February 21, 2017 - From the February, 2017 issue

LADOT’s Seleta Reynolds’ VX2017 Panel: City Building For Autonomous Vehicles & Planning For Disruption

Amid the debate over antiquated community plans and Los Angeles General Plan, autonomous vehicles are on the verge of redefining the role of our streets in car-dominated Southern California. How will we plan for autonomous vehicles and connected fleets within our existing public transportation and civic infrastructure? TPR presents an excerpt from a VX2017/ULI-Los Angeles FutureBuild panel featuring LA Department of Transportation General Manager Seleta Reynolds, LA Planning Director Vince Bertoni, Uber’s Sarah Potts Ashton, and Arup’s John Eddy.


Seleta Reynolds

"The last time we had a major disruption in transportation was the arrival of the internal combustion engine, and we let that change our cities. We built our cities to serve transportation—and the massive infrastructure needs of these very inefficient ways to move us around the city—instead of the other way around.” -Seleta Reynolds, LA Department of Transportation General Manager

Seleta Reynolds: What is going to happen when autonomous vehicles hit the streets of the United States? This is a space where people are jockeying to be the voice of expertise. Today, let’s tease out the truth from the fiction, and shed some light on what we ought to be thinking about while those around us are busy being hypnotized by the technology.

Because let me say from the outset: This is not about technology; this is about public policy. This is not about robots; this is about people and cities.

The last time we had a major disruption in transportation was the arrival of the internal combustion engine, and we let that change the way that we made our cities. We built our cities to serve transportation—and the massive infrastructure needs of these very inefficient ways to move us around the city—instead of the other way around.

As much as autonomy is exciting, by itself, it is not likely to solve very many problems. It only becomes interesting to us in terms of mobility, equity, and accessibility when we combine it with another strong trend: shared mobility.

Autonomy is interesting because it enables shared fleets; because it enables pricing of the efficiency of the vehicle itself and the cost of using the infrastructure; and because it has the potential to allow people with disabilities, older adults, and children independence and the ability to use our city in a different way.

The things that the city of Los Angeles cares about fall into two buckets. First: How can we build safe, beautiful streets as ways to build community, economic development, solve public health problems, and deal with the public health crisis that we confront on our streets in terms of safety?

Second: How can we make sure that the arrival of technology and transportation lifts people up and benefits people in South LA, Boyle Heights, Pacoima—far-flung areas with really poor access to transit, yet that rely on it as a lifeblood to get their kids to school, to get to medical services, to get to education, and to get to jobs?

Vision Zero is our goal to get to zero traffic deaths by 2025. Last year, the number of drivers killed on our streets rose by 50 percent. The number of people walking killed on our streets rose by 35 percent. Traffic crashes are the No. 1 cause of death of children in LA County. It’s not gun violence or disease. It is entirely preventable traffic crashes and traffic violence on our streets.

A Masters of Planning candidate at USC, Rachel Junken, found that you can get to about 12 times as many jobs in an hour in a car in Los Angeles as you can in an hour on transit. When you think about what that means for people’s ability to keep their families from falling into homelessness, to bring home a stable income, you can see that these choices we make have real consequences.

We are in the midst of a massive infrastructure buildout. Because of the voters’ recognition and belief that Los Angeles is a real city that needs real, big-city transportation options, we’re going to be able to build out a very comprehensive rail network. And no matter how many robot cars exist on the streets of Los Angeles, they will never move people as efficiently as rail will.

On the other hand, two years after launching UberX, Uber’s coverage is dominant and comprehensive. As much as we build out transit, we will never build it fast enough to cover the county in this way.

But there are real hazards for us to start thinking about letting go of public transit and the delivery of public transit as a public good.

As we juggle all of these trends and think about their potential, autonomous vehicles and shared fleets together are what will allow us to really start managing what we have—instead of continuing to try to build our way out of congestion.

At urbanmobilityla.com, we’ve laid out a platform for innovation—a road map for the city in five distinct areas, ranging from data to preparing for a fully automated transit fleet. In order for government to get anywhere 10 years from now, we have to get really aggressive today.

We focused on having the city be in the business of delivering data as a service—like LADOT’s partnership with Waze; mobility as a service—trying to convene all of these mobility providers in a way that’s easy for people to understand and navigate; and infrastructure as a service, and that’s really a part of our focus today: What does the street of the future look like?

When you talk to some of the OEMs—the manufacturers—they say things like, “We won’t need traffic signals anymore because there will be this ballet of robo-taxis that will occur, and you won’t need curbs anymore on your sidewalks, and you won’t need parking garages.”

These are ideas that we’re playing around with in Los Angeles: How can we use streets for different purposes? How can we use them to build community? We are getting ready to launch a Mobility Hubs project, where we’ll try and bring together the EV car-sharing program we’re about to launch in a low-income neighborhood—the largest EV car-sharing fleet in the US—our green taxi fleet, our bikesharing fleet, and real-time transit information, and make it easy for people to make these choices.

We also got money from USDOT to focus a layered pilot in the Promise Zone, which is around MacArthur Park, where we’re going to bring on-demand transit mobility hubs and safer street design, and put kiosks in the public right-of-way and invest our public transit dollars to offset the cost of calling for and using those services.

John Eddy: I work on infrastructure. And when you look at infrastructure, you have to look at demand.

With driverless cars, access to mobility is going to go up. Vehicle miles traveled is certainly going to go up; there’s no doubt about that. But capacity is going to go up too—quite a bit—as well as reliability. So is there really a demand for lane miles? Do we need to continue investing in lane miles, from an infrastructure perspective?

The roadway network capacity is something to really embrace. We can shut those things down—turn them off, turn them on—in a future that allows for Oz behind the curtain to operate our roadway networks. So what do we do with those facilities?

It’s not going to be nirvana; we’re not going to green up the whole street. There are a lot of essential things that need to happen on roadways—one of the biggest being that people need to get in and out of cars.

That fundamental interaction happens now primarily at parking lots—off the street. But with driverless cars, it’s likely going to have to happen on the street—which means we’re going to need that space. Curb space is going to become the highest demand thing in our urban environments when it comes to mobility with a driverless car.

Data flows are going to be extraordinary. The amount of information that’s going to move from car to car, from car to base, from base back to car, and from agency to agency and to car is going to be critical. Cities’ wireless and fiber networks are going to have to be very robust to handle the huge data flow brought by autonomous vehicles.

There is a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen in infrastructure—where that curb line is going to be, if it’s in fact a curb; what’s going to be the walking location, what’s going to be the driving location, etc. Right now, there are a lot of regulations that dictate what can go under sidewalks versus under roadways; what space and clearances there are; etc. If we’re constantly moving that curb around as we evolve in this driverless world, we’re probably going to need to plan ahead and put those impediments or opportunities in the right place now to give us the most opportunity in pushing those things around.

I’d put the issue of public transit down as uncertain as well. Public transit agencies have a great opportunity for efficiency: They can take the driver out of the front seat and drop their operating costs considerably, giving them the opportunity to provide more service.

The tip of the day is: buy paint—lots of paint. You’re going to be painting curbs different colors and landmarks different ways. Buy stock in reflective signs, too—because the signage in our cities is as confusing to vehicles as it is to humans. The clutter is pretty nasty and is hard to discern. A lot of those things are going to have to be swapped out, changed, manipulated, and otherwise improved in order to bring on the autonomous future, and let us figure out how to deal with it on the policy side as well as the infrastructure side.

Sarah Potts Ashton: Uber has been doing a lot of thinking on the intersection of shared mobility and autonomous vehicles.

There are 2 billion cars in the world today—as many as the number of people in China and Europe combined. That puts into perspective the challenge that we currently have, given that we’re using most of those cars individually.

There’s a big public cost to that. Not only is it a waste of time—Angelenos spend approximately two workweeks in traffic every year, and in Mexico City it’s about five workweeks—but there’s a social impact to it as well, since you spend less time with your family and at work. There’s also a congestion impact, which creates a resulting pollution impact as well. 22 percent of all global carbon emissions come from transportation—although those cars are sitting idle 96 percent of the time.

There’s a mix in how cities are approaching this. Some are thinking about how to discourage parking in cities, and how to encourage the shared mobility space. I feel lucky that in LA, we don’t have to plead that case very hard; it’s different in cities around the world.

In Southern California, we’re asking: How do we improve the intersection of shared mobility and public transit? How do we better link the two?

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We know from the American Public Transit Association that people who use rideshare are less likely to own a car, and are more likely to take the Metro or bus. That’s important to us. We’ve done a number of different projects with transit agencies, including one in Summit, New Jersey, where we were trying to link commuters to the public transit network. That community was specifically interested in forgoing building a new and expensive parking garage, and we were able to provide first/last-mile transit solutions there.

If you’re going to get people out of their cars, two things you have to provide are affordability and reliability. This is not a new concept, but we’re looking at what really moves the needle in that space.

We launched Pool a couple years ago because we were seeing duplicitous rides in our system—people who were going from Point A to Point B at the same time and taking two different cars. We found an in-app solution for how we could optimize that.

About 20 percent of Uber rides are now Pool. In the first seven months of 2016 alone, we reduced the number of vehicle miles traveled by 32 million miles.

We are constantly looking for how to improve that system and drive that behavior. Now, with the advent of self-driving cars, we can see the intersection of the two, and now it’s kind of how can you converge the two in a meaningful way.

Our technology is still in its early days. We still have safety drivers in our cars—someone who’s essentially ghosting the car, behind the wheel at all times. Different software providers and OEMs are in different stages of research.

It’s such a moving target that it can be hard to come up with meaningful policy to address the variation of where people are in this space. But we are ready and willing to partner with cities, the state, and the federal government to share what we know about where the technology is and where we think it’s going, in order to inform policy and urban planning decisions. 

Seleta Reynolds: Vince, as LA’s director of city planning, how do you tie this together when you’re trying to forecast the future of the city?

Vince Bertoni: A few things come to mind for me in terms of driverless vehicles and land use. The first is a fundamental detachment from your vehicle.

We’re not talking about eliminating vehicles. There are going to be as many cars as there are now—maybe more. But a fundamental difference is that you’re not going to be attached to your car. That’s going to be a radical change for some of us, especially in the West.

We’re going to go from being primarily drivers to primarily passengers—not necessarily in control of everything. The vehicle is no longer going to be your way to get around, where you store everything.

The second is collectivization. Vehicles are now going to be in fleets, and they’re going to be stored in a different place than their destination. Decisions about vehicle deployment are going to be much more centralized. That’s a very different way of thinking about things.

When it comes to technology—whether it’s manufacturing or communications—to look forward, sometimes you need to look backwards. I think about where we’re going now as similar, in some ways, to where we were around 150 years ago in terms of how we deal with ownership. Maybe we won’t all do what I plan on doing—which is not owning a vehicle and just using rideshare—but car ownership is going to be greatly reduced.

That’s fundamental when it comes to land use long term. Cars won’t go away, but we may not need to actually store them as much. How will we deal with private property? If you talk to any developer or architect, one of the first things they do on a project is figure out the parking requirement. That drives everything. What happens when that goes away? Our buildings start to look different, and our cities start to look different.

There are a lot of opportunities here. But for some communities, this is going to be scary. A lot of the time, we put parking in places where we don’t want buildings or people. Some cities actually see it as a buffer. When I was Community Development Director in Beverly Hills, for example, a lot of people saw the parking lots south of Wilshire as a very important buffer between the department stores and the residential areas.

Parking also acts as a buffer in individual homes. Right now, there’s just a car in my neighbor’s backyard; soon, I’ll actually have to deal with people living there. When these parking spots no longer have any economic value, and that pressure goes away, we’ll have to think about that—and there’s going to be some conflict there.

Streets are also going to be looked at fundamentally differently. Right now, most of us are drivers, so we look at streets as the person driving the car. Now, more of us are going to be passengers, pedestrians, and, hopefully, bicyclists. We’re going to be lots of different things, so these streets are going to function very differently. The people—quite frankly, the voters—are no longer going to be insisting upon everything working best for the driver. The geometry and landscape of the street will start to look very different. That’s going to be very powerful. It’s going to impact the entire city—because streets are everywhere.

John Eddy: I want to pick up on the issue of ownership and partnering. We do a lot of P3s around the world. The existing condition right now is that there is cross-pollination of currency in every one of those deals. The idea that the ownership of a company would change, and suddenly there’s a country with a name that everybody’s concerned about versus another country that everyone is flexible with—that money is flowing in both directions. The currency is quite a motley crew.

The real challenge is that there’s a new political challenge in corporate governance, and that political climate is: If you’re silent, what are you doing? And if you’re loud, oh my goodness, what are you doing? We just went through it over the weekend, where there was silence and then there was noise, and both of them had ramifications for all the organizations.

Vince Bertoni: There are lots of impacts in my realm of land use. One thing we need to start thinking about is: What do we do with the parking spaces? If you think about it, they don’t all go away; they’re reduced; it’s all about collectivization; who owns them? Where do we need to reserve them? Does the government decide to do it, like a public utility? Does the private sector step up to the plate? Do you encourage that? We’re going to be making a lot of policy decisions that impact that as we go along, and that’s going to have ramifications in terms of how we use land.

Audience Question: This relates to how our cities are designed. As Uber develops these self-driving cars, do we need to involve them in shaping our street design standards? Will they have a say in that? And if so, what’s the best way to positively involve them so that we end up with the cities that we want? 

Seleta Reynolds: Let’s broaden the question to Ford, GM, and auto manufacturers. Should they be engaged in the actual design standards that we create for our cities? Sarah referenced wanting a national standard; John talked about reflective signs being important for autonomous vehicles.

I would say that we have many examples where we have tried to write national standards—street design standards, in particular. An example of an infrastructure program is the interstate system that we’ve delivered that has had extraordinarily negative impacts for cities. It’s almost impossible to write a guideline that works effectively “from the mountains of Maine to the deserts of Arizona,” as the MUTCD likes to say.

I do think that we will be challenged to come up with something that works for the unique characteristics and needs of cities and also works for the auto manufacturers. John, do you have insight or ideas about that question?

John Eddy: The big question is going to become: Will the technologist divulge the information that they need to divulge on how adaptive their vehicles are? That’s currently close to the vest, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But the dialogue needs to start.

Really, it’s going to be a negotiation: How much does the city of LA need to do to help Uber implement its program? How much is Uber willing to do for the city of LA to implement its program? That dialogue needs to happen sooner rather than later, with all the OEMs and technologists and a very strong representative of the cities.

Sarah Potts Ashton: My background is in the city side of things, and I’m particularly empathetic to the planning challenges that cities face in this space. We are exploring pilots to consider working with local communities to rethink some of these pinch points that we see.

Piloting is a good way to learn for us to learn about the exact data we’re talking about, the data that’s most impactful from a planning perspective locally, versus data that people might want to have but that is highly confidential and has to do with people’s individual behavior, which we won’t share. We’re still learning how to effectively scrub that data in a way that provides a helpful tool for policymakers and planners.

We just launched Uber Movement in some of our cities, and are about to launch it in LA in two weeks, where we’re actually using the travel times of our cars to help predict traffic patterns. If you close down the 405 for a weekend, what do we think it would do to ETAs for cars across the city? We can look back and develop predictive models for that.

We’re asking: What is the data that we do have that we think could be helpful? How could we scrub it? How could ensure it’s most effective for local communities and at the state level as well? We have a lot of learning to do there as well. Right now it’s super conceptual, and I think we all know we need to get down to the specifics.

Seleta Reynolds: There’s shared interest on both the public and the private side in developing new financing models. As a city, I can’t go out and give you a pristine, eminently mappable, highly reflective, beautifully painted set of roadways under the current financing system available to me, and the money that flows to cities for those reasons. Even the money that voters give us through sales taxes is necessary to provide lifeline services, because the state and federal government have left cities to fend for ourselves in the wilderness. That’s an area where there ought to be a big discussion—financing models and revenue models—because both of us stand to benefit. 

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.