ubiquitous bland suburban strip mall to a few more engaging, vibrant, and walkable suburban centers.
  • More people are working remotely. The percent of individuals working remotely more than tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a survey conducted by Pew Research, over half of individuals stated they would like to work from home, at least in part, after the pandemic is over. The new ability to work from home and a desire for more space led many people to leave urban cores for less densely populated areas, including vacation towns, also known as “Zoom towns,” and suburbs. The considerable movement of people to “Zoom towns,” including Bend, Oregon, Aspen, Colorado, and Burlington, Vermont, during the COVID-19 pandemic is an additional example of people leaving urban cores in favor of less dense areas.

Quick facts

Si aliae qui ommolenet que prati aut eossitae optatus daepell uptatur andante comni idebit quid moluptio te am quat facculparum recaecte.

  • In the United States, 47% of people prefer walkable communities with houses on small lots while 53% prefer communities with houses on large lots that require driving to the places where they need to go.
  • Urban growth rates exceeded suburban growth rates from 2010-2015, but that trend reversed for 2016-2017. 
  • More than 9,300 brick-and-mortar retail stores closed in 2019.

What to do

Si aliae qui ommolenet que prati aut eossitae optatus daepell uptatur andante comni idebit quid moluptio te am quat facculparum recaecte.

Not sure where to start? Below are four What to Do pages that we think are especially relevant to Metropolitan Footprint:

More about what to do »


Policies, pilots, and approaches

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