Designing a driverless world

What do 60 of the most creative minds in technology, design, and real estate have to say about driverless cars and what they mean for our built world?

Arup asked and then listened — for six hours straight.

On February 6 at the Port of San Francisco, overlooking The Embarcadero and the bay, we queried land planners and developers, technologists, architects, and transportation specialists: How might our streets, buildings, neighborhoods, and regions change as the autonomous car becomes commonplace and even ubiquitous?

The answers ranged from almost no change at all to shake ups as profound and broad as those wrought by the invention of the train or automobile. This feedback will form the basis of deeper research by Arup staff as we envision how the driverless world should be designed.

The upsides

“This is the cool spot to be today,” said John Eddy, a principal at Arup and chair of our infrastructure practice for North and South America, as the morning began.

Taken together, the believers painted a picture of a world in which people embrace fractional car ownership and use. No longer would private cars languish in driveways and parking garages for 90% of most days. Instead, a single shared driverless vehicle could replace up to six privately owned cars.

“There is no single magic bullet, (but) we think vehicles in the future will be increasingly autonomous because it is an enabler,” said Chris Borroni-Bird, vice president for strategic development at San Diego-based Qualcomm Technologies Inc.

The believers painted a picture of a world in which people embrace fractional car ownership and use.

Borroni-Bird is co-author of the book Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century, published by MIT Press in 2010. Qualcomm is a developer of advanced wireless products and services.

People now unable to drive because of age or disability — 25% of the US population — could become enfranchised. Fewer people would die in car accidents; traffic could become far less unpredictable. The capacity of existing streets and highways could double. Street right-of-way devoted to cars and parking could be relinquished, creating more space for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Indeed, if the system is designed properly using a shared fleet and is widely embraced, required parking should drop to 20% of what it is now, said Paul Godsmark, chief technology officer of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence in Ottawa.

From left: Varanesh Singh (Arup), Darby Watson (San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency), Aly Tawfik (California State University, Fresno), and Ron Medford (Google).

In San Francisco, streets consume 25% of the city’s land area, more than all of the parks combined, said John Rahaim, planning director for San Francisco City and County.

In San Jose — already the the largest city in the region with almost a million residents, and expected to add 300,000 more by 2040 — driverless cars could help take the city from suburban excess to compact, walkable urbanism, said Hans Larsen, the city’s director of transportation. “I think there is a huge opportunity. In a suburban environment, about half of developed land is car storage, so that opens up great opportunity for infill development.”

From left: Gary Hsueh (Arup) and Georges Jacquemart (BFJ Planning).

Fully self-driving cars capable of safe travel without an occupant could be operating as soon as 2018, Borroni-Bird said, though “the date is very speculative.” The technology’s greatest benefits would come only with wholesale adoption by society at large. “That’s at least a 15-year time horizon.”

After the city built infrastructure to support bike travel, bike trips in San Francisco increased substantially, said Darby Watson, lead of the Livable Streets program at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. That leaves her little doubt that “if we build the infrastructure, driverless vehicles will come.”

The risks

But not everyone embraced the technology with equal zeal, and multiple participants worried that, particularly if left unfettered, it could be counterproductive to current policies attempting to cauterize suburban sprawl and get people out of their cars.

More mobility for more people and easier travel for everyone will translate into greater miles traveled and could contribute to building sprawl, Borroni-Bird said. Unless automated vehicles are conceived as additions to public transit systems, they could become a privilege of the rich. “I do think that is a real issue,” San Francisco’s Rahaim said.

If the vehicles aren’t shared, they could exacerbate traffic and heighten parking demand.

If the vehicles aren’t shared, they could exacerbate traffic and heighten parking demand, adding to congestion rather than alleviating it. “Convenience like fast food doesn’t always create positive change,” one participant observed.

Moreover, driverless cars could shake the foundations of our economic and public policy structures, which depend on current property values, said Dena Belzer, president of Berkeley-based Strategic Economics, which specializes in real estate and urban and regional economics.

Arup’s John Eddy.

Transportation is inextricably linked to land use and real estate value, she said, a lesson learned over decades as cars carried people to the suburbs while downtowns and center cities lost worth. “A big leap in technology will inevitably change how we think about certain locations.”

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