TWO HYPOTHETICAL PLANS—ONE FOR A CITY, ONE FOR A SUBURB—PRESENT A VISIONARY RETHINKING OF PARKING LOTS
Like many American downtowns, Atlanta’s
is primarily a job center with mostly oneway streets designed to move commuters on or off the expressways as quickly as possible. In 2016, the city commissioned my urban design students to prepare a vision for its downtown for the next 25 years, including identifying the best way to build a network of walkable streets and increasing the residential population.
In an area of only 5,500 residents, we counted 95,000 parking spaces. We stitched together the fragments of pedestrian-friendly street frontages into a network and looked for ways that autono- mous vehicles could encourage its development. We overlaid it with an autonomous rapid transit system of driverless all-electric shuttles, which are operating today on limited routes in more than 40 pilot projects around the world. We assumed fleets of shared AVS that would be integrated, along with ART, into the existing rail system. Then we began retrofitting clusters of parking lots into new mixed-use neighborhoods.
Along the significantly more walkable, more livable streets, we proposed a range of amenities to attract new residents: an enriched arts district, urban farming and bike-oriented development, as well as greater affordability and mobility. By building on only half of the surface lots and a few aging, low-rise, nonhistoric buildings, while assuming that new buildings would not require parking, our plan would accommodate 60,000 new residents by 2041. Two years later, downtown Atlanta is seeing enormous new investment— some of which is building on our vision.
The suburban context of El Camino Real in Silicon Valley presents a similar abundance of surface parking lots and aging, low-rise buildings, despite suffering from an acute housing shortage and affordability crisis. Noted urban planner Peter Calthorpe has proposed addressing these problems while averting the added congestion from increased zero- and solo-passenger AV trips. He calls for changing the commercial zoning to allow higher density housing and installing ART in dedicated lanes along the 45-mile stretch. His analysis shows this could accommodate more than 250,000 housing units, whose residents could live without a car.
While both of these are hypothetical plans, they present powerful visions that can help communities discuss the zoning, investments and regulations that will help them capitalize on AVS to achieve their larger goals. Should communities plan to invest in ART? How might they enrich the experience of getting to, waiting for, and sharing rides? Should they consider lobbying their state legislators to require tolling the use of streets—especially for zero- or solo-passenger rides? These discussions need to occur ahead of widespread AV adoption—like right now. ELLEN DUNHAM-JONES is a professor of urban design at the Georgia Institute of Technology.