For a more walkable Atlanta, should we leave the driving to robots?

Downtown could be way more pleasant and vibrant with driverless vehicles, according to this Georgia Tech vision

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A group of Georgia Tech students, at the request of Planning Commissioner Tim Keane, has looked into the future of Downtown Atlanta and found it may well be full of robotaxis, autonomous buses, bikes, less pavement, and less noise.

That’s according to the 123-page answer to a question the city put to a class of master’s students in the School of Architecture: what are the opportunities in Downtown to create networks of distinctive, active, walkable signature streets?

Their thoughts: There are a lot of opportunities to make streets more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, to get rid of parking decks, to build public places where people want to hang out, and to attract stores, restaurants, and people around the clock.

But one key part of Downtown’s future, students say, is autonomous vehicles.

“I came away from the study really convinced that driverless cars are coming and we absolutely need to plan for them,” says Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, well known for her work looking at how to retrofit the suburbs, and who oversaw the project.

Depending on who you talk to, the technologies are either right around the corner or as many as 30 years down the line. Even though driverless cars get all the media attention, it’s possible that in most cities, bus lanes will go fully driverless before car lanes will. The effect the technology could have on life — from trimming daily commutes, changing or reinforcing land-use patterns, disrupting the auto insurance industry and regulatory systems, and doing away with monthly car payments — is immense. Car companies are betting on the technology with their research time and dollars.

Now here’s the sunny prediction: robot vehicles could make Downtown street life really pleasant and make transportation cheap. The students envisioned a 2041 Downtown with a mix of vehicles on the road. Some of the personal cars drive themselves and some don’t. Robotaxis ply the streets, as do autonomous shared vehicles, like buses and minibuses. Some of the streetcar routes could be replaced by autonomous rapid transit vehicles, or ARTs.

If that scenario works out, vehicle lanes could get narrower, leaving more space for bikes and sidewalks. And if the AVs are all electric, as expected, that’ll be much quieter too. Those shared rides will be cheap, the students say. Without the need to pay a driver, the report points to a prediction out there that for $2.50, the current price of a MARTA ticket, could buy up to 18 miles in a robotaxi.

Oh, yea, and if everybody’s sharing rides, we’ll need a lot less parking, the report points out. Atop where there are now parking lots, the planners pencil a school, a theater and green spaces for music, art, yoga, dogs. Whatever you like. The development of Downtown’s glut of parking lots should create distinct neighborhoods, including one that centers on the arts in South Downtown, which is already taking shape.

Dunham-Jones said the impact of autonomous vehicles will depend a lot on how much people are willing to share them and if they’re as cheap as boosters predict. But she also said Downtown is probably a good prospect for sharing. Fewer residents have kids than their counterparts in the suburbs. And it’s the kind of place that attracts people seeking a walkable environment.

She also said it’s time to start planning and considering policies. Consider parking rules. Broadly, when you build an Atlanta building, you have to build parking spaces, even if not all the tenants want them. Some cities are loosening that requirement. For example, she said, Bethesda, Maryland decoupled parking from buildings and instead builds occasional public lots in which nearby residents can choose to rent space. Or not.

“It’s a way to make housing way more affordable because you’re not requiring every person to have to invest in parking … if they don’t need it,” she said.

Dunham-Jones said she would like to see Atlanta take a lead on autonomous vehicles. She’d like to see the city designate one or two streets for self-driving vehicles only, and let people see how they like it. In the meantime, she’s hoping the report drums up interest in Downtown, in living Downtown, and in making it more vibrant. 

Keane is currently working with Atlanta Beltline visionary Ryan Gravel on an all-encompassing look at how the city should grow to accommodate double its population. Speaking to CL during an interview in late August, he said that his team has often discussed how changes in transportation, especially technology, could play into that design.

“My response to people who ask what should we do to accommodate autonomous vehicles in the city is, we have to have a clear design for the city and then use autonomous vehicles to support that,” Keane said. “Technology shouldn’t decide how we live. We should decide how the city should grow and have technology support that direction.”

The report is filled with creative ideas and some interesting renderings, as well. If you like daydreaming about how the city can change in the decades to come, give it a long read. 

Downtown Atlanta 2041 Georgia Tech report by thomaswheatley on Scribd