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Automated Vehicles vs The Future – Part 1: Disruption

Apr 25, 2018

This is the first of a three-part think piece by VIA’s Dylan Glosecki about the potential reshaping of our communities by automated vehicles, today and in the future. Part One discusses the most immediate effects we are likely to experience: the disruption of conventional vehicle use and the decreasing need for parking.


Peckham Levels, a converted multi-storey parking garage in London (courtesy: Tim Crocker)

According to various sources including Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Tesla, Uber, Google, and the National Association of City Transportation officials, the initial roll-out of automated vehicles (AV) is predicted to begin by 2025, and start cementing public acceptance as our future reality by 2030. AV is expected to largely replace non-autonomous vehicles by 2040-2045.

AV is touted as a silver bullet to many of the common (and many unseen/unobserved) issues associated with car ownership and driving. AV is anticipated to reduce car ownership, spur the mass adoption of electric vehicles, reduce urban parking demand by up to 90%, increase road capacity by up to three times, greatly improve access to mobility for the young and the elderly, allow for “working commutes”, reduce accidents and so on.

While an AV future could bring about many positive changes from urbanism and sustainability perspectives, there is another side to the coin. Negative changes are also predicted, such as increased sprawl due to “working commutes”, road capacity increases leading to more traffic, diminished use of mass transit, the end of TOD planning, increased total vehicle miles with AV delivery services, etc. With these points in mind, AV can be more accurately described as a disruptor rather than a silver bullet.

Like most new technological advances, we are rarely able to accurately predict their impacts on society. Whether or not  AV takes off as soon as anticipated, it is imperative that urban planners and policy makers prepare for the mobility revolution that AV should generate. We must shape our cities, regions and policies to guide the use of AV in a sustainable and safe manner to minimize, among other things, the developmental sprawl they could further increase.

Right-of-Way vs Community Asset

As AV is adopted, curbside parking may be replaced with loading zones for transportation networking companies (TNCs), micro transit carrying people and goods, or possibly as temporary locations for food trucks/mobile retail. However, as this space necessitates re-configuring the right-of-way (ROW), there are certain issues to take into account. The ROW is owned by the public and any commercial use of this land should require some type of public benefit and/or fee/permit.

The perception of how we should use the ROW differs between countries, which may heavily influence how AV is adopted in particular jurisdictions. For instance, Americans typically believe the individual has a right to use the ROW as they please, whereas Canadians often believe in public ownership of the ROW and are therefore more apt to regulate its use, which has slowed the spread of TNC adoption in Canada.

Reduced Automobile Use

While urban areas will likely experience a drastic reduction in individual car ownership, rural and less dense suburban areas will continue to experience comparatively high levels of individual car ownership. TNCs like Lyft and Uber are likely to be the primary means by which the public initially utilizes AV. These services conveniently provide mobility on demand to urban inhabitants. However, with greater distance between “pick-ups” resulting from less dense development patterns, rural and suburban users will not experience the same level of convenience. In less dense areas, 15, 20 and 30 minute wait times will deter TNC use, result in continued high levels of single occupancy vehicle (SOV) use and lead to high levels of individual ownership of AV (to the delight of automobile companies). On demand AV micro transit services could provide mobility alternatives to these less dense areas that would drastically reduce auto dependency.

Managing Reduced Parking Demand

Per a 2011 UC Berkeley parking study, the U.S. currently provides between 4-8 parking spaces for every vehicle in the country. Our cities are, in one way or another, shaped around parking and how we access the goods and services in them. Much of the space dedicated to parking sits unused most of the time. Should AV reduce car ownership as much as they are predicted to do, large swaths of developed, underutilized land will become available for more practical uses.

Surface parking is the most straightforward redevelopment candidate, though structured parking (parking garages or parkades) can be renovated into other uses as well. What use will structured parking, especially those with low ceiling heights and sloped floors, serve in 20 years? When new parking structures are built designers must keep in mind the need for flexibility and adaptability. These structures will need to be re-purposed!

Flat slabs with speed ramps or helical ramps along the perimeter provide the most flexibility for future use. Higher floor to floors provide vertical flexibility (10’+ for future housing, 12’+ for future commercial). In the future, parking ramps can be replaced with stairs and elevators to provide code-required egress for the adapted structure. Employing this strategy, transit agencies could, as a thought, build structured park-and-rides at transit hubs today, meeting existing parking demand and fulfilling the “last mile” needs of transit riders, while banking the structure for a future use that fulfills a public good such as affordable housing.

Below grade (underground) parking, most common in dense urban areas, will be the most difficult to re-purpose for other uses and will likely be the last space to be converted to non-parking uses. However, conversion of underground parking is possible. Uses that do not require daylight include: personal storage, data centers, AV “hives” (for storage, charging and minor maintenance), food storage, warehouses and virtual reality booths. One primary challenge when building below grade parking is the exorbitant cost of excavation, which makes the deeper hole required by taller floor to floor heights required for future convertibility a financial challenge for builders.

One potential solution to this problem is the use of intermediate steel floors between conventional concrete slabs. The steel structure is adequate to support automobiles, but is not integral to the building structure and could be removed in the future when the structure is no longer needed for parking. The resulting 16’+ floor-to-floor heights created after removal of the steel floor structure could allow for spaces such as theaters, workout facilities, small sports courts, skate rinks, skate parks, retail/incubator, light industrial production, band practice spaces, “maker” workshops, and art studios/galleries. It’s feasible to provide egress and bring daylight down through floor openings created by removing parking ramps or by re-purposing car lift hoistways.

During a panel discussion at the 2018 Urbanism Next Conference in Portland, OR, a representative of a small city in Oregon of about 30,000 residents noted that her municipality was having difficulty obtaining financing from the bank for a conventional parking garage. The bank questioned the financial viability of a new single-use parking structure and had requested information regarding plans for re-purposing the structure in the next decade or two as parking demand decreased. The bank’s demand is telling, as this type of shift in the thinking of our financial institutions will require developers to consider future reuse when developing new parking.

Conclusion

In summary, the mass introduction of AV will most certainly change our view on car ownership and utility, especially in dense urban areas versus sparse non-urban areas where car utility varies greatly. It also forces us to reconsider our needs for parking spaces and how we can best utilize them in a driver-less future.

As planners and designers, we are logically forced to ask: what does AV mean for the future of mass transit and where we choose live? Building on the above assumptions, Part Two will tackle this question, from a planning and development perspective.