A Once-in-a-Century Opportunity to Get Transportation Right

Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

Take the Uber revolution of summoning rides with a smart phone. Then add driverless cars, which eliminate the expense of paying someone to drive the car. Then overlay the emerging business model of Transportation As a Service, in which people pay for rides when they need them rather than buy cars that sit idle 90% of the day, often incurring parking fees in the process. Shared self-driving cars could take up to 80% of all vehicles off the road, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study noted in a Wall Street Journal thought piece by Christopher Mims.

How would the impact of such an eventuality ripple through the rest of the economy? While acknowledging that such things are impossible to predict, Mims speculates that shared, self-driving cars will spur “suburban sprawl.”

Nearly everyone who has studied the subject believes these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car…. With the savings you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children.

As for the putative preference the Millennial generation has for living in the city, writes Mims, it’s a myth. “Not only do 66% of millennials tell pollsters they want to live in the suburbs, they are moving there, as population growth in suburbs outstrips growth in cities.”

I don’t agree with Mims’ conclusion, but these are ideas worth exploring. I’m most intrigued by the MIT forecast that the shared, driverless-car future will take 80% of all vehicles off the road. For purposes of argument, let’s say that shared, driverless cars take only half of all vehicles off the road. That’s still an astounding number.

My first question is this: Will the streets, roads and highways in a world of shared, driverless cars be less crowded? To answer that, we must distinguish between the number of vehicles and the number of trips taken. Unless people take fewer trips, they still will need means of conveyance. If everyone rides solo cars, the country may need fewer cars but there will not be fewer cars on the road. Only if people share rides — either in conventional cars, vans or micro-buses like the one pictured above — will there be a need for fewer cars on the road. I think it’s possible that we’ll see fewer cars on the road, but no one can make such a prediction with any confidence.

Here’s what we can predict: A shift to shared, driverless cars will reduce the number of vehicles needed to serve the population. To the extent that fleet operating companies maximize the asset value of their fleets by running them 24/7, most cars will be on the streets (or in maintenance garages or recharge stations) instead of sitting in parking lots and parking decks. The most confident prediction we can make is that America will need fewer parking spaces.

Shrinking acreage dedicated to parking will have a profound impact on human settlement patterns. While it will free up some land in densely settled urban areas — putting a lot of parking garages out of business — the biggest impact will be in the scattered, low-density areas we think of as suburbia. Millions of acres of parking lots across the country will become redundant and unnecessary.

If localities are intelligent enough to eliminate minimum parking requirements, retailers would have every incentive to convert acres of land into something useful — offices, townhouses, apartments, parks, whatever. So much land would be freed up from redundant parking lots that there would be no need to develop another acre of greenfield land for another generation. Localities that anticipate this opportunity by revising their comprehensive plans and zoning codes will enjoy a huge advantage over the laggards in attracting new development.

Now, back to Mims’ observation that Millennials prefer “the suburbs” by two to one over “the city.” That’s a meaningless statement. True, young families may prefer so-called “suburban” jurisdictions with quality school systems, but the operative factor is the quality of the schools, not the low-density and auto-centric design of the communities. Other research shows that Millennials also prefer walkable, bikeable communities. The preference for good schools may be stronger, but that doesn’t mean the Millennials wouldn’t jump at the chance to live in a community that offered both good schools and walkable-bikable places.

In contrast to Mims, I do not think that shared, driverless cars will spur more of the scattered, disconnected, low-density that we call “suburban sprawl.” To the contrary, I believe it will stimulate the redevelopment of low-density, auto-centric communities into walkable urban places.

Localities across Virginia will enjoy a once-in-a-century opportunity to convert parking lots into taxable development without incurring the offsetting liability of needing to upgrade the transportation infrastructure to support the denser population. But this will happen only if they stop mandating parking lot requirements and revise their comprehensive plans and zoning codes to accommodate the new possibilities.

Likewise, the Commonwealth of Virginia, which once again (and as predicted) finds itself short of dollars to fund the roads, highways and rail systems, needs to re-think the twenty-year future. The transportation infrastructure of the 21st century will be Uber-fied. Throw out all long-range traffic projections! Rather than sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into expensive new highways, light-rail rail and Bus Rapid Transit systems, we need to start thinking what kind of investments will expedite the coming of shared, driverless cars.

States and localities that work out the solution first will be winners. Those that stick to the current transportation paradigm will lose.

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14 responses to “A Once-in-a-Century Opportunity to Get Transportation Right

  1. and we all know our current govt. ruled by the highest bid will screw it up.

  2. “The transportation infrastructure of the 21st century will be Uber-fied.”

    Really? I think that’s optimistic. Like those 50s visionary articles about “a helicoptor in every home” and such, there are lots of obstacles. Uber is revolutionary but in increments. The first increment was to invade the turf of the old-style taxi companies with a different business model delivering the same service. You’re right, of course, the Uber model has been very successful, mainly because the service is better and the cost is less. It will continue to grow until the market is saturated.

    But now you’re talking two additional increments of change that are far more radical than Uber: a culture of shared vehicle use, a culture that doesn’t exist yet — except perhaps in urban areas with effective rail/subway transit and extremely high car use/parking costs; and self driving vehicles, a technological and legal revolution yet to commence make it past experimental. And as you point out, even if wildly successful, the sum of these three changes will not reduce the need for most vehicle trips, only the need for the storage of vehicles not in active use. And while you should be correct that the destination storage-parking load will be reduced, shared vehicles, even if fewer in number, still have to park somewhere in the middle of the night when all use is low, probably near where their most frequent users park themselves in bed, so residential parking isn’t eliminated, just diverted. And as for that culture of shared vehicle use, I maintain there’s a high hurdle to overcome before the typical young male gives up the privilege of driving his own hot-shot ‘statement’ car, or the typical soccer mom gives up the time-saving advantage of the car waiting in the driveway already pre-loaded with the kids’ toys.

    Could it happen? Never say never. But is it likely to happen in the next few decades? My gut tells me these changes are not going to be like the sudden cell communications revolution, but incremental, evolutionary. Assuming legal obstacles are cleared, the use of Uber will grow and self-driving vehicles will take a substantial chunk out of total vehicle miles, both by mid-century, but foregoing the convenience of having your own personal vehicle, especially in the suburbs, will take longer.

    But, I agree with you about these developments spurring the growth of more walkable urban areas to live in.

    • I agree with acbar’s comment overall. Take for example acbar’s observation that: “And while you should be correct that the destination storage-parking load will be reduced, shared vehicles, even if fewer in number, still have to park somewhere in the middle of the night when all use is low, probably near where their most frequent users park themselves in bed, so residential parking isn’t eliminated, just diverted.”

      How true that is. One single Go-Car when its parked randomly parked in my DC urban residential neighborhood can cause havoc, upsetting long established and efficient protocols observed by those who live in that neighborhood and take it and rely on their neighbors doing the same.

      And as Acbar points out – conveniences and independence are interrelated keys to success and satisfaction of Americans. Both are dependent on endless details that vary with the needs and desires of each driver, family, and group, and event. This solution cannot come close to satisfying them.

      • If one wants to live like a European, there is an entire continent available.

        Be it horses or motor vehicles, Americans tend to like the freedom to be independent. I had a friend in D.C., who did a tour of duty working for AT&T in New York a number of years ago. His family sold their cars and lived in Manhattan. But once they transferred back to D.C., they moved to Fairfax County and “carred up” again.

  3. I don’t see people giving up their cars, myself. Having said that – it doesn’t mean that autonomous cars will fail, in fact, I think they will fundamentally change our world- in so many ways that I suspect we’re not able to really comprehend all the different ways.

    But one of the core issues is what role govt will play or should play in it. In theory – govt could stand back and let it happen…

    I think autonomous cars are going to be a boon for the police and a bane for all the scoflaws and smartasses….. it’ll all be on camera…

  4. I enjoyed the article, Jim. I found the bit on the evolution of auto-centric real estate particularly intriguing. I agree that if minimum parking requirements were eliminated and land owners were permitted to redevelop surface parking into productive uses, the demand for greenfield sites would plummet. On a related note, I wonder how the succession would play out. I suspect the highest redevelopment demand, at first, would be directed towards the areas of greatest density, e.g. parking decks and surface lots in the urban core. Would there be a short to mid-term stagnation of outlying areas? Or, would there be a market to densify outlying nodes? Also, how about the typical dendritic residential development? What would happen to existing inventory of driveways and garages of the suburbs?

  5. One of the biggest concerns of both VDOT and a number of stakeholders concerning tolling of Inside the Beltway I-66 is the strong challenge of finding 3-person car pools that would be toll free. The jump from 2-person car pools to 3 is often viewed as a significant challenge. How many people would a shared-on-demand vehicle service need to be successful financially? Or will these services need heavy subsidies? I think I’d rather be stuck in traffic in my own car than stuck in traffic looking for more passengers.

    And let’s not forget the plantiffs’ bar. To the extent driverless vehicles are owned or backed by deep pocket companies – Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon – and are involved in accidents, there will be lots of $$$$ lawsuits – even class actions. I think a good argument can be made that putting a vehicle controlled only by software and sensors on the road should be accompanied by strict liability.

  6. I think – like drones – there are lots and lots of “ideas” about how such vehicles could be used in myriad ways – but I think the ones that will come first are the ones that can more easily integrate into existing infrastructure without big changes and without high consequence failures…

    think of them as “moveable” traffic cameras that can monitor traffic – report yahoos… notify police, fire, rescue when something happens, etc.

    they can do parking meters… patrol residential streets at night, do perimeter security on military bases, etc… anywhere where you’d pay a human to be “eyes” and “monitor”.

    then next, they’ll move cargo before they move people…

    and when they do move people – you’re going to sign a big waiver… making it harder to sue…

    finally – I don’t think we’re going to see them implemented for loftier goals like better settlement patterns.

    for that to happen – they’ll have to earn on their own – a value that people will willingly choose because it directly benefits them.

    I just don’t see government imposing the use of the things so that we have “better” settlement patterns or even transportation or congestion anytime soon -perhaps after they’ve evolved and established themselves in some uses and areas and people accept their validity -as Acbar suggests.

    But most of all – like technology has done to this point – we almost never predict all the ways it gets used and dramatically transforms.

    Autonomous cars are basically land-based drones. Drones- air, land, water and underwater are going to change the way we live – like the internet has – for information – but in this case – in the physical world and don’t limit thinking to only land or water… there will be hybrids that do land and air. There will be drones that direct other drones. There will be drones that accompany a human vehicle… and the human will send the drones to do the mission .. perhaps go follow a fleeing bad guy or traffic violator.. etc.

    And these are real jobs – for the kids that get a good basic education – who are skilled at reading and comprehension, can write and articulate , competent at math and can understand technology and innovate themselves.

    these are going to be jobs that are not pure 4yr college track jobs… but rather “technical” …

  7. Rather than increase the move to the suburbs, such cars should be a boon to cities as city dwellers will have the flexibility of going places when needed and save huge sums in buying, maintaining and parking vehicles.
    And those city people who do not own cars will see their lives opened up to more possibilities.
    The proponents of mass transit will fight this as many endless, mindless and incredibly expensive projects will not be needed.
    And combining these cars with intelligently managed highways could well reduce the need for building more roads thus getting the highway cosntruction lobby upset. In both cases, having more green areas would be a wonderful benefit.

  8. such cars might be useful to people in the cities and suburbs – for the “plus” trips that people take – beyond the default car or even transit trips because they’re going to be more expensive that the default mode. So driveways and garages are not going to go away.

    Someone who owns a car – is going to use it on a very flexible ad hoc basis – i.e. they take trips when they want – to get pizza one night then next day load up with beach gear and go to Ocean City or Virginia Beach.

    I just don’t see folks using these cars for these types of trips – so what kind of trips would they find them a better value for?

    a car – even a driverless car is going to be more expensive than a transit trip – bus or subway. What is it -$5 for a METRO rail daily fare? You’re not going to rent a driverless car for that – I bet – no where near that.

    Zipcar is $8-10 an hour. Not sure how a driverless car is any cheaper.

    You can buy a Toyota Camry for what $7 a day ? and you go out and get in it – with 0 minutes of calling ahead for it to be driven to your location for you to use?

    We all can see the potential – for cars to drive and navigate themselves- but we’re trying to force them into their potential uses without really recognizing the impediments. Cars are deeply embedded in our culture – and in ways we not aware of.

    That’s why I say the “market” will find the uses that have value – and don’t have – and in ways most of us don’t recognize – but in ways that some will – and will become rich for their insight.

    who, for instance, saw the value of mobile phones for 2-step authentication which now is a key capability in computer security.

    I think driverless cars are going to follow a similar evolution. We’re not very good at imagining how technology gets ultimately used.

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  10. Jim:

    I am hurt. Here you are talking about some eventuality when my colleagues and I are working on the real thing. Hell, it was just up in DC. You could have come to see it. Just tell the bus where you want to go and off it goes. The software that figures it all out is the same software that beat the two best Jeopardy! players in the world back in 2011. Smart as it was then … it’s a lot smarter now.

    Forget the idea of driverless cars – that will come in due time. Think instead of a suburban place like Reston, only much bigger. Parking for those residents who want cars is on the edges in parking garages. No cars of any type are allowed in the town’s interior. You walk to one of the many driverless tram routes, tell Watson where yo want to go and you’re off. In less time than it would take you to find a parking space in Tysons you are at your destination.


    • Thumbs up!

      I do think, however, Fairfax County would be loath to bar cars from places like Reston or Tysons because the business community would find it to be a negative factor. So long as people want to drive, Fairfax County will let them. Crazy places like Arlington, who knows!!!

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