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How to plan for a more sustainable world with driverless cars

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/04/17 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Transform

Currently, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are being tested in real-world conditions—on the streets of Pittsburgh, San Francisco, El Paso, and on highways outside of Columbus. Experts predict that by 2035 or sooner, all of our cars could be replaced by those wired with artificial intelligence systems that will be able to navigate the streets for us.

<br />Image from Depave dot org

What will the city of the future look like when self-driving cars are finally street legal?

Reports like this one from Intel argues that a “passenger economy” is going to come with it. They estimate a savings of billions of dollars from fewer crashes and less congestion. The confluence of Uber and other ride hailing services with autonomous cars may shift the ownership model to a shared-use one. Car companies, and rivals in the tourism and entertainment industries, should be reading the tea leaves and move from selling cars to supporting car share businesses.

It is unclear if driverless cars will reduce carbon emissions. Conservative think tank Center for American Progress in this report notes that carbon will continue to be a concern unless AVs are linked to a serious effort in improving ride hailing and car sharing services.

From a sustainability perspective, how should cities like Cleveland prepare for a radical shift in personal mobility? For one, considering the potential reuse of land that is in the public right of way (roads, bridges, driveways, and parking lots) with a reuse agenda. The Depave NEO movement might have some ideas. Parklets springing up in place of on-street parking, anyone?

AVs could be an opportunity to address what Angie Schmitt writes in Streetsblog is a giant market distortion—an average of four parking spots is provided to each car in a metro area. For Cleveland, that could mean treating the city’s migration to a form-based code as a high priority. For instance, form-based codes can enable smaller, denser, and thus more walkable streets, by removing the requirement for parking all together.

In a future where on-demand transportation is the realm of high end business types (while the majority turns to high frequency public transit), the vast amount of paved surfaces become a cost that small government GOP leaders should take the lead in eliminating. How much of our tax dollars have we poured into this public subsidy over the years, and how much voice do we collectively use in reconfiguring how to turn a heterogenous land-cover of mostly paved surface into a new mosaic of green spaces, small to large patches that begin to form a functional ecology in the city?

This week’s Sauropodcast from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is a fascinating look at the rise of autonomous cars and the impact they will have on the environment and in reshaping cities (which were never designed to accommodate as many vehicles as we currently have). Listen as host, former Plain Dealer science reporter, now head of science communication at the Museum, John Mangels, dives into this topic with Dr. Wyatt Newman, a Case Professor who holds numerous patents and a deep publishing portfolio on the topic.

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