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Self-driving cars are coming, and they could change everything we know about cities

Autonomous, self-driving vehicles are getting more attention from the media, but little from transportation planners. Given the technology's potential impacts on our transportation network, it's time for planners to start thinking about it.


Photo by Dave Schumaker on Flickr.

As the technology advances, mainstream media now treat self-driving cars with seriousness and respect, as do business advisors like KPMG. Developers are designing self-driving car use into future retirement communities, while carmakers like Mercedes advertise passive "self-driving" safety features. Analysts predict that completely autonomous cars will be on sale by 2020.

Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce both car crashes and traffic congestion, and to use wasted time driving for work or entertainment. These are benefits usually attributed to transit; as a result, autonomous vehicles could strengthen arguments for designing for more cars in our cities and suburbs, instead of more pedestrians, cyclists, and placemaking.

Transportation planners aren't talking publicly about driverless cars

By contrast, online searches for "transportation planning" and "self-driving cars" turn up thoughtful, if skeptical reviews by urbanists Todd Litman and Jarrett Walker; a sober, academic summary of key issues by the Eno Center for Transportation; and a thorough debate from 2011 on the issue here on GGW; and an article from Governing Magazine that exemplifies the public preoccupation with regulating driverless cars rather than planning and policy issues.

There isn't a lot of evidence of transportation planners at public agencies giving serious attention to the matter, at least not publicly. A recent blog entry from Bacon's Rebellion also concludes that transportation planners are not paying attention. Though, to be fair, the topic was covered at a recent Florida Department of Transportation conference and the Transportation Research Board a few weeks ago.

Self-driving cars address many of the safety and travel efficiency objections that Smart Growth advocates often make about road expansion, or the use of limited street space. As a result, planners and placemaking advocates will need to step up their game.

They need to better define in what environments bike- and pedestrian-oriented designs are still appropriate even when we can solve our congestion problems with self-driving cars. They need to promote street and intersection that can work for bikes and pedestrians as well as for self-driving cars; and to make a strong cases for Smart Growth and TOD that are based on diverse benefits, not just on the ability to move people.

Capital planning decisions last for thirty years and beyond. The officials responsible for parking lot and garage building, transit system growth, bike lane construction, intersection expansions, sidewalk improvements, and road widenings need to analyze quantitatively how self-driving cars could affect their plans, and to prepare alternatives in case things change.

How could self-driving cars disrupt the planning process?

Here are two examples of situations where planners may need to adapt to self-driving cars:

Self-driving cars coupled with "smart intersections" that communicate with vehicles to let them pass without traditional stoplight timing could result in less congestion, but may speed up cars in places where cyclists and pedestrians are competing for space. The cars will be faster, but also safer to be around. The question is whether a more efficient auto network outweighs the negative impacts to other parts of the urban environment.

They may also make car use more competitive with bus transit in low-density settings and may erode the demand and need for transit (and paratransit). On the other hand, changed transit economics resulting from driverless buses could mean that extending transit into new areas will make more economic sense in the future than it makes today.

Ways to prepare for self-driving cars

So, what could the region's planners do now to anticipate the potentially sweeping changes that self-driving cars will cause? How can planners today insure that scarce infrastructure dollars are spent on things that might be less needed in the near future?

For example, if intersections can handle more vehicles per hour with self-driving cars than with human-driven cars, they may not need to be widened. Or if transit commuters can get to the station in a self-driving car, park-and-rides may not be necessary, because the car will just drive itself back home.

First, land use, highway, and transit planners should simply acknowledge the issue. They should begin to define how large different impacts may be, when those impacts are likely to occur, what the range of public responses will need to include, and when those public responses may have to start occurring.

Self-driving cars will change patterns of car ownership and travel. Planners need to examine how travel forecasting tools that are based on current patterns of car ownership and use will need to change to adapt to new statistical relationships between population, car ownership, trip-making, car-sharing, and travel patterns.

Because cars that can drive themselves won't stay parked all day, builders and regulators should think about how new parking structures should be designed for adaptive reuse if future parking demand declines.

State and local DOTs should measure how smart intersections could increase the number of vehicles that can use an intersection per hour, and how to design roads and intersections that work for self-driving cars, as well as pedestrians, bicyclists, and the creation of public spaces.

Finally, the region's transit agencies should study how driverless operations could affect operating costs for bus, rail, and paratransit services, and should update their long-range capital and operating needs forecasts to reflect what they learn.

Many aspects of the self-driving car world remain in doubt. That is not, however, a reason to avoid thinking about how to benefit from the capabilities that self-driving vehicles offer. Even if planners are only able to do general studies rather than detailed forecasts, that would still be a useful exercise. Understanding how to adapt our communities for the benefits and challenges of self-driving cars would be a huge step forward.

Transit


Calculate your commuting emissions with Metro's new tool

Earlier this fall, WMATA's sustainability team developed a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings calculator and have launched a draft version on their blog, PlanItMetro. You can use it to compare their carbon footprint when taking transit or driving.


Photo by Leonski Oh Leonski on Flickr.

The tool is simple and intuitive to use, similar to WMATA's trip planner. Enter your origin and destination and the calculator will give you options for how to arrive at your destination via transit or by driving, and will tell you the total amount of CO2 emissions for each option. If your trip involves walking, the calculator will even give you an estimate of the calories you expended in the process.

Check out a sample entry I did for a trip I used to make from my old place in College Park as a student at the University of Maryland to the Coalition for Smarter Growth office near Union Station. By taking the Metro rather than driving, I reduced my carbon footprint by 61% and burned over 90 calories in the process.


Metro's carbon footprint calculator.


A map of transit versus driving routes.

The transit emissions the tool calculates represent your slice of the total emissions pie of Metro's fleet divided by all Metrorail or Metrobus riders. Since we have already invested in these transit systems, every additional person who boards a bus or train improves the efficiency of the overall system, while avoiding the emissions they would generate by driving.

But it's also instructive to see the significant emissions our transit vehicles emit. Reducing transportation emissions by using cleaner fuels for Metrobus and Metrorail should be a goal for our transit system as well. Public concerns over natural gas have been increasing, given the devastating environmental impacts of fracking. Recent studies suggest that natural gas' net climate impact may be even worse than coal.

Metro wants to move from using traditional diesel or natural gas vehicles to diesel hybrid buses. Today, the bus fleet consists of 41% hybrids, which will rise to 62% by 2018.

The emissions figures from riding Metrorail are based on the amount of electricity the system uses from Maryland's and Virginia's electricity grids. Maryland and Virginia currently both generate over half of their electricity from fossil fuels.

Maryland must generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and passed a major offshore wind bill last year. Virginia is lagging behind Maryland, having only adopted a voluntary renewable portfolio standard. Someday, if we have a clean grid, Metro could also consider running trolley buses on clean energy like in Seattle and San Francisco.

If we are to lower emissions at the rate and degree scientists say is necessary to avert climate disaster, we will have to find a way to dramatically reduce our transportation emissions, which make up 30% of the Washington DC region's carbon emissions. Tools like WMATA's offer the opportunity for individuals to understand the environmental impact of their commutes and the benefits of walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Still, behavior change is difficult, and studies have found that carbon calculators tend to reach a limited and self-selecting audience. So how can WMATA improve the tool to maximize its impact?

One idea would be to illustrate the meaning of "kilograms of CO2" in easily understandable ways by comparing it to gallons of gas, the cost of gas, or home energy use. WMATA could potentially use data from this tool from the EPA, which compares kilograms of CO2 to a wide variety of everyday energy uses.

It would also be great if the tool incorporated more options, especially biking to transit stations. In testing WMATA's calculator, we also found that it didn't offer biking or bikeshare as options where those appear to be a convenient alternative.

In addition, the emissions savings from one trip may not be a huge motivator, but what if you could see the impact of riding transit and ditching your car for a whole year? Driving represents by far the biggest share of the typical American's carbon footprint, so switching to other modes over the long term is one of the most important actions an individual can make to fight climate change. The following chart shows the major contributors to the average household's carbon footprint.


Graph from NRDC and UC Berkeley.

Finally, WMATA's tool could work in concert with the Housing + Transportation Cost Calculator pioneered by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and adopted by the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities to show how transit-accessible neighborhoods can not only reduce your carbon footprint, but your living expenses as well.

What ideas do you have to improve WMATA's greenhouse gas tool? Let us know in the comments.

Roads


How will "connected vehicles" affect urbanism?

A consortium of Virginia schools will soon start testing vehicles in Fairfax County that can talk to each other and their surroundings. But what will "connected vehicles" (CV) really mean for transportation and urbanism?


Photo by Steven Mackay.

Researchers have attached tracking equipment to light poles and other roadside infrastructure in and around Merrifield, including stretches of I-66, Lee Highway, and Route 50. The roadside equipment will communicate with devices about the size of an E-ZPass installed in 12 "connected vehicles," including a bus, semi-truck, cars, and motorcycles.

The devices collect data such as acceleration, braking, and curve handling. Researchers hope that the new system will dramatically reduce highway crashes, increase fuel efficiency, and improve air quality.

"The intersection can say 'there is snow happening right here,'" explains Gabrielle Laskey of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Conversely, if a connected car were to experience a loss of traction, it would relay that information to the roadside devices so authorities would know the precise location of hazardous conditions.


Left: a CV data collection unit. Right: an in-car CV display. Photo from the VTTI.

The research will focus on ways to improve both safety and mobility. "If we can detect initial braking, we can slow vehicles down and message the driver, saying something like 'Slow traffic ahead. Reduce speed to 45 mph' or 'Left lane closed ahead; merge right,'" said VDOT Spokesperson Cathy McGhee.

Study will involve area drivers and "regular" cars

The CV technology will go further than the Active Traffic Management System of overhead dynamic signs VDOT will soon install on I-66. The CV system "can give information directly to the driver and provide an additional level of information," said McGhee.

Although the CV roadside equipment is already in place in Merrifield, the connected vehicles are undergoing final road testing on the Virginia test track in Blacksburg. In January, those vehicles plus another 50 operated by VDOT will roll out on Merrifield highways.

In the spring, researchers will seek out drivers of an additional 200 "regular" vehicles through ads on Craigslist and in the Washington Post. Their cars will receive communication devices similar to test vehicles' which will notify drivers verbally or by tone through a GPS-sized display. Drivers who volunteer for the program will not need specialized driving skills. "We want to use nave participants and make these devices as useful and available as a cell phone," says Laskey.

Over the next couple of years, a consortium of research institutions consisting of Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and Morgan State University will conduct 19 separate CV research studies, about half of which will have components in the Merrifield test bed, at a projected cost of $14 million.

One study looks at road signs that can switch from "yield" to "stop," depending on conditions. Another examines how to dim or shut off roadway lighting when it is not needed. And a study in Baltimore involves the use of smart phones and looks at safety and congestion issues related to public transit, transit passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

The new CV technology can also work in conjunction with some current safety systems which use video to "see" non-connected items, such as a pedestrian in a crosswalk, then alert the connected vehicle. The system helps connected vehicles operate on the roadways before a fully connected or automated roadway system exists.

How will CV influence our transportation network?

CV technology could change the way we use and design our streets. Since connected vehicles will alert drivers to imminent collisions, CV technology is expected to drop the crash rate at least by 50 percent, according Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which is coordinating the public-private venture.


Dingus and a CV motorcycle. Photo by the Jessamine Kane-Wiseley.

Connected vehicles will be able to safely travel much closer together than cars can today, vastly improving the efficiency of existing highway infrastructure. At the CV system's public debut on June 6, Governor McDonnell noted that the technology "could do as much to help alleviate congestion as the building or widening of new highways."

Researchers say CV technology could be in widespread use within five years, which Virginia and Maryland should keep in mind as they decide how to spend billions in new transportation funding. Cars traveling closer together will require less space, so road widenings might not be necessary. On already wide streets, the extra space could be used for bike lanes, sidewalks, or landscaping. Building smaller streets not only costs less, but it frees up room for buildings and open space, making communities more compact and preserving land.

If you'd like to learn more about connected vehicles, USDOT is holding a public meeting in Arlington from September 24 to 26. The agenda includes information about the CV safety program and the Intelligent Transportation Systems Strategic Plan for 2015 to 2019.

Government


What drives the growth of DC's tech sector?

DC has lavished attention and subsidies on a few tech companies to bolster its economy. But the growth of tech firms in and around Dupont Circle suggests that investing in an attractive urban space is a more effective way to grow a local tech scene.


Mayor Gray visits 1776. Photo by the author.

DC has a flourishing tech scene, as seen in the growth of several coworking spaces, where startups can get work done and find community. There are 5 in DC, 4 of which are in or near Dupont Circle, as are several other tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator.

Mayor Gray has visited one of these spots, 1776, 4 times, and given it $380,000 in grants. 1776 is a fantastic coworking space whose leadership is committed to supporting startups.

But does the District attract tech companies because we subsidize firms like 1776 and LivingSocial that claim to be hubs of talent and capital? Or is it because we have invested for a decade in urban amenities and density that attracts talent and capital to places like Dupont Circle, as Richard Florida argues?

Dupont Circle has emerged as the hub of the DC tech cluster. Besides Canvas and 1776, Affinity Lab on U Street, and PunchRock in Adams Morgan provide coworking space. Several tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator also reside in the Dupont Circle area.

This cluster emerged without government assistance or backing. 1776 is an exciting coworking space that I hope is successful, but the startups laboring in these other coworking spaces seem to be just as critical to diversifying our tax base.

Florida, who opposed Gray's subsidy to LivingSocial last year, argues that our urban core is responsible for attracting the talent and capital that have made our tech sector thrive:

Today venture capital investment and startup activity also reflect the turn back to the urban core; nearly half of the [Washington] region's total (47.5 percent), or $600 million, went to the District of Columbia proper. Most of that was concentrated in a single zip code (20005) that spans McPherson Square, Thomas Circle and Logan Circle.
While Gray expresses support for DC's tech sector, it sometimes looks like a search for a North Star he can follow, like Living Social, by providing subsidies and personal encouragement. Rather, tech clusters naturally emerge in dense urban areas that attract smart young people, with no single company as the hub.


Dupont-area Tech Firms. Green: Coworking spaces. Blue: Incubators. Red: Tech Startups.

I work 2 days per week at Canvas, a coworking space in Dupont Circle. I see startups there working all-nighters to build their businesses.

At minimum, it would be incredibly encouraging for more of DC's startups to get a visit from the mayor. After all, we are relying on all of these startups to diversify DC's economy beyond dependence on the federal government. After a recent tweet from Gray about visiting 1776, I replied asking why he hadn't visited any other coworking spaces.

However, DC angel investor and entrepreneur Glen Helmen recently questioned whether Gray's involvement in the tech sector is broad enough.

It's great that Mayor Gray is looking for investment opportunities in DC tech. And we all want 1776 and LivingSocial to be wildly successful, as they are prominent contributors to the local tech sector.

But most startups came here or decided to stay here because they like DC, not because of subsidies or Living Social or 1776. Doesn't that tell us what our strength is that we should build upon?

A better way to support and nourish the city's tech scene would be to encourage the creation of a great urban environment, by continuing the same investments in transportation and public amenities and housing and commercial space that the city has been doing for the past decade. That way, companies will have even more reasons to come here, and those who already like it will have more reasons to stay.

In the meantime, Mayor Gray would do well to show his support for all local tech companies, not just those he has strategically invested in. If he wants to visit other coworking spaces and tech firms, the mayor has a standing invitation from Canvas, and presumably from every other coworking spot.

Demographics


Androids for the east side, iPhones for the west

Where do people use iPhones, Android phones, Blackberries, and other devices? In our region, it appears Android is far more popular on the east side of the region than the west:

Tweets from iPhones are in red, Android in green, Blackberry purple. Image from MapBox.
Click to toggle: All devices  iPhone only  Android only

Tom MacWright, who has written for Greater Greater Washington about open laws, made the tool for MapBox using 280 million Tweets, each of which has information about which kind of device the tweeter was using.

I initially expected to see a big blob of purple (Blackberry) in the federal core, but there is none; probably this is a combination of many federal agencies moving to iPhones, and federal workers not using their government phones for tweeting.

But really, these maps look awfully similar to the same maps of DC's demographic divides:


Left: Race and ethnicity. Image from Wikimedia. Right: College degrees. Image by Rob Pitingolo.

Update: Several commenters noted that the combined map seems to overlay iPhones over Androids, so green areas are really areas with Androids but fewer iPhones. I've added a toggle to switch between the combined map, iPhone-only, and Android-only.

Taxis


How should government regulate private ride sharing?

The vast majority of cars being driven around the city have empty seats. Why not let people sell some of them, make some money, and provide more transportation without more traffic? One of the obstacles is that these services often run afoul of regulations designed to protect consumers.


Image from SideCar.

A few companies are trying to make private ride sharing a reality. SideCar lets anyone sign up, undergo a background check and other reviews, and then become a "community driver" who can offer others rides through the service for a "donation."

This is part of a wave of startups providing what's called "collaborative consumption," where people have an economic arrangement to share a resource. There have been services like time share vacations and Zipcar car sharing for many years, where a company owns some resources and sells shares in them, but the newer trend is companies that try to help individual people sell unused capacity in stuff they own.

Airbnb, for example, lets you rent out your apartment when you're not there for extra cash, and makes it possible to find a much more affordable place to stay in busy cities where there aren't that many hotel rooms.

Regulations, however, often don't really account for individuals renting out their own stuff. They usually assume that anyone providing such services is a company that does so as its business, and can undergo inspections, file for permits, and so on. Plus, these regulatory processes try to ensure that the products are safe and healthy, that nobody's getting scammed, and so on.

The new-style collaborative consumption startups are solving the consumer protection problem in a bottom-up, social-media way: people rate buyers and sellers, and a strong reputation replaces a regulator's review. This is what eBay did to give people confidence in buying things from strangers instead of from stores or established catalog companies.

There are the occasional horror stories, but then, regulators miss things, too. But Airbnb is illegal in most cities, and some cities are cracking down, often at the behest of the hotel industry or neighbors who don't like strangers coming and going. Mainly the transactions happen outside the law's blessing, it's making buyers and sellers happy, not causing a lot of trouble, and eventually cities will probably adjust laws to come to terms with it.

What does this mean for ride sharing? Taxi rides are a particularly heavily-regulated area, with powerful driver lobbies that want to restrict the supply of rides. They weren't happy about Uber, and really won't be happy with ride sharing.

Plus, regulators have some legitimate fears. Cars can be really dangerous. Is it important to give people assurance they're riding in a safe one? You're under the physical control of another person. How can we be sure that person isn't going to do bad things? A woman has accused an Uber driver of raping her; police investigated, but prosecutors aren't pressing charges.

Are these roles the government should play? With Uber, many people argued that regulators ought to ensure the driver is well trained, properly licensed, and not a threat. They should ensure the car is safe and well-maintained. But don't regulate the prices, since people can choose to ride Uber or not and don't need the government to decide how much it should cost.

Now, ride sharing companies are essentially trying to take the next step. Must the drivers all have commercial licenses and commercial vehicles? Or can we let anyone sign up to give others rides? Can the companies, like SideCar, self-regulate?

Certainly it's in SideCar's, and Airbnb's, and Uber's interest to be sure everyone is safe. SideCar has extensive safety information on its site. One theory is that these companies will make sure it's safe, or else go out of business. After all, it's easy to spread a bad experience on Twitter, so even a small number of problems could earn the company a bad reputation.

The DC Taxicab Commission isn't ready to embrace this. Having just created regulations for sedan drivers that regulate much less than they are used to, they'll need more outside pressure if they're going to let ridesharing get an even lighter regulatory touch. And should they?

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