The future of self-driving cars in Houston is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to alter the city landscape, from concrete parking garages to the city’s trademark winding highways. All of it could change over the course of the next 10 to 20 years as autonomous vehicles usher in a new era. Or not.
“From a theoretical standpoint, cities don’t have to do anything,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of public works and engineering for traffic operations at the City of Houston. “The whole concept behind autonomous vehicles is they will work with existing infrastructure.”
In fact, Weatherford said cities like Houston have no choice but to wait and see what sorts of changes autonomous vehicles will bring about. One theory is that self-driving cars may eliminate the need for downtown’s parking garages, but it is just a theory at this point, he said.
“I can’t go and proactively take away parking today because there won’t be a need for it in 10 years,” Weatherford said. “We’re very much involved in what’s happening and seeing where things are going, but no city has a choice but to wait and see on autonomous vehicles.”
Weatherford said he’s more excited about the advent of connected vehicles that will communicate with infrastructure. For example, a signal preparing to turn red can tell a car to slow down or stop. Improved traffic flow, fewer red light runners and safer streets are highly possible, he said.
A different Houston?
While Houston may become a denser city, autonomous cars might make it just as easy to live several hours away, said Kinder Baumgardner, managing principal of SWA in Houston.
The sunbelt region has opportunities to use the technology in the most transformative ways, but he doesn’t think large swaths of green walking parks in place of where streets used to be is one of them.
“Cities like Houston are complicated and built around the automobile,” Baumgardner said. “We don’t use the car in Houston the same way someone in Austin does. The convenience automobiles bring to urban life are on full display in cities like Houston or Los Angeles.”
In Houston residents know where the best bakery or laundry mat is and they use their car to get there.
“Self-driving cars potentially makes it easier for you to get from place to place," Baumgardner said.
However, Weatherford is concerned autonomous vehicles may lead to even more congestion, at least in the short term. If a family of four uses one car to rush all four people off to work or school at various times during the day, Weatherford said that car will spend more time on the road going back and forth, thereby potentially clogging up roadways.
Weatherford also expects the state or federal government to take the lead when it comes to regulations.
Some are already pushing for the government to act. In June last year the National Association for City Transportation Officials pushed for auto manufacturers and cities to plan for fully autonomous vehicles as opposed to cars manufactured by Tesla today that require a driver’s attention.
“Instead of adapting our cities to accommodate new transportation technologies, we need to adapt new transportation technologies to our cities in ways that make them safer, more efficient, and better places to live and work,” the association’s chair Janette Sadik-Khan said in a release at the time.
“A phenomenal amount of the world around us is defined by the car,” said Brian Jencek, HOK's Director of Planning. “As the technology is developing we don’t yet know how it will shape our world. That said, there are tremendous opportunities.”
Those opportunities may allow Houstonians to trade in their old, vehicle dependent life and embrace a lifestyle where they use ride-sharing apps that send autonomous vehicles to their doorstep.
“In my mind urban sprawl is a question Houston and every big city has to ask,” said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships at Rice University, Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “Autonomous cars will allow a certain segment of users to stay in the same vein of urban sprawl. Some people may live even further away. If that’s the only result of the advent of autonomous cars in a place like Houston, that would be a missed opportunity.”
Even if the future people envision looks different, everyone seems to agree it will take time to get there.
“The technology is there,” Shelton said. “There are autonomous cars on the road right now. But will it be a full shift from drivered cars to autonomous cars overnight? No.”
And it might be messy for a while.
“People like me who are driving a 26-year-old Range Rover next to the self-driving Tesla might face more pressure from insurance companies while rates for others go down,” Baumgardner said.
Houston’s Downtown Management District is starting a 10-month planning process that will in part address the impact autonomous vehicles will have on parking garages, curb pressures for pickup and drop off as well as how signal technology will interface with the cars.
“I think cell phones are a perfect example of trying to think about where the technology is going to take us,” said Lonnie Hoogeboom, director of planning, design and development with the Houston Downtown Management District.
Smartphones like the iPhone have not only revolutionized the way people communicate or consume information, but data plans require infrastructure to support bandwidth. Houston is installing 150 small cell nodes to support cell phone users during Super Bowl weekend next month.
“And that’s a light technology versus the heavy technology we’ll see with a vehicle.”