Saturday, December 12, 2015

If It Is Coming, We Need To Plan For It

Nearly every major car maker in America and several large technology firms are racing to develop vehicles that can operate with limited-to-no human interaction. Driver-less cars are on the horizon. Some say within 20 years.

If that is the case, then the auto industry will take a dramatic turn from selling to the individual to selling to transportation service providers. As young professionals across the Western world are discovering, it is extremely more convenient to summon a form of transportation than to concern ones self about where and how to store or maintain an expensive automobile. To Millenials, the automobile is not the freedom device it was to their parents and much more costly than their current freedom device, their smart phone/tablet.

With that in mind, I would like to know just how cities like Lexington are beginning to plan for streets full of such driverless autos. 

I can see one scenario where more and more commuters choose to use an automated form of transit (not the flying cars from the science fiction movies of the '50s) like a driverless car to carry them downtown in the morning and make a return pick up in the evening. They need not bother about a designated parking spot nor the questionable safety of the trek to the garage. How would this affect the look and feel of downtown Lexington?

Many of the comments I have received on this blog have dealt with the need for downtown residents to have their personal, and private, parking. The primary reasons stated are the need for a car to leave downtown for the weekly shopping trip or other amenities not currently found downtown. I feel that the age range for these folks will fall squarely in the Baby Boomer set, still enamored with the freedom of a set of wheels.

Too many times I have read the projections of planners who looked at past trends and fell short of the impact of a cultural or social shift, or the media pundits who forecast rosy urban developments which falter due to local/global economic situations. They are fun to read when they do both with different aspects of several connected elements of society.

I do not think that it is too soon to begin monitoring the possible shifts in parking demand in he suburbs. Reports from this past Black Friday shopping frenzy lead one to believe that the parking fields of many malls and commercial centers fell far from crowded. The use of land-use related parking minimums are being rethought by more communities than Lexington.

Those same parking shifts could tell an even better story for downtown. Without the need for one to store an automobile for up to 8 hours a day, how many of our current surface parking lots would pay for themselves in daily revenue? How many more of these lots can, and should, be put to better use?
From my memory and experience, the local community has not planned for potential uses of demolished buildings, citing the lack of jurisdiction due to it being “private property” yet requiring permission to erect anything in its place. History has shown us that the “stop gap” measure of allowing a temporary parking lot is anything but – temporary.


In the suburbs, life without an auto will present many new challenges. These same people who find commuting to work easier may also wish to use a different sized driverless vehicle to take the family to the park, pool or the movies. Weekly shopping trips may also be accomplished with similar ease. What should not be necessary, in the long run, is the large ocean of parking around even the simplest of shopping developments.

Is someone now looking at what alternative configurations may be possible for the existing commercial areas? The current B-6P zoning classification is considered a “Planned Shopping Center” zone, with its own set of minimum parking requirements. Widespread use of driverless vehicles, increased online shopping (with drone delivery) or even major enhancements to the existing mass transit system can render those requirements obsolete in just a few years. A forward looking community should have a concept of what an alternative could look like.

Staging Areas 
At the point that driverless cars become as prevalent as as anticipated above, the sheer number of such vehicles would mean a systematic and strategic set of maintenance and staging facilities. Today's family car gets a somewhat limited amount of daily use, roughly 1-3 hours out of 24. A fleet of driverless vehicles could go from one assignment to another almost 24/7, much like the fire and emergency fleet does currently. They will need the typical refueling and maintenance but at a higher frequency interval. 
Does this bode well for the once ubiquitous service stations, now convenience stores? Which zone would be best for such a facility? Following in the footsteps of VHS vs Beta, Apple vs Microsoft and Uber vs Lyft, will there be competing versions of driverless systems out there?

Auto dealers
Then there is the whole question of dealing with the usually unsavory task of shopping for a car. Will it be a new car or a used car, will you go for all of the bells and whistles as add-ons, 2-door or four,and will you take the luxury car path? All of these questions may become moot save for the hold outs of the 1% who already have drivers employed. An interesting story from the Tech Insider on the shift in car ownership may be found here.
It may not be right around the corner and it may take a while to fully get here, but the whole concept of planning is to look to the future and its possibilities. From what I read, of the 50 largest US cities only 6% of cities’ transportation plans consider the potential effect of driverless technology. Their land-use plans are probably also lagging as far behind as well.

I, and many other Baby Boomers, may not ever buy one or even use one very often but the say that they are coming. Our technology developers are planning for and I don't think that our urban planners are.

I am open for any comments.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I think you're right, ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft have totally changed the game and used new phone platforms to great affect. It's only a matter of time before self driving cars are refined, at which point using those in the place of driver operated vehicles is the next logical step in ride sharing.

Darryl Housand @ Haaker Equipment Company