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We need to start talking NOW about shared autonomous mobility—5 urban dividends

February 03, 2020

By David Dixon

Shared autonomous mobility can unlock major social, economic, and environmental value for denser urban places. We need to start planning today.

How happy are we with the community-building impacts of the last mobility revolution—universal access to cars after World War II? As we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to repair the impacts of sprawl, urban renewal, urban highways, environmental degradation, automobile-dependence, and similar legacies of universal access to cars …

The answer is probably: Not very!

The problem isn’t cars, per se, but the reality that we let planning for cars, not people, shape our communities.

We can’t afford to repeat this mistake with the next mobility revolution—connected, autonomous, electric mobility. Yet today, even though connected, and increasingly autonomous (and electric) vehicles, are already traveling our streets, the entire topic is largely consigned to the world of the Jetsons.

And the pace of change is accelerating.  

Stantec’s Urban Places is collaborating with Jeff Speck to launch the revival of downtown Hammond, Indiana. The team recommended that the city abandon a planned $5 million-dollar investment in a new parking structure to support the first new mixed-use downtown development.

Connected, autonomous mobility—in forms ranging from personal vehicles and shared/on demand mobility to transit and freight movement—will be the mobility paradigm within two decades, bringing a more decisive impact on the shape of our communities than the more gradual arrival of universal access to cars did in the decades following World War II. Car manufacturers, technology and data sectors, and major investors are outstripping community-focus planning and investment. We can’t afford planning for cars to again jump ahead of planning for people.

At every level of government—federal, state, and local—we need to start playing catch-up. It is essential to initiate community conversations now on how we can use the advent of connected, autonomous, electric mobility to shape more livable, competitive, equitable, and resilient futures for our communities. We are going to have very different conversations in higher-density urban places (in cities and suburbs alike) than in more distant exurbs.

Density is destiny

Within the much-too-small world of folks who are talking about the impacts of autonomous mobility on our communities, there are two camps: 1) the dystopians, who point to a world dominated by personal autonomous mobility as a paradigm that will produce more traffic, more congestion, higher mobility costs, ongoing environmental damage, and more sprawl, and 2) the utopians who point to a world dominated by shared autonomous mobility as a paradigm that will produce polar opposite results.  

The reality is that the advent of connected, autonomous mobility presents very different futures—and choices—for urban places (both in cities and suburbs) and lower-density exurbs. A compact, critical mass of people and destinations in higher-density environments spells the difference.

For lower-density exurbs that lack the critical mass of people and trips to support the on-demand convenience necessary for a shared-mobility paradigm to work, personal autonomous mobility will likely be the inevitable outcome. Higher-density urban places that offer the critical mass of people and trips necessary to support on-demand shared service, on the other hand, will have a real choice.

onMain is a 2.4-million-square-foot “imagination district” in Dayton, Ohio, being planned by Stantec’s Urban Places. Projected to be built over two decades, onMain will accommodate more density by having later phases utilize the same parking built to support early phases.

5 urban dividends of shared autonomous mobility

The wrong path for urban communities—one toward personal, rather than shared, connected, autonomous mobility—will certainly cut carbon emissions as electric models replace carbon-fueled vehicles. However, this path will also lock these communities toward a dystopian world marked by more traffic, congestion, and sprawl.

In sharp contrast, the right path—toward shared autonomous mobility—will lead these communities toward unlocking five urban dividends that offer broad economic, social, and environmental value:

#1—Amenity dividend

By making all the cool restaurants, jobs, lofts, art, culture, lively squares, parks, and other amenities in the urban core just a click and short low-cost ride away, shared autonomous mobility will magnify the amenity value proposition that makes urban cores so attractive as places to live, work, and play. While mobility-on-demand services (think Uber or Lyft) have already started this process, shared autonomous trips (which will cost at most half as much) will turbocharge urban amenity. In turn, urban places will experience enhanced competitive appeal in attracting still more housing, jobs, and investment.

#2—Density dividend

As we reach the point—likely over the next decade—at which a majority of North American cars on the road will have enough onboard connected technology to self-park more compactly than we do, existing parking facilities will be able to hold up to a third more cars than they do today. By 2035, “robo-taxis”—or shared connected, autonomous, vehicles—will likely be in wide use in denser urban areas, with the potential to drive vehicle ownership down to 35% of current levels. Together these transitions will mean that by the late-2030s, the parking facilities in place today across North America will be able to support roughly three times as much development. This is a dividend we can start collecting today. Rather than spending dollars to build additional parking garages we know we won’t need in 10 to 20 years, let’s turn to shared parking and similar strategies. I and my Stantec Urban Places colleagues are already planning millions of square feet of mixed-use development in downtowns and new urban districts (in both cities and suburbs) with significantly less parking than had been anticipated a few years ago. In part, we are achieving this reduction by planning districts in ways that enable the parking required for early phases to support additional development in later phases.

We can’t afford planning for cars to again jump ahead of planning for people.

#3—Dollars dividend

Shared autonomous mobility—which will not require paying a driver—could effectively cut annual personal transportation costs in urban areas by roughly 50%, and possibly more, compared to the cost of owning and operating a privately owned vehicle. Put another way, a shared autonomous mobility paradigm would offer an “urban subsidy” of $10,000 (2019 dollars) or more to a household that would be able to trade the cost of owning two vehicles for shared mobility. This isn’t just a personal dividend; these are dollars that will inevitably flow into urban economies. And the benefits don’t stop there; providing for parking today can push up the cost of developing urban housing and office space by 15% to 25% or more.

#4—Public-realm dividend

A shared autonomous mobility paradigm can reduce the number of cars on the road by roughly 75%, according to a study by the University of California at Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies. In addition, connected, autonomous vehicles can utilize lanes that are roughly 40% narrower. Together, these are not inconsequential impacts. Today a typical US city boasts roughly 1,000 square feet or more of paved streets per resident. Planning today for shared autonomous mobility would help cities avoid expanding current roadways and start reclaiming hundreds of millions of publicly owned acres of roadway for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, parklets, greenways, rain gardens, and linear urban forests.

#5—Green dividend

The shift from carbon-fueled to electric vehicles will cut auto-related carbon emissions by more than 60% regardless of whether they are shared or not. A shared autonomous mobility paradigm can cut vehicular carbon emissions by another roughly 60% by reducing the number of vehicles on the road. However, the real green benefits of shared autonomous mobility stem from the increased ability of denser urban centers to attract and accommodate a greater share of growth. Today, urban centers report roughly one-quarter the per capita carbon footprint of their surrounding suburbs.

Northland Investments is working with Stantec’s Urban Places to transform a strip retail site in suburban Newton, Massachusetts, outside Boston, into a transit-oriented urban village that mixes housing, jobs, shopping, and entertainment around a lively new walkable Main Street. In addition to utilizing phase-one parking to support future phases, Stantec’s mobility team is exploring a shared autonomous vehicle connection to nearby transit.

One more essential dividend: equity

Of course, these dividends will enhance the appeal of urban cores to the well-educated, affluent folks who are fueling today’s urban renaissance and sharply influencing housing costs (which have been rising much faster than their suburban counterparts for more than a decade, leading to a new reality in which more low-income households live in suburbs than cities for the first time in US history). Shared autonomous mobility is going to accelerate the amenity value and, consequently, the demand for urban housing. In the process, this will create a great deal of urban economic value.

As perhaps the most essential element to planning for the coming mobility revolution, we need to start working on a sixth—and so far, elusive—urban dividend: tapping this increased value to fund a robust equity dividend that extends not just to housing affordability, but to workforce readiness as well. As mobility-on-demand services like VIA are already demonstrating, one direct equity benefit of shared autonomous mobility will be to support micro-transit services that provide improved access to lower-income households who are increasingly isolated from transit and often cannot afford to own and operate a car.

Why start planning for connected, shared, autonomous mobility now

With the political will in place to “drive” the right transportation, zoning, and environmental policies today, we can begin redirecting the hundreds of billions of dollars in roadway and parking investments we won’t need in 10 to 20 years toward other priority investments like parks, healthcare, education, and resiliency. Case in point, Stantec’s Urban Places planners have already pulled tens of millions of dollars of parking costs out of projects in the development pipeline today. We can also begin rethinking our zoning and regulatory policies to fit the needs of a very different mobility world—beginning with a people-centric vision for hundreds of millions of acres of pavement and unlocking significant new urban value that can be invested in a robust equity agenda.

But we can’t start planning until we launch the essential first step—in depth, information-rich, conversations with our communities.

  • David Dixon

    Residential Architecture Magazine named David to their Hall of Fame as “the person we call to ask about cities"

    Contact David
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