Exploring the Impact of Autonomous Vehicles on Downtown Columbus

“Autonomous vehicles are inevitable,” stated Adam Trimmer, a senior city and regional planning (CRP) major, to begin a presentation at the office of Capital Crossroads and Discovery Special Improvement Districts. Trimmer, with other students in the CRP transportation studio, detailed the implications of this growing technology on urban design and development practices for the future of Downtown Columbus.

According to the studio’s research of prior studies and calculations, there will be a 25% adoption rate of full, self-driving vehicles by 2035, accounting for a predicted 10% reduction in the need for parking in Downtown Columbus. What does this mean and how does it affect development and transit policy for the downtown area? One benefit of autonomous vehicles (AV) would be the need for less roadside parking and surface parking lots, a result of the car’s ability to self-drive and park in a location outside the downtown area. AV can also be deployed as multi-passenger shuttles, adding to the technology’s benefits of improved safety, access and commute times.

According to Matt Hughes (BSCRP ’17), one clear impact of the transition to driverless cars would be the design of downtown streets and how they operate. In a sectional image of 4th and 3rd Streets, the new plan would replace the parking lane for exclusive bus and shared AV transit and create a pit stop and buffer lane for AV passenger drop-off and pick-up, while maintaining the existing bikes lane with a new green spine that separates it from the other lanes. Changes would also include a narrowing of the lanes from eleven feet to nine feet, achievable due to the increased efficiency of AV. The students also predicted traffic congestion could be lowered by designating alleys and lower levels of parking garages for pick-up and drop-off in high volume passenger areas.

“We should stop making expensive infrastructure decisions based on our current mobility model, such as adding new lanes and new parking garages,” commented Sarah Lagpacan, a city and regional planning senior, highlighting the need for decision-makers to create and prioritize policies regarding what the city should fund, implement and furnish to anticipate and encourage autonomous vehicles.

Lagpacan also made several infrastructure recommendations such as establishing controlled-access facilities as early locations for the deployment of AV and maintenance of pavement markings, signage, and snow removal at a standard in which AV can operate safely. Additional recommendations outlined the need to install dedicated short-range communications equipment to enable data-driven traffic management which will allow the implementation of dynamic speed limits and pedestrian crossing prioritization.

Jason Sudy, studio instructor and Principal at OHM Advisors, stressed that this emerging technology, if unchecked, can exacerbate issues such as sprawl, traffic congestion, real estate instability and degradation of urban form. Summarizing his students’ efforts, he stated the students utilized “a combination of research, planning knowledge, stakeholder input and informed extrapolation” to illustrate “what initial steps planners must take to guide the coming revolution in transportation.”