When we talk about the future of cities, it’s natural to wonder exactly who is in the driver’s seat. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are dominating the conversation around the future of mobility — so how do we make sure that this cutting-edge technology doesn’t leave anyone behind?
This September’s Walk/Bike/Places in New Orleans will tackle the tough questions of adjusting to a more autonomous future in a session that includes panelist Tony Jordan, of Portlanders for Parking Reform. In this session, we’re leaving no autonomous transportation topic unexamined, from the interaction between autonomous vehicles and parking reform to the future of car ownership.
Q: In the past, you've stated: 'It's becoming conventional wisdom that AVs will lead us either to a utopia of vehicle sharing or a dystopia of mega-commuting.' Which one do you think will it be?
A: It’s a local or regional predicament that depends a lot on where we are as cities. I think in some places, it’s likely to be the “bad” scenario, and in others it’ll be a positive transformation. It all depends on how much we focus on autonomous transit over individual vehicles, and how much cities get ahead of this curve by discouraging additional car ownership and preparing the way for different mobility options. I’m hopeful that many cities will move toward more shared mobility, but I suspect it’s going to be pretty mixed.
Q: The dialogue around AVs has often centered on single-user autonomous cars. Do you think that people should be paying more attention to autonomous shared vehicles, like shuttles and minibuses that are being piloted in cities across the US?
A: One frustration I have is that it seems very popular among “Transportation Twitter” to highlight negative aspects of AV technology, or take a very contrarian or skeptical tone toward autonomy. I gave up my car years ago, and I have kids, and in Portland we have many car-share options and transportation networks. But a lot of people hold the idea that other people can go without cars, and never apply that idea to themselves. We should embrace the optimistic view, that when you throw AVs into the mix, these people who’ve never considered giving up their car can finally envision themselves without one. Taking this view opens up opportunity and flexibility, where you don’t get people discounting attempts to move transportation forward. To me, it’s harmful when folks say the technology will never be ready, or never be possible. I think if we talk it up and act like it’s going to happen the right way, we can make it happen the way we want it to!
Q: What is one thing that is missing from the public conversation about autonomous vehicles?
A: Focusing on transit is one important thing. But something I don’t hear enough about would be our plan for all the cars that we already own. People talk about the turnover to AVs, and I wonder how much of an impediment to this transition it will be that people today still buy and owe money on manually driven cars. I wonder what’s going to happen with this existing stock of vehicles — will people get rid of them? And how will they get rid of them? Will there be a buy-back, and at what price point? Where will they go, and how will people get out of this pattern without severe financial problems? People owe money on their cars, and they may not be able to sell them when the time comes. I don’t know the answer, but I am interested to discuss this further at Walk/Bike/Places.
Q: If it’s likely that widespread use of AVs will lower demand for parking, how do you think cities will adjust?
A: I worry that a lot of cities are still building parking with public money and operating with outdated parking requirements. It’s going to be difficult to correct those mistakes going forward. But, hopefully we will see space used for on-street parking changed to transit or any number of other, better uses. Hopefully we’ll see redevelopment of legacy parking structures — we will have to see about the convertibility of those structures.
Overall, there will be a revenue crunch as cities look at how they’ll replace parking revenue that’s lost. A forward-looking city will start capitalizing on this trend now, using policy to point us more toward a positive scenario rather than a negative scenario. This is going to lead to a lot of unprecedented questions, like what to do with underground parking structures.
Q: You’ve noted that cities will have a “10-year window for parking reform.” What would success look like in that window?
A: To start with, they should certainly not require anyone to build parking, and hopefully stop building municipal parking, unless necessary for some legal reason. As a whole, we need to move toward implementing policies that discourage current use of surface lots and encourage redevelopment. Moreover, I think that in a lot of places, there’s a lot of underpriced parking, even in cities that use dynamic pricing. They’re not getting as much out of the public assets as they could.
This period of time where we have an asset we’re under-utilizing – it’s short. The key is working on parking demand. If you’re not moving towards charging more for on-street parking, or using residential permits, and building new infrastructure and finance and shifting to different modes, you’re missing out. Taxing commuter parking is even an option, as a proxy for congestion pricing. It doesn’t hit on any of the privacy concerns or infrastructure needs that can become barriers to congestion pricing. Overall, the big question for parking reform remains: How do we strike while the iron’s hot?
Q: How hard is parking reform? Is it the third rail of urban planning?
A: There is a lot of assumption that parking reform is hard. At the same time, this means that it’s kind of a new space for people to work on as a primary focus. It means that while there are challenges, there is a lot of opportunity. I’d say that it’s not as bad as people think. When you ask people, of course they want to park for free. But that’s a result of the fact that we haven’t had an honest parking conversation in this country. When you ask people if they know how much it costs, they almost never realize the true price of parking. So, I find that when you actually engage people honestly about it and point out the alternatives to spending millions on garages, for example, they stop and examine their stance and put up less resistance to parking reform. Of course you don’t win all the time — it’s like any other policy. But, it’s only hard because people have assumed so.
Q: Which Walk/Bike/Places session(s) are you looking forward to attending? See attached.
A: The Super Session focused on inequality looks really interesting — I’m an organizer, so I’m very interested in a lot of community-first sessions that are coming up at Walk/Bike/Places. As transportation advocacy groups, we often suffer from lack of diverse outreach.
Q: Do you have any special connection to New Orleans? Do you have a New Orleans story? If not, is there something about this host city that you are looking forward to seeing/experiencing?
A: I’ve never been — so, I’m interested and excited to check it out for the first time!