Could self-driving cars bring on more affordable housing? Should car companies slap a “warning label” on private autos? At a national summit of mobility leaders, some big thoughts came up.
It’s not easy to plan for a world-changing technology that’s both 4 and 40 years away. But that was the charge to the delegates of the National Summit on Design and Urban Mobility—a convening focused almost solely on anticipating autonomous vehicles, organized by the American Architectural Foundation. For a whirlwind 36 hours in Pittsburgh’s downtown board rooms, more than 100 U.S. local leaders, transport commissioners, engineers, mobility operators, automakers, researchers, and consultants hammered out hopes, fears, and bright ideas for shaping cities when “drive” is no longer an active verb.
1. Automakers should put their cards on the table with consumers
That leads Karina Ricks, the newly arrived director of mobility and infrastructure for the city of Pittsburgh, to ponder the level of responsibility that carmakers have to inform customers about what’s coming. “When you think about the smoking and tobacco campaigns of ‘80s and ‘90s, the companies knew this was cancer-causing product, but they continued it push it,” she says. “Given that the Ubers and Fords and other motor companies have an intent to go toward a more shared model, do they have an obligation to advise drivers: ‘Don’t buy a new car, because we can provide this service’?”
2. Community groups should be involved in planning, now
“I fear that we as expert have some level of data and information about the implications and needs of communities,” she says. “But it’s another thing to have representatives of a community articulate where their needs, demands and aspirations lie.” Community-based organizations, and those that represent and advocate for a community’s voice, should be seated at the table as cities begin to plot the future of mobility today.
3. Data should live with some independent third party
Autonomous vehicles will generate data on a massive scale—critical information for understanding their impact on road safety, congestion, and transit use. That data already is an incredibly valuable commodity that companies don’t want to give up; public sector leaders, meanwhile, are calling for greater access to it for the sake of transparency and public safety.
4. Transportation agencies should morph into “mobility authorities”
Eric Rothman, the president of the real-estate consulting firm HR&A Advisors, floated the idea of concentrating all regional transportation responsibilities in a new government entity. In his mind, a “mobility authority” could subsume the powers and needs of state DOTs, multi-jurisdictional transportation planning organizations, and local transit agencies. (California and other states have bodies that function similar to this.) Knocking down silos between disparate entities could help align and spread mobility goals and transportation funds across a region. It could also be an opportunity to restructure how people pay for driving, and who pays more.
5. Driverless vehicles can mean more affordable housing
Pat West, the city manager of Long Beach, California, raised the point that shared fleets of AVs could make it more palatable for developers to eliminate parking from new housing developments, which could save them a lot of cash. By extension, their tenants could save on rent. And what if developers worked with AV operators to guarantee transportation for their residents, paid for with the some of that savings? What if cities incentivized those arrangements through zoning code changes? Add enough tweaks up, and you’ve got one robot-powered fix for the nation’s vast affordable housing crisis.
“Parking is one of the biggest impediments to housing,” he says. “If the tenant doesn’t need a car, or can’t afford one anyhow, how much money do we save by simply eliminating requirements that developers house their cars?”
6. Cities should help developers build for life after parking
Jessica Robinson, the director of Ford Smart Mobility’s City Solutions group, spends her days talking to local leaders about how her company’s burgeoning product line of “mobility services” (AVs, bike-share programs, and on-demand shuttles) can respond to their needs. She also saw an opportunity for cities and companies to work with developers to plan for AVs. One example: Parking structures being built now should be designed for easy conversion to residential or office space, for the coming day when cars will no longer need to be warehoused in buildings. It’s more expensive to build this way, she says, but maybe cities could help motivate the investment through zoning. “Is there a policy to enable and incentivize developers to have a longer term view of what could be required?” she says.
7. Transit agencies need to join the revolution—or prepare to get run over
Jeff Tumlin, a transportation consultant and director of strategy of the community planning firm Nelson/Nygaard, voiced a grim future for transit agencies, absent a thoughtful response to driverless technology now. Research shows that Uber and Lyft have been luring riders off buses in certain cities at peak and off-peak hours—which should be deeply concerning for agencies already vulnerable to long-term declines in ridership and the heavy costs of new light rail infrastructure and employee pensions. “Unless transit agencies take the lead on autonomous vehicle technology development and deployment, and lead together with cities on how to best manage public streets, transit agencies will face bankruptcy and in many cases complete collapse,” Tumlin warns.
8. In an AV world, all human drivers have a “disability”
Nahom Beyene, an associate engineer at the RAND Corporation with a Ph.D in rehabilitation sciences, says autonomous vehicles could push a paradigm shift in what it means to be “disabled.” The basic promise (and threat!) of autonomous vehicles is that they can drive better than people. Another way of looking at this is that all people have some degree of limitation in their driving abilities, which technology can address to produce better quality of life.
That’s basically the definition of a “disability,” Beyene says. “This is the first time the nation will have to consider themselves as people with disabilities,” he says. “But you don’t call it a disability if everyone has the same problem.” Once everybody’s driving abilities sit on a level playing field, perhaps policymakers can help push harder for equal access to mobility services—AVs, transit, or whatever the next wild idea may be.