Local sustainability scholar sees cities of future with far fewer cars
Nico Larco is preparing for the coming of self-driving cars, and he can barely hide his enthusiasm.
He sees auto-oriented cities going the way of the horse and buggy, and sooner than we think.
“The shift this will have on cities will be as significant as when cars were first introduced in the city,” Larco told Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller in April. “This is going to be dramatic.”
Larco quoted studies predicting the number of cars on the road could plummet by 90 percent.
Parking, which now consumes 19-27 percent of the land in cities, will be chopped down to size.
“I think surface parking lots will probably pretty much go away,” he said. “All of a sudden, that becomes available land. Density can increase tremendously.
“This is a huge opportunity for sustainability.”
Larco, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Oregon, cofounded the Sustainable Cities Initiative, based in the university’s Old Town campus in the White Stag building.
His research has been published in scholarly journals, in addition to The New York Times, Forbes and the Financial Times of London, and he is in high demand internationally as a speaker and panelist.
“As for the sphere of AVs [autonomous vehicles], the sharing economy and e-commerce, there probably isn’t anyone in the country right now as knowledgeable about those topics and how they are likely to influence city form and function as Nico,” said Marc Schlossberg, co-director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative.
The technical capabilities of autonomous vehicles are not Larco’s focus. Rather, he tracks the social and urban revolution in store as AVs parlay the efficiencies of online retailing and the sharing economy. And those phenomena are evident all around.
“We’re already seeing results on parking demand due to Uber and Lyft,” he said.
The ease of car sharing is luring people, especially the younger generation, to sell their cars, and others to give up second cars.
“I think the shift is kind of unavoidable,” he said.
As for e-commerce, “It’s already happening. It’s absolutely happening.”
Loading up the SUV at the supermarket or big box store will be replaced by visits to “guideshops,” showrooms high on personal attention that don’t stock products. Those are delivered to your door later. “Omnichannel” stores will offer both products and online buying.
The Warby Parker Annex, an optical shop that opened last year at 817 NW 23rd Ave., is part of this trend, in which shopping becomes an entertaining experience. While checking out eyewear, shoppers can play classic arcade games.
For more than a decade, Williams-Sonoma Home, 338 NW 23rd Ave., has been primarily a showroom where furniture is ordered for later delivery.
Freed from the need to drive, find a parking place and haul merchandise home, shoppers will not worry about proximity to a parking structure.
“Research says we will need 10 to 15 percent of current parking spaces,” Larco said.
Traffic lanes can be narrower (because AVs are much better drivers than humans) and fewer lanes will be needed to move the diminished number of vehicles, he said. Excess space in the right of way can be converted to more productive uses, freeing up prime real estate for development and public uses.
The time for investors and developers to recalibrate is now, he said. Larco admits that even he was taken aback when a manager from a large San Francisco company gave him this advice: “Number one, don’t build any parking that you don’t absolutely need, because there’s no guarantee that you will be able to pay the mortgage or bond 30 years from now.”
Any parking structures planned today should have high ceilings and avoid sloped floors so they can be adapted for other uses when parking demand dries up, he advised.
Not all rosy
After absorbing the stunning potential Larco sees around the corner, one might think he is optimistic about the future. Just like OPB host Miller and this reporter, you would be mistaken. Larco insists he is tremendously concerned.
“I am not at all gleeful about this future,” he said. “I’m an optimist, and [yet] this terrifies me.”
That’s because making driving easier may trigger more driving. A Fortune article by David Z. Morris explains:
“Rather than simply reducing the time and effort we spend moving around, every new form of transportation from tamed horses onward has reshaped society in such a way that people wound up spending more time and effort traveling—one aspect of an economic phenomenon known as the Jevons paradox. The most recent manifestation of this is the ‘induced demand’ that often instantly clogs newly built highways.”
Larco said the comfort of a 20-minute commute in a self-driving car may convince workers that living 30 minutes from the job is no problem.
“It could be a recipe for horrible sprawl,” he said. “It could expand the urban footprint dramatically as people will want to live farther out.”
While many predict AVs will be hired per ride rather than privately owned, it could go the other way. That could mean wealthy people owning more vehicles than they do now and filling the roadways with unoccupied AVs running their errands. If they trigger traffic jams, there’s no pain for the “zombie” vehicles stuck on the road.
“It could be disastrous,” he told the NW Examiner, “potentially putting at risk all the things I’ve worked for all my life.”
City leads in autonomous vehicle research
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Saltzman launched the Smart Autonomous Vehicles Initiative in April, inviting companies to test self-driving cars and related technologies in the city.
Nico Larco of the University of Oregon’s Sustainable Cities Initiative sees the program as “an opportunity to lead nationally” in this field.
Larco believes the city “is doing a really great job and should be commended” for its approach.
“They’re not just trying to get AVs at all costs,” he said, but putting city goals ahead of the technology.
“Portland can show how to ‘do AV smart’ by working with transportation providers and the public to implement testing and piloting of this technology, while advancing public safety, protection of the environment and transportation access for everyone, regardless of income.
“Autonomous vehicles have the potential to be a truly transformative technology. They could benefit our communities by reducing crashes, improving first and last mile connections for public transit riders, and reducing the high cost of owning a private vehicle. They also have the potential to significantly increase traffic congestion, vehicle miles traveled, and climate pollution. The protections and rules of the road adopted by state and local governments will substantially determine how much benefit and how much burden we experience.”