What do driverless cars mean for suburban planning?

Self-driving cars are coming, and boosters of drivable suburbia are hoping they will be a potent weapon against mass transit and cities. But what they mean for towns and suburbs isn’t quite so clear.

For the past 80 years, the US has transformed nearly every place in the country into one that is acceptable and welcoming to the personal automobile. It needs places to park (some estimates have that there are 6 parking spaces for every car), needs enough road space to be able to drive unimpeded, needs sole control over the roads, and so on.

In places built in the past 30 years, this has meant sidewalk-free eight-lane boulevards and massive malls at freeway interchanges. In places built before the car, this has often meant their wholesale destruction. (Santa Clara and Fremont, for example, are now undertaking efforts to “rebuild” their town centers.)

This has not been in service to the car as a vehicle, however, but to the car as a personal mobility tool. Very often, the only seat used in a car is the driver’s, massively enhancing the person’s footprint and leading to all kinds of horrific traffic.

With the advent of the driverless car, the belief is that we will no longer need personal vehicles, and this excess footprint will become unnecessary. Open up an app on a phone, order a car, and a vehicle (possibly with others in it going to roughly where you’re going) will drive by, pick you up, and drop you off near your destination. Along the way it’ll pick up other people going in roughly the same direction as you, bolstering capacity of the personal car to a grand total of five.

Five trips, one car. As one Twitter follower called it, it becomes mini-mass transit, but at the beck and call of an app and as flexible as it needs to be. If this method of travel becomes ubiquitous – and that’s a big if – then the personal automobile might become a thing of the past.

What, then, of the places we’ve outfitted at great expense to fit the personal automobile? These would need to be retrofitted to fit this new dominant mode, and we can do away with some of design choices that favored the personal automobile.

Probably the biggest change is the demise of the large parking lot. These huge slabs of asphalt dominate suburban commercial landscapes, often taking up 80 percent of commercial parcels. They dominate the streetscape, and arterial suburban roads are lined with them. Without personal vehicles to park, there’s no need for a parking lot. That land could be put to productive use.

All this will be wasted space.

All this will be wasted space.

With a transportation system that’s five times as efficient, too, there’s little need for wide arterial roads packed with single-occupant vehicles. As well, without human drivers, there’s no need for “forgiving engineering” focused on driver psychology and driver needs. We can narrow lanes from 12 feet (freeway width) down to 10 feet or even 9.5 feet and have the same vehicle capacity and speed. There would rarely be a need for roads wider than 2 lanes in the suburbs.

So, we can wave goodbye to parking lots and wide arterial roads. What could we do to optimize the suburbs to fit this new reality?

First, trip origins and destinations would be best served if they are along the same axis of travel, and they should be relatively evenly spaced and close together. Street grids lined with origins and destinations make sense, so as to maximize the directness of the travel. That means either a commercial street with homes behind or above.

With the loss of parking lots, it makes no sense to place storefronts far back from the street. They should be placed against the street to ease access for passengers.

Finally, there will likely be a need for a short walk to or from a vehicle, especially when returning home. It makes sense to make that walk a pleasant one, and to put amenities there, too.

corridor-capacity1

Relative capacities of modes

It’s important our density not get too high. Although boosting car capacity fivefold is a huge step forward, trains have eight to forty times the capacity. For the highest-density areas, where trains are already at capacity, driverless mini-mass transit won’t be enough to solve congestion or to adequately meet residents’ travel needs.

So in the retrofitted suburbs, there should be a balance between the need for a dense line of origins and destinations and the need to not overload the system. Perhaps just six stories, at most, in the most dense places of the suburbs.

For this kind of system to work and not devolve into that kind of nightmare, it needs to have simple and easy lines of operations, just like the streetcars did, with origins and destinations located near stops. Unlike streetcars, the whole street is a possible stop. Rather than a series of one-dimensional stops surrounded by a station area, there is a two-dimensional transportation corridor surrounded by a transportation area. The station neighborhoods currently in existence could easily be integrated into suburban corridor fabric.

At this point, this does not sound much like the suburbia we often consider “suburbia”. With no parking lots, no wide roads, a street grid, and shops and homes clustered up against the sidewalk, it sounds more like a town center. That’s because this transportation cloud functions much more like the streetcars of the old days than personal cars of today. The urban landscape described is precisely the kind of bus-transit-oriented development that suburbs could be investing in today. This article could have painted just the picture: “Imagine standing at almost any street corner, where every five minutes an electric train bus vehicle comes by…”

Indeed, if this system ever does overcome myriad regulatory hurdles, it will work best in places where buses and light rail work best. If this is our dream future, then we can start planning for it today. There’s no need to wait for driverless cars.*

Of course, this system will likely be decades away, if it ever happens. There are huge regulatory hurdles to any driverless car, and any area where this system operates could be seriously disrupted by even one person driving their own car. As well, there are still questions of who owns and maintains the vehicles. In the interim, personally owned automated vehicles will likely start to ply the roads. (While they will reform how we use parking, they won’t do much about traffic.)

But if this system does come, it’s not something for champions of small towns, walkable living, and transit to fear.

*As people start to buy personal driverless cars, the need for vast parking lots will diminish. If we really want to start planning for that reality, too, then we should reform or abolish parking standards today. 

AN ASIDE: This system has been speculated upon for decades as Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, though generally it was theorized on rails. In fact, it already exists, in a sense, in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Much of the time, Morgantown’s system works like an elevator (push a button to summon a vehicle, push a destination button and you’re on your way). During rush hour, it operates like standard-issue fixed-route transit during peak hours, and in off-hours each car runs the whole track as a circulator.

A reality check for Randy Warren’s climate change plan

A candidate for San Rafael City Council has a bold plan to cut transportation CO2 emissions: subsidize electric cars. While at surface it sounds reasonable enough, the plan would be expensive for little gain.

Take a look at candidate Randy Warren’s platform and you’ll find, under the climate change header, a description for Operation New Leaf.

For all the theories about what we can do to reduce greenhouse gasses from cars and light trucks, the reality is that the plans are speculation and hope.  Let’s aim instead for guaranteed results.  I propose Operation New Leaf, a plan to provide incentives for our out-of-county workforce to purchase zero emission cars for their commute to San Rafael. This plan targets workers who have held a San Rafael job for at least one year and live at least 20 miles away. The city would negotiate special rates with San Rafael car dealers, from whom the cars would have to be purchased or leased.  Participating workers would have to make a good faith pledge to do their workday shopping in San Rafael, so we improve our local economy and recover some operating costs via related sales tax.  We would target up to a 50% subsidy to the workers, with proper safeguards.  We then need to line up sponsors, whether from MTC or the private sector (including the car manufacturers themselves as a pilot program).  This is a complex proposal that requires a city study group, and I will encourage such study take place.  But until our legislature has the guts to set a date for banning the registration of new gas-powered cars, Operation New Leaf would produce instant and certain results in reducing greenhouse gasses.

The Census doesn’t estimate the source of in-commuting jobs by city, but we can estimate. There are roughly 43,000 jobs in the city. Of Marin jobs, a quarter are held by workers in counties at least 20 miles away from San Rafael (i.e., all but San Francisco and Contra Costa). Proportionally, that means about 7,760 San Rafael workers live about 20 miles away or more. With that in mind, I estimate the cost of Operation New Leaf at around $97 million, not including the cost to move an additional 1,000 cars to the city’s job centers and store them once they get there.

Would MTC help? Likely not, given their pursuit of multi-modal solutions to transportation problems. Would Nissan help so they could promote their electric Leaf? Probably not enough to make the project affordable. Would a change in drivers’ shopping habits offset the cost? Again, probably not enough to make it affordable to the city. Leasing the vehicles instead of buying them outright might put the cost into a more-affordable area around $10 million per year, but that’s still far more than San Rafael could carry.

Equally as unaffordable are the consequences.

The cost to congestion would be enormous, given that this would be like closing a traffic lane on Highway 101. And the cost to our built environment would be high, too. San Rafael would suddenly need to find parking for at least another 1,000 cars per day [see update below], not to mention charging stations for not just these 1,000 vehicles but the 10,000 others bought by people who already drive to the city.

This might be net-negative in greenhouse gas emissions, provided increased congestion doesn’t make the situation worse, but it wouldn’t be a panacea. Electric cars in California emit the equivalent CO2 of a 70mpg gasoline car. BART, in contrast, emits the equivalent of around 940mpg. It would also put those currently taking transit to work into harm’s way (driving kills 35,000 people per year), and fight downtown San Rafael’s efforts to expand its walkable downtown east of Highway 101.

To reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions, San Rafael ought to try to segment the travel market for trips under 2 miles, where most car trips are made. Some of those really are best done by car, but others are best done on foot or bike. How we build our roads and grow San Rafael should allow each mode to function best in balance with the others.

For walking, that means maintaining sidewalks and slowing down the perceived speed of cars, which can drive away foot traffic. For biking, it means building quality bike infrastructure that is safe for anyone age 8 to 80. For driving, it means encouraging people who don’t need to drive to leave the car at home and out of the way of other drivers. Even if a few percent of trips shift from car to another mode, that’s often enough to unlock traffic flow.

Or, if San Rafael really wants to spend millions of its own dollars on transportation, it could build a comprehensive Class I bicycle lane network for the whole city and Ross Valley with money to spare. It could provide free transit passes to in-commuters, cleaning up traffic while also cleaning the air. It could buy 48 hydrogen fuel-cell buses for Golden Gate Transit, or (for less money) retrofit Marin’s entire bus fleet to run on compressed natural gas.

Operation New Leaf doesn’t solve any problems faced by San Rafael; quite the opposite, it spends millions to exacerbate its existing problems. And, far from providing “guaranteed results,” it could add to congestion-related CO2 emissions, possibly even enough to offset the gains.

Electric cars are touted as the solution to our transportation emissions, but it ignores the other costs of pushing car-only infrastructure: parking, traffic, public safety, and car maintenance. The way to reduce Marin’s greenhouse gas emissions is to diversify away from an automobile monoculture, not to deepen it. And, in the meantime, we’d solve our transportation problems, too.

UPDATE AND CLARIFICATION: Some questions have arisen as to why more cars would be on the road under this scheme. Roughly 11 percent of Marin’s in-commuters take transit to work, and it’s reasonable to suspect slightly more take transit to San Rafael given the presence of the transit center. By subsidizing car ownership, it’s reasonable to assume a good chunk of them would choose to drive instead and add more vehicles to the city and Highway 101.

Mid-Week Links: End of the Line

Marin County Line

photo by Mark Garbowski

Marin County

San Anselmo’s Easy Street Cafe will close this Sunday after struggling with the economy and the Redhill Shopping Center remodel.  There is still hope that it will reopen somewhere else, though the odds seem slim.  With this institution’s closure, speculation is running rampant that the shopping center is turning into a regular chain-dominated strip mall.  So far, eight businesses have moved out or been evicted.  You can find their letter on the Pacific Sun. On a personal note, I am quite saddened by the loss.  It’s my favorite breakfast spot in Marin and I haven’t found anyplace better in DC. Since I can’t make it to the closing, eat some bangers and scrambled eggs for me and I’ll buy you a beer at the next happy hour. (IJ, Pacific Sun)

  • Just as regulatory hurdles were cleared, Lucasfilm formerly withdrew its Grady Ranch proposal, beginning a mad scramble around the North Bay to woo what a few Marin activists said would constitute the Hollywoodization of Lucas Valley. (IJ, San Rafael Patch)
  • For Earth Day, San Rafael promoted recycling, energy efficiency, and electric cars, but remains entirely silent on walking or biking.  Perhaps next year they’ll install a bike rack or two downtown? (IJ)
  • Travel on the Golden Gate Bridge is going to be terrible next week.  Not only is Doyle Drive closing, but Occupy SF plans to close the bridge on Tuesday. (SFist)
  • SMART is exploring a station near the Sonoma County Airport, which would be at their planned maintenance facility on Airport Boulevard.  Details are still sketchy, to say the least, but it would certainly make the airport a more attractive option for Marinites. (Press-Democrat)
  • SMART has approved a more sustainable pension plan for future employees than what it has now, remedying one of the Grand Jury’s principal gripes about the system. (Press-Democrat)
  • The Board of Supervisors has formally requested an audit of Plan Bay Area growth projections, saying that the job growth numbers just don’t seem realistic. (IJ)
  • Larkspur and MTC are looking for a few good souls to fill out their boards.  MTC has four vacancies on their Policy Advisory Council, while Larkspur has openings on the Planning Commission, Parks & Rec Commission, and the Heritage Preservation Board. Take a look to see if you want get involved. (IJ, PR Newswire)

The Greater Marin

  • When you make a great place you’re making great people habitat, and that’s good for the environment and all the natural habitat we need to protect.  New Urbanism is a New Environmentalism. (NRDC Switchboard)
  • The headaches caused by private bus companies in San Francisco are starting to get noticed, and the city may start to regulate. (SFBG)
  • Electric bikes can dramatically expand the reach and audience of bicycling.  In spread-out and hilly Marin, the electric assist can be a life-saver for the unfit. (Clarendon Patch)
  • Sonoma County faces a $120 million road maintenance backlog and only $4.5 million per year to fix it.  Though the county is looking for new revenues, perhaps it could spend less money on widening 101 instead. (Press-Democrat)
  • California will soon get $100 million in new electric car charging infrastructure, part of a settlement with energy companies related to the state’s 2001 energy crisis.  (Chronicle)