How Ridesharing Services Are Disrupting Urban Design
Bob Begle and Jim Nicolow / Builder / October 9, 2018
Dining at a restaurant in Atlanta recently, not only did we arrive by Lyft, but everyone coming and going from the restaurant appeared to be using a ride-hailing service instead of their own vehicle. How will residential design, streets and parking be disrupted as a growing number of Americans rely on ride-hailing services for work and play? Will vehicles become mobile offices or entertainment spaces without the need to drive? If I don’t need to drive, do I even want to own a car?
The dominant mode of transportation has evolved over time and has had significant impacts on where and how we live. From port towns to streetcar neighborhoods to sunbelt exurbs, the way people get from one place to another has directly informed the design of our transportation infrastructure and the quality of the spaces we inhabit. The privately-owned automobile has been the dominant form of transportation in the U.S. for more than a century, and our cities and housing have been designed largely to support the privately-owned automobile’s movement, maintenance and storage.
Much attention on the exploding “gig economy” has focused on economic and workforce disruptions, but the proliferation of ride-hailing services and the coming ubiquity of autonomous vehicles are poised to significantly change the way we approach urban planning and housing design. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of drivers for services like Uber and Lyft — self-employed taxi and limousine services employees — more than tripled from 2013 to 2016, and growth is expected to continue. The advent of autonomous vehicles will accelerate the change, with Ford predicting it will have a “fully autonomous vehicle” for ride-hailing applications in 2021. While autonomous vehicles are still in the infancy stage and fully autonomous networks are decades away from actualization, the impacts of the rapidly growing ride-hailing industry are starting to become visible today, and perhaps offer a glimpse of what is to come in an autonomous future.
The opening game at the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park in 2017 was one event that exposed the pressing and current need for ride-hailing infrastructure. Developers thoroughly considered and planned a robust ride-hailing lot into stadium operations, but the system was completely overwhelmed on day one, which led to significant grumbling. The system has since been refined and problems rectified, but it was an eye opener for many planners and architects in Atlanta that the future is now.
In the year and a half since the Braves’ ride-hailing challenges, our team of designers at Lord Aeck Sargent have been thinking intently about how to accommodate ride-hailing and -sharing operations in current residential projects. At Spectrum on Spring in Atlanta, we established a dedicated “Uber Lobby” where patrons can comfortably await their ride, and at Modera Vinings in Atlanta and Crescent Music Row in Nashville, we incorporated generous entry drives for ride-hailing pick up and drop off. These relatively simple tactics begin to hint at some of the coming effects of ubiquitous autonomous vehicles on residential design, as commuters transition from the vehicle driver/owner model to mobility service consumers. Here are some other points to consider:
Parking and Roads
In urban centers, we are already seeing a reduced demand for parking due to transit, as well as an increased focus on biking, walkability and ride-hailing. In the shared-vehicle economy of the future, the demand for parking will likely further decrease, perhaps by as much as 5.7 billion square meters less. Sharing vehicles provides the opportunity for near constant use during the day, thus significantly eliminating the need for long-term, on-site parking, and self-parking autonomous vehicles do not require open-door space for dropping off passengers when parked, allowing them to occupy parking spaces that are 15 percent tighter. In response, some developers are reconsidering investments in expensive parking decks and exploring scenarios for the long-term conversion and re-use of their planned centralized parking deck –– a deck that is needed in today’s auto-centric world but may not be needed in the long term.
City streets stand to be substantially different in a future dominated by ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles. Most experts expect autonomous vehicles to operate more efficiently in terms of the actual space needed between cars and for lane widths. This, along with an increase in shared usage, implies less overall pavement needed for cars. On the other hand, the convenience of door-to-door ride-hailing services will increase pressure on vehicle loading and unloading near building entries. Future autonomous-friendly streets will seek to recoup pavement savings to create designated areas for passenger drop off and pick up, and an uptick in street-level drop offs will increase the need for safety, function and overall experience of walkability in our cities.
Urban Planning and Site Design
As urban designers, we constantly struggle to balance the need for auto-related convenience with masking unsightly parking facilities. This generally leads to less open space and more cost burdens for owners/renters due to significant parking costs. A ride-hailing present and autonomous vehicle future where less parking space is needed presents an opportunity to create more people-focused areas, which ironically harkens back to cities of the early 20th century before the proliferation of automobiles and ever-increasing roadways, pavement and parking lots.
The average privately-owned vehicle is largely unused and requires significant space, cost and resources for storage while the owner is at home, work or play. One can imagine that less vehicles will be required as each becomes more heavily utilized in a “mobility as service” versus a private ownership paradigm, with associated reduced consumption of resources in manufacturing vehicles and associated parking spaces. Though envisioning a fleet of empty vehicles circling to pick up drivers seems like it might increase energy use, one of the first studies attempting to quantify the impacts of autonomous vehicles found environmental benefits, projecting a 9 percent reduction in energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions from the current paradigm due to efficiencies available to “connected and automated” driverless vehicles.
Health and Equity
U.S. consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated that autonomous vehicles could reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90 percent and free up an hour daily that is currently spent driving to work, relax or access entertainment. Autonomous vehicles stand to increase transportation efficiency and reduce costs, and they could increase vehicle access to underserved populations for whom vehicle ownership is financially unfeasible or for those who cannot drive themselves. In particular, suburban locations that lack the density to support affordable mass transit will be better suited to find ways to increase mobility for its citizens.
Infrastructure requirements of privately owned vehicles has driven urban planning in the U.S. for several generations, often resulting in inhospitable, car-centric cities and roads. Will the coming transition from personal transportation ownership as the dominant mode of transportation to personal transportation as a service provide the impetus for reimagining our cities, roadways, buildings and homes to once again plan great places for people, not cars? It’s time to start exploring the possibilities now.