8 Bright Ideas for Driverless Cities

Driverless cars have already arrived in Pittsburgh thanks to Uber, where more than 100 city leaders, technologists, researchers and carmakers convened to discuss the future of urban mobility.

In Pittsburgh, the driverless future is already (kind of) here. Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo 

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.  

The AV alarm bells sounded loudly in plenty of group huddles, full of warnings about an unbridled rise in vehicle miles travelednightmarish congestion, a final mass-transit death spiral, and growing equity gaps. Quieter, but still present, was the sense that self-driving technology might be something else: an opportunity to reimagine mobility from the ground up. “This could be the great American do-over,” Ronald E. Bogle, the president and CEO of AAF, said in his opening remarks on Wednesday.

The AAF will distill and publish the best ideas in a report coming in June, but here are eight of the best, brightest, and most provocative ideas we heard at the summit.

1. Automakers should put their cards on the table with consumers

Most delegates agreed that the best-case scenario involves shared fleets of autonomous vehicles—more or less today’s ride-hailing, carpooling, and shuttle apps, minus the driver. That keeps pace with recent efforts by Ford, General Motors, and other internal-combustion-era giants to rebrand themselves as “mobility” companies rather than carmakers; Ford has promised a shared fleet of fully self-driving vehicles on the road by 2021.

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’?”

That might be part of a broader “social compact” that mobility providers must form with the public, she says. “There should be a way for them to do well by doing good.”

2. Community groups should be involved in planning, now

Marilyn Robinson, the founder of the consulting firm Urban Planning and Design for the American City and a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, says she was encouraged to hear so many delegates recognize the importance of involving local residents in decisions connected to autonomous vehicles—especially those living in lower-income neighborhoods outside city centers, who are frequently left out of planning conversations.

“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.

Research giants like UC Berkeley could play important roles as AV data-keepers. (Paul Sakuma/AP Photo)

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.

Justin Holmes, the director of corporate communications and public policy for Zipcar (and former chief information officer for the city of Boston), says that universities and research institutions can play essential roles as the guardians and primary analysts of those precious numbers. “Our ability to share data is greatly enhanced by collaborating with independent third parties,” he says. “Their ability to independently aggregate and analyze anonymized data sets from across the industry has very little risk and a lot of reward.”
It’s not a new idea. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute has been gathering and analyzing national crash data for years, providing useful research for federal and state governments to use for their own analysis. And Holmes cites Zipcar’s 14-year collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center as another example; TSRC analysis has found that every car-sharing vehicle can remove 9 to 13 other vehicles from the road

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.

You could knit together control of roads, traditional mass transit, and partnerships between government and driverless car operators,” he says. “Then you draw connections between the road network as public asset, and come up with a pricing structure for access that’s commensurate with how they’re using it.” Preach.

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.

If you skipped the parking, would housing prices be lower? (Toby Talbot/AP Photo) 

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.

But doom need not be their fate: From a tech and regulation standpoint, buses, trains, and streetcars are some of the lowest-hanging fruit for driverless conversion. The labor force need not suffer, either, as robots replace people, Tumlin says. Employees could be redistributed to all sorts of other tasks, like minding passengers on subway cars, helping ticket-buyers, and giving directions. “They can make public transit a higher-quality, almost concierge-like experience, rather than basic utility designed for those who have no other option,” he says.

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.

Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. Her work also appears in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.

It’s a rule of the road: When it is easy to drive, people drive.

Lloyd Alter (@lloydalter)
Transportation / Bikes
September 21, 2017

empty bikelane
© Carlton Reid/ empty bike lane under roundabout in Stevenage, UK

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First time using the new Woodbine  lanes. Thanks for supporting them @mary_margaret32! So much safer. cc @EMcMahonBurl 

  • But when it is slow and inconvenient to drive, even cranky right wing columnists turn to bikes.

    Where I live in Toronto, every bike lane is another battle in the War On The Car. According to Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy, it’s all the fault of “complete streets” (leftist speak for utter chaos) and…

    Bad planning courtesy of the outgoing chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, and her like-minded leftists who refuse to acknowledge that the car is here to stay, no matter how inconvenient they make the drive.

    But Sue-Ann has a clever solution to get back at all those leftie planners:

    The traffic has been so horrendous this summer, it has driven me to regularly ride my bike to work.

    In this, Sue-Ann describes what is a fundamental truth: When driving gets inconvenient, people get on bikes, even the Sue-Ann Levys of the world. It is the appropriate response. And once there are people on bikes, the appropriate thing to do is give them a bit of safe space to ride in, like bike lanes.

    Stevenage© Ladybird’s Story of the Bicycle of 1975 praised Stevenage’s cycleways.

    An interesting counterpoint was published the next day in the Guardian by Carlton Reid, author of Bike Boom (reviewed here). Reid has a corollary fundamental truth: Where it’s easy to bike and drive, Brits and Americans [and Canadians] drive.

    Reid proves his point with a look at the post-war new town of Stevenage, which was built with wonderful separated bike infrastructure, which nobody uses. “Squint, and – where the infrastructure is intact, under the free-flowing roundabouts, for instance – you could be in the Netherlands. Except there are very few people on bikes.“ Eric Claxton, the planner who designed it, was appalled at how it turned out.

    There are safe cycle routes from homes to schools, but today only a tiny proportion of Stevenage’s children cycle each day. Many are ferried to school by car, a situation that Claxton abhorred: “It is pathetic to see the way some parents bring their child to school by car and later park in the street near to the school to give them a ride home.”… Despite all the best efforts of a chief designer with empathy for would-be cyclists, “build it and they will come” failed for people on bikes in Stevenage but worked for people in cars.

Sue-Ann Levy is not alone in her complaining about bike lanes slowing down cars; there is a campaign in the east end of Toronto to remove a bike lane on Woodbine Avenue that isn’t even completed yet. According to a petition that is circulating,

Traffic has increased since they’ve opened. We see many cars diverting to residential side streets in order to find quicker routes. These routes are travelled by children walking to school and the increased traffic will make it less safe for them to walk home.

And don’t forget that bike lanes cause pollution! “The idling cars in traffic result in exhaust being expelled right in front of residential houses on a daily basis.”

It’s hard to for a planner to know what to do (unless you are Toronto’s Jennifer Keesmaat, and she up and quit.) As Carlton Reid points out, you can’t really get people onto bikes unless you make it harder to get into cars.

Cities without high cycle usage, but which want to gain the benefits that such usage brings individually and collectively, would need to restrict usage of cars… Sadly, such measures are known collectively, by media and politicians, as the “war on the motorist,” and in our short-termist political cycles it’s incredibly difficult to do anything that interferes with the sacrosanct Great Car Economy.

Back in Toronto, the mayor is as as short-termist a politician as you can get, and 2018 is an election year. The War On The Car types will probably be very happy and see the bike lanes torn out. Because there are more of them.

San Diego to Deploy World’s Largest City-Based ‘Internet of Things’ Platform Using Smart Streetlights

3,200 Smart Sensors Will Help Optimize Parking & Traffic, Enhance Pedestrian Safety, & Track Air Quality

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 – NEWS RELEASE

San Diego – In the heart of the East Village, Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced that the City of San Diego is partnering with GE to upgrade streetlights to reduce energy costs by 60 percent as well as transform them into a connected digital network that can optimize parking and traffic, enhance public safety and track air quality.

The deployment of 3,200 smart sensors will be the largest city-based deployment of an “Internet of Things” platform in the world.

“Fostering innovation and improving infrastructure are important to enhancing the lives of all San Diegans,” Mayor Faulconer said. “This new technology will give the City and developers the opportunity to make our neighborhoods safer and smarter.”

The City will be installing smart nodes that can use real-time anonymous sensor data to do things such as direct drivers to open parking spaces, help first responders during emergencies, track carbon emissions and identify intersections that can be improved for pedestrians and cyclists. The information can be used to support San Diego’s “Vision Zero” strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries.

GE’s digital engine for intelligent environments, called “Current,” specializes in creating intelligent environments for commercial buildings and industrial facilities. GE has been working to extend similar digital capabilities across cities via their lighting infrastructure.

“We’re honored to be part of this historic transformation,” said Maryrose Sylvester, President & CEO of Current, powered by GE. “We have a proud history of helping San Diego proactively save energy through efficient lighting, and now we’re expanding that same infrastructure beyond energy into a new realm of intelligence.”

The 3,200 sensor nodes across the city are the latest step in creating a smart network. There is the potential to expand to another 3,000 points in the future.

The anonymous information from the sensors can be used by developers to create apps and software that can benefit the community.

“This technology is powerful. Downtown visitors will be able to find parking easily and in real time using a smart phone, and the environmental and transportation data will help Downtown meet the goals of the Climate Action Plan. This is a huge win for San Diego,” said Kris Michell, the President & CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

Additionally, the City will be replacing 14,000 streetlights with more energy efficient versions, which will reduce energy costs by $2.4 million annually. These streetlights include technology that allows for dimming and brightening in public venues manually or automatically, depending on natural light conditions.

The City expects the project to achieve an estimated 60 percent reduction in energy. In addition to reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions, the streetlights will also reduce light pollution. Adaptive controls reduce environmental impacts by providing the ability to further dim the lights on fixtures remotely, based on need or situation, and lumen maintenance capabilities, therefore saving additional energy and the life of the fixture.

The Adaptive Control System is an advanced SDG&E approved “meter” that captures real time interval data, monitoring and notifications for maintenance purposes and also provides GPS coordinates at each fixture. Over the life of each fixture the system automatically ramps up power as needed to meet specified lighting standards.

Installation of the new lights will begin citywide this summer and the project is expected to be completed by fall 2018.

Download B-roll and images here: http://bit.ly/SDSmartStreetlights(link is external)

CONTACT: Jen Lebron at (619) 384-5289 or jlebron@sandiego.gov