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Study Asks: How Will Driverless Cars Change Downtown Columbus?

Brent Warren Brent Warren Study Asks: How Will Driverless Cars Change Downtown Columbus?A potential redesign of Third and Fourth streets downtown. All graphics courtesy of the OSU studio class.
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The 2016 Smart City Challenge win put Columbus at the forefront of a national conversation about autonomous vehicles, and plenty of people have since weighed in with opinions about what the technology will mean for the future of cities.

A group of City and Regional Planning students at OSU recently studied the issue for a studio class – specifically looking at how Downtown Columbus could be impacted by driverless vehicles – and presented their findings to the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District.

The students took a broad look at the many ways that even a partial transition to the new technology could transform Downtown.

Although experts disagree about when exactly driverless cars will come online and how widely they will be adopted – and also, crucially, about whether the vehicles will be shared or owned – most agree that the need for parking in dense neighborhoods will be greatly reduced.

Owners of personal driverless cars could simply send them home to park while they’re at work, or to a cheaper spot somewhere outside of Downtown. They could also, as one of the student presenters pointed out, direct their cars to drive around providing rides for other people all day, earning money for the car owner.

Without a need to provide a parking spot for nearly every user of every Downtown building, as many as 200 acres of land Downtown could be opened up for dense, mixed-use development, according to the students’ research.

Although fewer cars will be sitting empty in parking spaces during the day, there probably won’t be fewer cars coming into and out of Downtown – there could actually be significantly more. That means designing effective pick up and drop off zones will be important, especially in places with lots of people coming and going at the same time, like large office buildings.

These two images show how the first floor of a parking garage could be reconfigured to accommodate autonomous vehicles.

Capital Crossroads as an organization is no stranger to this debate. When CU talked to Kacey Brankamp and Cleve Ricksecker last year about the organization’s new transit pass program, they described it as a way to address the current demand for office parking without building more garages, since “what’s coming down the pike is a much lower demand for parking.”

Ricksecker, though, expressed concern during the presentation that Downtown streets could become “overwhelmed with vehicles,” potentially negating any improvements to the urban fabric that would come from eliminating surface parking lots.

The student group pointed to narrower driving lanes and a reduced need for on-street parking, saying that would free up space for travel lanes reserved for driverless buses or trains, as well as for greenways geared toward walking and biking.

“The applications of AV technology are far-reaching, and transit vehicles will not be untouched,” stated the report prepared by the student group. “In fact, many point to transit as the perfect starting point for early adoption.”

Jason Sudy, Principal at OHM Advisors and instructor of the studio class, said that policy and planning will play a large role in determining how Downtown Columbus ultimately develops – whether that’s as a dense, transit-centered neighborhood, or as a central business district even more overrun with cars than it already is.

Zooming out and looking at the Columbus region as a whole, Sudy added that one distinct possibility is that driverless vehicles encourage increased density in central areas like Downtown while also encouraging even more sprawl on the outskirts of the city, since commuting will become so much easier.

Stay tuned to CU for more coverage of autonomous vehicles and of the Smart Columbus initiative. 

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