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How Prepared is Seattle For Self-Driving Cars?

If driverless cars become common within a few years, how should we change our plans for light rail, tunnels, buses, trolleys, and parking?

Tech news site Scout recently published an article about the influence of driverless cars on cities, particularly Seattle. It is an in-depth article (including an insightful sci-fi short story) that makes many strong points, but two quotes make a strong case for considering the implications.

"If approved this fall, the Seattle area’s new light rail project will cost $54 billion and take 25 years to complete."


"Lyft and GM plan to launch a prototype fleet of self-driving taxis in a major U.S. city in 2017."

Whether Seattle is the site for the prototype fleet or not, they've already been tested in Kirkland. Officials are talking about the possibility, but at least for now, the plan is to plan for the possibility of a plan. Are billions of dollars and decades of work being planned for a future that will be completely different within a few years? Here's a breakdown of what Scout had to say about the effect of driverless cars along with some added insights.

Parking: Driverless vehicles can drive themselves to parking lots, freeing up space in the core, but then there's a need to figure out how they pay.

Gridlock: Driverless cars may make carpooling easier, reducing traffic; but, longer commutes become easier making longer rush hours possible.

Sharing: A driverless car can work for several people, meaning carpooling is easier; and also changing the need for mass transit. Got a driverless car you don't need during the day? Maybe you can rent it out so it is working for someone else while you're working at your desk.

Fleets: Driverless cars that can operate as fleets are being developed by Lyft as self-driving taxis, and GM for corporations and government agencies. Is the city ready to swap out a fleet, retrain mechanics, and keep up with its forward-looking citizens?

Land: Cities may regain land simply because of the reduced need for parking, and the ability to move some lots to remote locations. Costs will be incurred; but the benefits may be worth it.

Accidents: Some estimate that self-driving cars will reduce accidents by 90 percent. Reducing traffic deaths and accidents would be a strong incentive for municipalities and insurance companies. Hospitals would get less traffic. Insurance payouts would be reduced. Emergency services would have less to do. Mechanics, however, may also have less business.

Garages: If driverless cars mean each family needs fewer family vehicles, what happens to the extra garages? More ADUs? More storage for stuff? Will it mean longer times to resell houses with three or four car garages? If the driverless car is electric, is there a surge in demand for in-home charging stations?

Location: Sprawl happens. If the commute is a lot less stressful, then it can be longer and it becomes easier to live farther from the city center.

Mass Transit: Regular bus schedules will probably persist, but taking a driverless taxi from your house to your work may reduce bus ridership and improve the appeal of poorly-served neighborhoods.

Neighborhood Streets: Cars will still have to cruise streets, but it is easy to imagine a developer developing a neighborhood with central parking and shared vehicles. Cul de sacs changed America when cars became common. How will new streets be laid out?

Condos and Apartments: Parking is a major issue with various condos and apartments. A developer could save a lot of space and build more units if they offered shared vehicles as a feature. Add it to the list of shared gyms, shared common rooms, shared concierge, and shared transportation.

With the possibility of on-demand driverless cars, cars that deliver themselves to your driveway, it is easy to imagine starting the day by telling Siri, Cortana, or Alexa to take the kids to school (possibly including the neighbor's) and then come back to get ready to run another set of chores. Scientific American recently published an article about some of those implications.

Driverless cars are coming, Seattle. Done right, and cities become more livable and more affordable. Done wrong, and billions and decades on wasted on infrastructure and services that are anachronisms. Done right, and new developments are freed up to innovate. Done wrong, and there will be lots of empty three car garages.
· Cities Like Seattle Are Recklessly Unprepared For Self-Driving Cars [Scout]
· Will Robo-Ubers Kill Car Ownership? [SciAm]