Lexington should be proactive, highly agile, and adaptable in pursuing changes to transportation and land use policy that harness the benefits of autonomous vehicles (AV) and limit the potential detriments.
While computer technology has improved rapidly and dramatically over the last 20 years, conversely, automobiles have traditionally followed a much more deliberately slow-paced and methodical development process, primarily to ensure that safety is enhanced with every iteration of advancement. But as cars have become more like computers, there has been a shift in the design process, from designing a car that can withstand a crash to designing a car that avoids the crash in the first place. With prices dropping and the availability of driver-assistance technology increasing, it is evident that the future of transportation will be tied to a smart connected city infrastructure, known in the industry as Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). This, in turn, will allow future innovations that will create more travel options.
Just as computer technology, the internet, and smart phones have transformed almost every aspect of daily lives, connected and automated vehicles will change the way citizens navigate and pay for travel. There are many experts that have envisioned a utopian future of low cost electric vehicles transporting people from door to door, while others see a dystopia of clogged streets and negative impacts on health, as fewer choose to walk. The truth is likely to be found somewhere in between these two visions, with both new benefits and unforeseen consequences. What is clear is that change is coming, and it is coming faster than ever expected. Automated and connected vehicles will affect the economy, land use decisions, data sharing, pricing, safety, available travel options, congestion, customer service, retail establishments, employment, and many other aspects of daily lives. Irrespective of the projections about how fast the full adoption of these services will be at full market saturation, the time to plan for them is now.
It is important to remember, first, that people make places and places make people. Whatever the mobility options, Lexington should adopt a “people first” attitude when preparing for a shift in land use patterns, and ensure that the thrill of a new technology enables a better future, rather than having it dictate behaviors. Lessons should be learned from society’s last major transportation shift, where single-occupancy vehicles dictated the landscape with very little regard to the unintended consequences.
In order to prepare for the future of autonomous vehicles, Lexington should be increasingly flexible in parking requirements, favoring those high-intensity uses that are well-suited as mobility hubs to aggregate and provide seamless transfers between a growing number of mobility options and ownership models. It will also be important to consider designated curbside or private drop-off and pickup areas in lieu of traditional surface parking spaces, as parking in close proximity to destinations will be less crucial. Additionally, Lexington must prepare for AV technologies to change the needs of private industries, particularly freight and retail, with less space dedicated to showrooms and increased demand for warehouses and logistical square footage.
There are a great many unknowns when it comes to the full spectrum of impacts autonomous vehicles will have on transportation, land use, and society as a whole. What is clear is that Lexington needs to strive to be proactive in anticipating these changes, leveraging them for their positive attributes while minimizing the negative. This new technology should be not be feared but embraced, and Lexington should look to be a leader in the state, region, and nation in this regard.
- Update the Zoning Ordinance to accommodate and anticipate autonomous vehicles.