Lessons on autonomous vehicles inspired by this year's International Downtown Association Conference
#SouthParkStories: Preparing for a Future of Autonomous Vehicles
by Josh Kreger
Show attendees sit in the Chrysler Portal self-driving concept car at CES International, Thursday, January 5, 2017 in Las Vegas. (Jae C. Hong AP Photo)

For organizations that manage downtown areas, one of the highlights of the year is the   International Downtown Association's (IDA) Annual Conference. At IDA conferences professionals from downtown organizations across the world share their ideas for tackling urban issues and shaping dynamic city centers. For South Park BID, it's an opportunity to make sure that the ideas that guide our vision for our rapidly-developing 52-block district reflect the research and experience of our peers in other cities.
At this year's conference in Winnipeg, a panel of experts provided insights on preparing cities for shared and autonomous vehicles. They spoke about the technological changes that will reshape the public realm, and the ways in which these changes will both complement and challenge existing transit projects.

The rapid advancements in driverless technology are  well documented, but how soon will we see that technology on our streets, and how should a neighborhood like South Park prepare? 

Panelist  Rod Schebesch , Transportation Leader from Stantec Urban Places in Calgary, emphasized how quickly these changes are happening. In many places, driverless vehicles are on public roads right now. While that progress is exciting, there are a vast set of challenges to address before fully driverless cars are mainstream. Some of these hurdles are technical in nature, others force us to consider  ethical dilemmas , and involve changing public opinion .

A 1957 advertisement features a driverless vehicle
Regulatory questions aside, self-driving technology performs best when there are clear rules for driving, and everyone follows them. When a traffic light is out, lane markings are unclear, or a traffic officer is directing drivers using hand signals, autonomous vehicles do not perform as well California is already phasing out  Botts dots - the white ceramic dots that warn you when you're drifting from your lane - because technologies like the thermoplastic lane lines are easier for autonomous vehicles to read. 

According to Schebesch, "Cities of the future will likely have sensors built into the streetscape that can communicate with autonomous vehicles to help them navigate and avoid collisions." Legislation may soon be coming that mandates such sensors in all new vehicles sold. To take a step toward this (and avoid digging up new roads in the near future), cities should start thinking about incorporating those sensors when completing projects that require street or sidewalk reconstruction, as well as incorporating sufficient loading zone space into upcoming projects.

We also need to understand that autonomous cars (even as part of a ridesharing strategy) will not replace transit in big cities - in the absence of more road capacity, vehicle congestion will remain a major problem. A 2017 study by the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies found that approximately half of the trips made by ridesharing are ones that would have been made by walking, biking, public transit, or avoided altogether. If the convenience of autonomous vehicles encourages more people to take a car alone, send an unoccupied car on an errand, or increases commute distances, congestion may increase . Industry leaders envision a future of shared autonomous vehicles - operating on demand or along fixed routes - which could help provide  first/last mile transportation

For dense neighborhoods like South Park, we need to keep investing in multiple forms of transportation and think about how these modes will interact.

A small autonomous bus made by Transdev. (The Source)
Here in LA, pilot projects are already redefining traditional notions of transp
ortation. Last week, Metro issued a request for proposals for a new on-demand microtransit service that will augment existing buses and trains with smaller shuttle-like vehicles. The current plan doe s not include autonomous vehicles, but Metro may consider the technology in the long run. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation is partnering with  BlueLA to launch a new electric vehicle carsharing service focused on increasing mobility for underserved communities. Soon,  FASTLink DTLA plans to provide their own on-demand microtransit  service around Downtown using electric cars (Teslas, no less). As transportation evolves, these shared models bring Angelenos closer than ever to a future that incorporates autonomous transit.

It is our hope that autonomous microtransit can complement the other transit initiatives happening regionally. These projects include undergrounding the light rail tracks on Flower street and building a high capacity transit line connecting South Park, Fashion, Industrial and Arts Districts. South Park BID's Infrastructure and Planning Committee reviews and weighs in on these and other issues bi-monthly - to sign up for meeting updates - click here . If you're interested in being an advocate for improved transit in South Park and the region, click here to let us know how you'd like to help.

Josh Kreger is South Park BID's Director of Real Estate and Planning. He spearheads the BID's retail attraction and infrastructure projects. Josh holds a Juris Doctor from the University of San Diego School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of Maryland.

Josh can be reached at  josh@southpark.la, or (213) 663-1123.
If you'd like to contribute a South Park Story, please contact  wallis@southpark.la .
South Park Business Improvement District | 24/7 HOTLINE: 866-560-9346 | www.southpark.la
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