Robot cars will not save the growing city

The City of Atlanta added almost 10,000 people last year and the growth trend is upward. Getting those people out of cars and into transit, bicycling and walking is imperative for resilience.

i-75/85 in Downtown Atlanta

Atlanta is betting on autonomous vehicles being a big presence in the city, starting with a $3 million Smart Corridor project on North Avenue in Midtown. According to an article in Atlanta Magazine, this is only one of “several local initiatives aiming to figure out how autonomous vehicles and wired streets are likely to change the way we live.”

The project will result in a network of sensors, transmitters, Wi-Fi hotspots, GPS receivers, and more on North Avenue, providing the information needed for self-driving cars to avoid obstacles. Atlanta sees this technology as having a big part to play in years to come:

According to Faye DiMassimo, the City Hall official who’s overseeing the initiative, “There’s no doubt that AV fleets and rideshare services will be part of our future, so we want to get systems into place so that Atlanta is not only ready but a leader.”

Now hold that thought, because there’s another element — one we can more easily quantify that technological change — that’s bearing down on the future of the city as well: population.

The City of Atlanta (not the region, the city) added 9,900 new residents in the past year, 2016–2017. This is very significant. In a single year, the level of population growth was three times larger than it was during the entire decade of 2000–2010.

(The city grew by 7,900 during 2015–2016 and the year before that it was 4,800 — a definite upward trend).

With the city growing at this accelerated rate now, we have to acknowledge a big, big desire for living intown near jobs and transit, one that shows no sign of slowing down.

Robotaxis, shuttle buses and the importance of carving out street space for pedestrians and bikes

What about shared self-driving cars, you might ask? Surely, if people don’t drive to work and other destinations in their own cars, that’s good for the growing city, right?

Robotaxis are in fact a thing that’s being talked about. A recent news report had this to say on the subject:

“One of the most financially promising markets that autonomous technology will open up is driverless on-demand taxis, which may one day come to replace regular cabs and parts of public transport in large cities. “Robotaxis” are expected to drive the wider market for car sharing and ride-hailing, which was worth $53 billion last year and could be worth $2 trillion by 2030, according to a McKinsey study published earlier this year.”

And, yes, robotaxis will reduce some need for parking in the city and that’s a good thing, no dount about it. But — there’s a small matter of the street space those cars need for shuttling people and for making “empty” trips to their next ride, and for dropping people off.

The width of that public domain is fixed. Streets can’t get wider as the city grows, not when we’ve already got buildings along them. Cities like Atlanta need to be devoting more of that width to pedestrians and bikes, not less.

Reducing the number of car trips should be a goal, with an eye on good land use

When we talk about sustainable options for mobility in cities, there’s got to be a focus on reducing car trips, particularly as population rises. And increasing the share of people who use buses and trains and bikes and sidewalks — that has to be a big part of the plan.

Turn that “robo taxi” idea into a robo-shuttle-bus that’s run by a public transit agency, and I’ll feel a little better about it. (Even then, I don’t recall anyone ever answering the question “how do we improve bus service in Atlanta?” with “replace the driver with a robot” — but I won’t quibble on that point.)

Self-driving technology is an answer to some questions for sure. There are important uses for it. But for sustainable, pedestrian-friendly scalability of population in urban places, we need a focus primarily on great urban design in walkable, compact forms — and transit types that enable mobility in a way that emphasizes equity of access and efficiency of space.

Broad Street, Downtown Atlanta

‪Cars, no matter what propels or steers them, are the least efficient mobility type for streets in a growing city‬. To quote Jeff Tumlin: the best transportation plan is always a good land-use plan. Focus on that.