Wheel Cool Future for the Falls

Driverless cars in East Falls? IQL resident (and Masters Candidate in city planning) Brian Donovan suggests new technology headed our way can shape a more lively, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. 

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As the deep summer sets in, there comes a chance for us to break away from the issues of the moment.  To consider the longer range rather than the next item on the agenda.  We might ask ourselves what East Falls will be like 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years from now?

I’d like to talk today about something that I believe will have a profound impact on all cities and their neighborhoods: the development of driverless cars and, specifically, how this transportation revolution will drastically reduce the need for parking in urban areas.

I’m sure you’ve all heard something about driverless cars by now.  Maybe you’ve heard about the billions of dollars that companies like Uber, BMW, Apple, and Google are pouring into autonomous vehicle (AV) technology.  Maybe you’ve heard about the millions of safe road miles that these vehicles have logged in testing.  You also might have heard about the recent fatal accident in a Tesla vehicle using the car’s “autopilot” feature, an incident considered to be the first AV-related fatality.

A truly driverless car is exactly what it sounds like.  It uses GPS and sensors to navigate a vehicle without the need for human intervention.  To differentiate this out a little more, what Tesla and a few other carmakers are generally working on at the moment are actually semi-autonomous vehicles.  These vehicles need a human driver behind the wheel, while using a combination of technologies that allow the driver to briefly disengage from active driving.

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Such vehicles (like the one in the accident) are referred to as Level 2 driverless cars.  Level 3 vehicles would be able to drive themselves in specific conditions but would need a human driver to be available upon the car’s request.  When the car encountered certain conditions that its computers were having trouble sorting out, the vehicle would verbally ask the driver to take the wheel, hopefully giving sufficient time to do so.

It should be noted that many safety experts believe that Level 2 and Level 3 AVs aren’t even worth messing around with, as they can lull drivers into a false sense of safety and faith in the car’s ability to keep them safe independently.

The tech companies and some automakers like Ford and Volvo, on the other hand, are looking to jump straight to the whole enchilada, Level 4, no driver needed at all (and they’d rather you not try to take over the vehicle, thank you very much).  Widespread consumer availability of Level 4 driverless cars is reportedly about 10 years away.

Why so long?  Well, there are a lot of situations with which driverless cars still struggle in testing, like snow and ice, emergency decision-making, and, of course, bad human drivers. Nevertheless, while 10 years can feel long in personal terms, it’s not much at all in planning and land use terms.

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I’d like to share this incredibly insightful article written by Clive Thompson in Mother JonesIf, as expected, fully driverless cars are widely in use in 10 years, it will have far-reaching implications.  This piece deals most particularly with the impacts on parking and land use.

The author and the experts that he interviews make a persuasive case that a driverless car future will mean fewer cars overall on the road and a much-reduced need for parking.  They point to, among other things, trends suggesting a declining interest in car ownership among the younger sets.  The rise of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft (companies that, not coincidentally, are heavily invested in driverless car technology) has taught people that they can, in Thompson’s words, “have a car without needing to own or ever park one.”

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So if you’re trying to picture what a driverless car future might look like, start with imagining Uber Pool without the driver.  Perhaps you won’t own a car so instead you have a monthly subscription to Uber or a similar service.

It might work like your phone plan, with several different tiers depending on how many miles you travel or what times of day you use it.  You enter your destination, an automated vehicle picks you up along with other passengers going the same way (maybe you pay a little more if you want to be by yourself because you’re in a hurry or because you want to blast Hall & Oates and you’re not into headphones).

The car drops you off.  It continues on its way, picking up and dropping off other passengers.  If no one needs a ride nearby at the moment, it finds a place to sit and wait. You got where you wanted to go quickly and safely.  You’re not paying for insurance and sudden repair bills, and you’re not worrying about where to park.

But would the driverless car future necessarily shake out this way?  Isn’t it possible that people would own the same number of cars and need the same amount of parking, that everyone will just eventually trade in their regular car and get a driverless car for themselves? 

It’s possible, but I would argue unlikely.  Car ownership has big costs as listed above (insurance, repair, buying and financing the car itself).  Speaking for myself, I would jump at the chance to have the same mobility without the headaches of car ownership.

But driverless cars don’t need to eliminate car ownership to ease parking and traffic.  If the wide availability of driverless cars convinces a family of five with three teenage children that they can do just fine with 1 or 2 cars instead of 3 or 4 or if a couple finds that they can own 1 car instead of 2 it will make a huge impact in the parking realm.

If in this future you were fully committed to not owning a car at all but still wanted to be able to pack up and head to the shore or take a road trip to see the grandparents, I’m sure that these companies will come up with something closer to what Zipcar offers but using driverless vehicles.

It’s easy to understand why parking anxiety is so prevalent in East Falls and in places like it. The neighborhood sits in a space between urban neighborhood and inner-ring suburb.  It has good public transit but lacks something like a subway or trolley line to get around quickly at more regular intervals.

Our neighborhood could sorely use more walkable amenities.  The problem is self-perpetuating because ample parking is usually a drag on density, vitality, and walkability.  I personally think that East Falls Local and East Falls Forward have done a great job of moving neighborhood sentiment on this issue.  But this technological sea change has the potential to neutralize the dispute entirely.

I believe that driverless cars and their impacts have the potential to really enliven East Falls and similarly-situated neighborhoods like Roxborough and Mt. Airy, which also run up against parking and density issues.

Zooming back from the future to the present, What does it mean for the issues that confront us today in East Falls?  Well, the developments and parking and land use decisions that we make today will be with us in 10 years and 20 years and 30 years.

While I’m not suggesting that we don’t need to provide for some parking in the present, I am offering up that we don’t need to push back against the city’s rather sensible loosening of minimum parking requirements.  We don’t need to bang developers over the head about building even more parking than is required in exchange for community support.  We don’t need to fight new development for worry of parking and traffic.

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The neighborhoods that will benefit from the coming revolution in transportation will be the ones that offer activity, walkability, density, and amenities, not abundant free parking.  While parking will still be necessary in the near future, it might behoove us to think about how to design and place new parking in such a way that the land can be more easily re-purposed when it’s no longer needed.

Driverless cars, and the abrupt changes that they will bring about, are coming.  I believe that most of those changes will be for the better: better for safety, better for efficient travel, better for the environment, and better for the way that land is used, particularly as it comes to parking.  East Falls is poised to reap great benefits from this paradigm shift, and even more so if we plan accordingly.

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Brian Donovan is a Paralegal and a Masters candidate in Temple University’s City and Regional Planning program. A lifelong resident of the Greater Philadelphia area, he has lived on Indian Queen Lane since 2013. He enjoys biking along the Schuylkill River Trail and taking his dog Scout on walking tours of beautiful East Falls.


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