March 28, 2017
Planning for Self-Driving Cars: Now is the Time
We’re not too far from a future where self-driving cars are just another part of your daily commute. And according to our guest, Atul Sharma, that will change a lot more than just how you drive. Come and learn how Atul, a planning expert working for Montgomery Country, MD, sees self-driving cars affecting everything from parking and traffic to where we choose to live and how we choose to utilize our historic buildings and communities. Just hit play and sit back while the podcast plays itself.
[Nick Redding] History can’t preserve itself. Most cars, on the other hand, may soon be driving themselves. This week on PreserveCast I talk to Atul Sharma, an urban planning expert in Maryland who’s been working all over the country and now focusing on Montgomery County right here in Maryland. Atul’s work has recently included preparing for self-driving cars and how such a massive technological shift will impact everyday communities as well as our state’s historic areas. This week on PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[NR] Hi, this is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Atul Sharma believes that design is an act of shaping the future. Good designers, therefore, must investigate imminent change. Atul currently works as an urban planner and designer with the Maryland National Capitol Parks and Planning Commission. He has extensive experience in community planning, neighborhood design, large scale sustainable master planning, mixed used communities, transit-oriented development, design guidelines, as well as contextual architecture. His clients have included planning departments, non-profits, community organizations, economic development agencies, as well as private developers across the nation. His entire portfolio across the public and private sectors has been developed through an interactive design process, working with communities and stakeholders on the ground on issues that matter. Atul it’s really great to have you here. For our purposes today we’re going to be talking about the next big trend: self-driving cars, which is pretty wild. But before we do that, what got you into planning? What path did you follow?
[AS] The path that got me here was actually started in a completely different place than Maryland. I grew up in India… and as I was growing up India was changing a great deal. It was changing not just in the social and economic way of life there. The built environment was changing very quickly. I grew up in a part of the country there which was essentially the breadbasket of the country, and you could see a lot of the sort of agricultural areas being transformed into urban areas. And that kind of piqued my interest into how the choices we make shape the world we live in, and that’s in a nutshell how I got interested into architecture and planning. And how I got to the U.S. was through a program for my graduate studies in urban design, and ever since then I’ve been working in different parts of the country. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked pretty much all over the country at this point, and it’s been a really interesting experience. And for me, as someone who did not grow up here, it’s really been a very, very interesting ride just to see how there are cultural similarities between different parts of the country and how they have many, many differences… and how that manifests itself into the choices we make on how to live and shape our world around us.
[NR] That’s really interesting. Now you’re in Montgomery County, right?
[AS] That’s right.
[NR] And so tell us a little bit about Montgomery County and the work that you’re doing currently there.
[AS] So Montgomery County is a really interesting county in its current context and the work I do kind of reflects that. The planning department is structured in geographical areas that divide up the county into three parts. So the urban centers of Bethesda and Silver Spring, that’s one area. You have Area 2, which is where I work, which is the area that’s under most pressure to change. These are sort of the secondary urban centers, anywhere from White Oak to Twinbrook and White Flint, and all these nodes around the Red Line as it goes out towards Gaithersburg. And then Area 3 has a lot of the agricultural preserve embedded into it. So it’s really wide swaths of different types of conditions. And I particularly work in Area 2, and Area 2 is changing dramatically as we speak. It’s an area that was– and this kind of brings the conversation full circle. It was an area that really was developed as a response to the technology of its day, which was the car. And so a lot of what’s being built in Area 2 was auto re-entered places and uses. And now with the new sort of national focus towards walkability, more livable places and communities that are more holistic and mixed-use…we are seeing a tremendous amount of infill and repair of those suburban places to make more walkable, mixed-use urban communities.
[NR] Which is interesting because from the historic preservation standpoint, obviously the preservation community in the United States and really across the globe has argued for a long time that walkable, compact dense communities with a sense of character– and some might even say a charm– are the places that are worth preserving. And those are the places that people are going to want to live. And we’re sort of seeing that play out now. And even the places that aren’t like that like you’re describing are trying to model themselves on that and sort of become that. So you talk about sort of full circle, it is interesting to see that play out. I imagine there’s a lot of challenges associated with sort of repairing that sprawl though. I mean, how do you do that? Do you build it into the code and then hope over time it builds that way?
[AS] Well, I think there are several things that you kind of have to push forward simultaneously to achieve that. When we are master planning, we are looking 20, 30 years into the future, which is an extremely difficult task. But hand-in-hand, we are also constantly looking at our regulations that dictate how things get built and trying to tweak them to respond to this ever-changing technological social landscape. And the third part of it, which the Montgomery County Planning Department does a really good job of, is we create platforms for ideas to be explored and shared, which may not have yet made their way into the structure of the planning department and the regulatory mechanisms. But are definitely worth exploring now.
[NR] So what would be an example of that along those lines? Is that the autonomous cars or…what are those sorts of things?
[AS] Yeah. There’s several sort of studies and efforts that are currently being undertaken in Montgomery County. The planning department is currently looking at short-term rental regulations, for example. Now this is a direct response to the phenomenon of Airbnb and online rental places, which did not exist even three to four years ago. And we have seen in the county a huge surge in the desire amongst community members to be able to tap into this…but also some fears in members to make sure that this technology doesn’t have a negative impact by substantially transforming household communities into rental communities that are owned by investors. And we, as a planning department, are looking at all these different aspects and trying to come up with policy and regulations that would allow people to benefit from this technology but not tip the scale into a place that has no resemblance to what the original character of the neighborhood or community would be.
Preserving Historic Districts in the Modern Age
[NR] Right, and we see a lot of challenges with that particularly in historic communities. And obviously, you’re talking about some areas that are historic, probably some that are not really historic. But I know in a lot of our heavily tourist-type destinations across the country- your Savannah, your Charleston, and even Annapolis would be an example here in Maryland- where it’s quickly becoming the trend that you see sell a lot of these sort of short-term rentals. And then all of a sudden, you kind of lose the character that made the place a place that people wanted to visit. So it’s like if people love the place too much, it almost creates this problem. So it is an interesting one to grapple with. I think it’s something that you might not be coming at it from that perspective, but it does have a big impact in historic areas and in these sort of “tourist destination” communities as well.
[AS] Absolutely. I mean, I think once you push the people out of a community, you completely change its character. So it becomes a place that is to be visited as opposed to a place to be lived in, and that’s two different things.
[NR] Right. Or the other thing that you see and I know you see in Montgomery County is that if people are priced out of places because they become so desirable that the people who work in those places (and we see this a lot in tourist destinations) is that the people who work in those places can’t live in those places. So they almost have to commute in, and then you create this strain on transit and commuting challenges as well. So there’s a lot of big challenges out there, and planning goes hand-in-hand with historic preservation. In Maryland, as you probably know our historic preservation agency, the Maryland Historical Trust, is actually in the Maryland State Department of Planning, which is not normal across the country. But I think is a good place for it actually to be because it is a planning issue. How do you preserve the best of a place but also continue to allow it to grow and to be dynamic? It can’t just be kind of trapped in amber. That’s a hard thing to do.
[AS] Absolutely. And just so you know our director, Gwen Wright, has an incredible amount of experience and interest and passion for historic preservation. So she is very finely tuned to these issues that you’re bringing up and really does see the two [issues] as sides of a coin.
[NR] Right. Yeah. Absolutely. So with respect to self-driving cars…I mean, it is sort of the hot buzz. People talk about that. They talk about drones. All of these things that are happening. We had someone on to talk about drones and the intersection with historic preservation there. And from the very get-go we wanted to talk to someone about self-driving cars. So I guess in a nutshell, how soon can we expect to see these? Can you broadly define what kind of impacts they are going to have on our communities? I mean, do we even know what we don’t know yet? Do we know what this is going mean to our communities, both in Maryland and beyond?
[AS] So I think that that’s the $1 million question. And personally, I think that the more important question is to sort of think about what is more likely to happen in the next five to ten years, and what does that mean? When you hear the conversation about self-driving cars, a lot of it right now is being led by either the companies that are developing the technology or by highly technical fields like transportation planners and some real estate companies and market-analysis companies are beginning to look at. But they have a very narrow lens through which they analyze this. Especially to work in the transportation planning realm, a lot of the conversation is swirling around this very long-term scenario where they are assuming that everybody is driving self-driving cars. So when they say that these have the potential to have zero end road fatalities, that may be true. But it’s not going to be true until everybody is in a self-driving car or truck.
[NR] That’s not the 5 to 10 year right.
[AS] No. That’s not it.
[NR] I mean, you and I may not be in a self-driving car in five years from now, I guess.
[AS] Well, we may be. But not everybody on the road might be. I mean, if you go to Pittsburgh today, you can hail a self-driving cab that Uber is road-testing on the streets of that city. So you can get into it and it’ll drive you around. I mean, there’s a person monitoring it at all times. But you can get in there. I guess the point I’m trying to make is, it will roll itself out but it will roll itself out in exactly the same way that every other technology before it has. When Model Ts(?) were built, it wasn’t an overnight switch to cars. There was a time where there were bikes and buggies and cars on all roads. I think the most interesting question for me in this conversation is: what is going to happen in the next five to nine years? When I look at it and think about it, I think some of the biggest opportunities are going to be in how we build and manage parking and how we create parking strategies. And to tie this into historic preservation, district parking has been this very elusive dream that transportation planners especially have been chasing for a very long time. But with self-driving cars you don’t need to have a car attached to every building because typically we’ve always wanted to minimize the time it takes for a person to get in and out of their car, and get in and out of the building or the place that they’re trying to get to.
[NR] So this is quickly turning everything on its head. And I think with that we’re going to take a quick break, and then we will rejoin this conversation in a moment to hear from Atul to dig a little bit deeper into those areas where he sees that this is really going to be a game changer for our historic communities. We’ll be right back with PreserveCast.
[Stephen Israel] Oh, Maryland. I love you so. You’ve got it all. Beaches, mountains, lakes, cities, history. Let’s face it, you’re just cool. Your beauty, your grace. Heck, you’re a mini United States. This segment will focus on what makes Maryland unique. Where else to start than with the state’s nickname? The Old Line State. Sounds nice, but what does it even mean? One of understanding is that it dates back to the Revolutionary War. They were a lot of regiments and units in the continental army. But few garnered as much respect as the old Maryland Line. Technically, this specifically refers to the regiment who served under William Smallwood, Francis Ware, Thomas Price, and Mordecai Gist at Long Island on the 27th of August 1776. This group differed from the rest of the Continental Army at the time and that Maryland had seen fit sent men with full suits of clothes, equipment, and a higher level of training rather than swiftly assembled militia that came from most state governments. The hope was that the investment would make them more effective soldiers against the renowned British regulars. And it proved to be true. General George Washington himself was enamored with the efforts of the Maryland Line in covering the Continental Army’s retreat from Long Island. He is remembered as saying of their fight: “An hour more precious to American liberty than any other.” Of course, there are a few less glamorous ideas as to where the name Old Line State came from. Some think it may be more tied to the historical border dispute that led to the famous Mason Dixon Line between Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia– of course now West Virginia. There’s no real hard evidence one way or the other as the nickname only really started appearing towards the middle of the 19th century in poetry and in names of businesses. But today, for Marylanders in the know, it’s still may evoke some pride in the role that Maryland played in the revolution. Well, it’s time to get back to the future of Maryland with Nick and Atul on PreserveCast.
[NR] Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you’ve thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to email@example.com and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] And we’re back. We’re talking with Atul Sharma about autonomous self-driving cars and what kind of impacts they’re going to have on traditional communities, historic communities and everything in between. And Atul, you were mentioning that there’s going to be a big impact on parking and that there’s been this elusive dream for a long time of having parking attached to every structure and making it easy for people to get in and out. I’ve heard before that when you’re in a downtown area, a certain percentage of traffic is just people circling, looking for parking. So obviously that’s going to change. But does this create more or less traffic? If you deal with the parking issue– is that car is still on the road? Does it go somewhere? Does it park somewhere remotely? What are you guys thinking on those terms?
[AS] Those are all very good questions. In general, from the data that we are seeing– and I know that many people are doing some really good research on this. (Adam Ducker from RCLCO is one of those people.) And the data that we’ve so far seen come out is that if you do switch to self-driving cars, and you begin to look at your car as a service that you hail- as opposed to an asset that you own and take care of and maintain constantly- the number of cars you would need to run our society would dramatically reduce. Just to give you a sense, a standard car right now sits stationary somewhere for almost 96% of the time of its life. I mean, that’s a huge number. So only 4% of the time this car is being driven.
[NR] Not a very good asset. You’re not really putting it to good use. [laughter]
[AS] No. Exactly. It’s a money thing. Also, right now in the U.S., there are more cars than adults which is another huge sort of number. But from the early research on ride sharing, for example, what they’re seeing is that when people opt into cars as a service, the number of cars you need to service people goes dramatically down. So you might need one car for 10 people or 12 people as opposed to more than one car for every person.
[NR] So in theory, it will bring down traffic. I mean, I guess that’s the hope? Is that we would see less traffic?
[AS] In theory, it will bring down parking for sure. The traffic question is the more complex question because a car can be moving now 100 percent of the time and it can be on the street 100 percent of the time. So even though there are fewer cars that we need, they may be on the road for longer periods of time.
[NR] But I guess it wouldn’t matter as much though because you’re not going to be sitting in it all the time. You’re going to be getting to your destination and then, I guess, the car is just sort of out there.
[AS] You may not be. But somebody else might be in the same car.
[NR] That’s true.
[AS] So the tricky slope… just think about this, right now we have a driving age limit, right? If you’re under 16, you can’t drive a car. In self-driving cars- and this is a very hypothetical question- but in self-driving cars, if you even lowered the age of a person to be able to hail and sit in one and go somewhere because they don’t have to drive by one year…you would be adding millions and millions of eligible “drivers” to the national population. So there are some very big unknowns here that are going to impact how much traffic we see. So right now, people if you work in Silver Spring, there’s a good chance that you live within a 15-mile radius of Silver Spring. And it’s partially because driving is a very painful and exasperating and expensive experience.
[NR] And that’s a nice way of putting it. [laughter]
[AS] Right. But if you were in a self-driving car and you could watch a movie in the car or even sleep in your car while you’re being driven to work, there is a good chance that people will come up and say, “Oh, I could live in Frederick or even farther out and work in Silver Spring. I don’t care if I have to be in this car. It’s nice. It’s comfortable. I can do whatever I want in it. I don’t have to drive and be stressed about it.”
[NR] So from a planning perspective, though, there are some unintended consequences there because all of a sudden you could start putting more pressure on our rural areas like a Frederick County, that has already seen a lot of growth and a lot of the shift of population out of Montgomery into Southern Frederick County. All of a sudden, you could have that unintended consequence. What people have talked about for years with regard to commuter trains, you know, the MARC train from D.C. that goes out into, way out into the the countryside and are people going to settle there because it’s cheaper and then they can just commute in? So I guess that does create some challenging planning questions as well about how you handle that kind of growth.
[AS] Absolutely and I go back to what I’ve said when we started this conversation, Nick. Area Two (where I work) used to be a much more rural place. When the car was invented and the traffic wasn’t this bad and you could zip along these highways uninterrupted, it was sold as a platform for people to achieve this sort of utopian lifestyle where you could live out in nature and them commute back to the city to work and then commute back out again. And it worked for maybe five, or seven, or ten years the first five, or seven, or ten years it was being sold in that fashion. So we as planners and as preservationists, I think, have to be very careful about how we guide the technology through the policies we try to push for and advocate for.
[NR] So how do you do that though? I mean, how do you take these big weighty questions- and clearly you have a really great grasp of this, this has been a really interesting conversation. How do you take these big challenges and these many hypotheticals and then come up with policy that guides them? A very straight-forward version of that is: do we need to have as much parking in the zoning code? Does there have to be as great a requirement? And when does that change? Does it shift as we see it? Do we do it in advance? Are you trying to anticipate them or is it more reactionary? How does that work?
[AS] I think in an ideal world, you are being proactive about it. This is why I was mentioning that the Montgomery County Planning Department has platforms like The Third Place blog where we start to have these types of conversations that we are having even before we start to take on more sort of formal studies and processes to change our zoning code and regulations. I also think that looking at the problem in smaller intervals of time gives you much more practical solutions. And we’ve talked a fair amount about it so I won’t go into detail here again. But I think the other thing to think about is that this technology is great and has great positive impact potential, but there’s also other positive things that are happening right now that might have an impact on that technology. So for example, we know for a fact that people across the country, including Montgomery County and Baltimore and other places, are moving to walkable places. So there’s a very concrete shift in the preference of people in not having to drive a whole lot right now. And there are benefits to living in a walkable more compact place, much like our historic places used to be before the car was invented and urbanism reshaped to reflect that. And I think that looking at those factors in addition to looking at potential new technologies might give us more benevolent and longer lasting solutions. You talked about Charleston and Savannah. And you go to these places and you realize that people flock to them because they have some inherent qualities to them and that are very appealing to human beings. What I find most interesting is that even though our technology has changed so much, biologically as a species, we haven’t changed a whole lot at all. So we still walk the same amount of distance in five minutes as we used to a million years ago. And that to me is a metric that we should never ever forget when we are trying to plan, regardless of our technologies coming on board. I think giving this quest for newness a solid foundation of the truths that have held true for long periods of time is a great way to explore these new and very large issues. If we make a policy that helps self-driving cars but deters people from walking, I would argue that that’s bad policy.
[NR] Yeah. I think that was probably one of the most convincing arguments I’ve ever heard for people-centered planning. And you should be [laughter] congratulated for that because that’s an exceptionally important thing. And I think something that obviously was missing for a good part of the 20th century when we didn’t really think about people at the center of these communities. And I think that that is a really important thing to remember. As you say, as we look and then begin to embrace this newness, we still need to remember that there are still people at the center of this. And they’re still walking the same distance that they’ve walked for a millennia. That’s a really powerful statement. And I think with that, I don’t know how else we could wrap this up better. I think that that’s a great place to leave this conversation. Atul, this has been wonderful. It’s been eye-opening. And also just as a Marylander, I want to thank you for your work and let you know that I feel a little bit better about the future knowing that people like you are helping us plan for it.
[AS] I’m so great we got to have this conversation. And like you said, Nick, planning and preservation are two sides of the same coin. And the future is really more places like Venice rather than communities surrounded by highways. And that’s what I think. The work that you and your organization are doing is critical. We should all be looking at it more closely and learning from these old historic places because they have survived the test of time and are the most sustainable of all places just because of that one in fact.
[NR] That’s great. Well, thank you, Atul. We really appreciate it and have a wonderful day. Thanks for joining us on PreserveCast.
[AS] Thank you very much.
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This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving.
The Washington County Free Library in Maryland was the first national library to utilize a bookmobile, basically a transportable library on wheels, to reach rural areas and provide access to books in 1905! The ingenious idea, and the access to literature and information it provided soon swept across the country. For some great historic images and more information, scoot over to the Preservation Maryland blog.