Charlotte is known as a car-dependent city. Like it or not, we’ve built our community around large parking lots, towering garages and interstate highways.
But what happens with the cars can drive themselves? That’s a reality that Charlotte leaders are already beginning to explore.
At least three blue-chip U.S. companies — Google, Uber and General Motors — are plowing billions of dollars into perfecting the art of self-driving cars. The technology is nearly there, and with 5G broadband in the works, the infrastructure will follow suit sooner rather than later.
That will force cities like Charlotte to adjust how they plan new development and invest in new transportation. It’s not simple. For example: With self-driving cars, roads are still important, but parking is less so.
The Charlotte-based Centralina Council of Governments has already launched a series of meetings to plan for how self-driving car technology will impact transportation in the Charlotte region.
Their current prediction: Charlotte roads will have a hearty mixture of traditional and self-driving cars in the 2020s. By the 2030s and 2040s, autonomous vehicles will be dominant.
“It might not have gotten here as fast as some had predicted,” said former City Councilman Edwin Peacock. “But it’s coming.”
Laying the groundwork
And when it does, North Carolina will be one of the first states to take part.
A 2017 state law began codifying how driverless vehicles would be regulated in North Carolina. Some of the highlights:
- No driver’s license is required to operate
- Children as young as 12 can ride in them unaccompanied by an adult
- The vehicle must stop if involved in a crash
- Owners are responsible for moving violations
- A “Fully Autonomous Vehicle Committee” is set up within the N.C. Department of Transportation.
This sounds mundane, but it’s actually crucial. All that lawmaking has opened the door for North Carolina to be home to autonomous vehicle testing, one of only a handful of states to do so.
The state’s turnpike authority was named one of 10 agencies across the nation by the U.S. Department of Transportation to serve as “proving grounds” for driverless cars. Companies pioneering this auto technology have already started using Interstate 540 Triangle Expressway toll road in the Raleigh area for testing their cars.
The Monroe Expressway and I-77 toll lanes could be testing grounds in the future.
Ironically, self-driving cars could help slow the tide of future toll roads.
The Centralina Council of Governments anticipates that self-driving cars will slow down the need for expanding highways and intersections. Autonomous vehicles will be able to cut down on spacing between vehicles, squeezing more cars through in the same amount of time.
But the impacts on mass transit and parking requirements could be rapid.
What happens to mass transit?
As Charlotte manages through a period of rapid growth, city leaders have invested heavily in mass transit. It’s a way to cut down on congestion as well as a recruiting tool for new businesses.
The city of Charlotte has spent roughly $2 billion on the Blue Line light rail line that runs from UNC Charlotte to I-485 in south Charlotte. Now Charlotte Area Transit System is planning another $6 billion-plus in light rail development, including a Silver Line from Matthews through Uptown and west over the Catawba River.
No way to pay for it all has yet been presented. But in a world of self-driving cars, is a multi-billion-dollar investment in trains on tracks the way to go?
“I’m a huge advocate of the Lynx Blue Line,” Ned Curran, former CEO of Charlotte’s Bissell Cos. and former chairman of the N.C. Department of Transportation, told the Observer in 2017. “But I now wonder going forward whether we make that kind of investment. (Self-driving cars) are going to change how people move around and when they move around.”
For their part, CATS has steadfastly said that self-driving cars will only make their mass transit options more valuable. Even if a car drives itself, it still runs on a road — with hundreds of other vehicles. Congestion will still exist even in an autonomous world.
“With light rail we are out of the congestion,” CATS marketing director Olaf Kinard told the Observer. “It’s a guaranteed trip time.”
However, self-driving cars could dampen support among Charlotteans for major investments in light rail. Instead of sinking money into an unchanging route, they might want to see money put behind support for autonomous vehicles. And their say matters: More than likely, new money for transit will come down to a sales tax increase put before the voters.
“In this age of technological disruption, I don’t see Mecklenburg voters agreeing to a sales tax increase to fund fixed rail or streetcar,” said Peacock, the former city councilman. When he ran for mayor of Charlotte, he spoke frequently against the Gold Line streetcar — describing it as antiquated in an era of autonomous vehicles.
What about parking?
Self-driving cars would also likely radically reshape how Charlotte thinks about parking. Right now, local ordinances call for a set number of parking spaces at each new development.
That makes sense when people are driving to a store or restaurant and leaving their car behind. But what if they’ve taken a car that can drive off by itself?
In such a world, parking requirements could be significantly reduced. That could quickly reshape our city urban landscape.
Here’s an example: The Legacy Union building is a major new addition to Charlotte’s skyline, complete with a pyramid at its summit that lights up at night.
But if you drive between the skyscraper and Bank of America stadium to the west, your eye is drawn to something else entirely: a massive multi-story parking deck.
Commuters today are driving into the center city from miles around and need a place to leave their cars for the day. But what if people were taking driverless shuttles? Do you really still need a parking deck?
It’s a future that’s not too far off.
“I’m an old dude, and I hope in my lifetime we will not be building these,” architect and urbanist David Furman said.
Does Charlotte want in?
Self-driving car manufacturers are already looking for cities to test out urban applications of the technology.
In Miami, Ford Motor Co. is partnering with companies like Domino’s and Postmates to test out autonomous delivery vehicles.
So far, the Charlotte City Council hasn’t indicated that it wants to be a part of similar experiments. But multiple council members have said they expect to be dealing with it soon.
“Twelve years from now, I think everyone has agreed autonomous vehicles are going to be a very relevant thing in day to day city life,” Councilman Tariq Bokhari said at a council meeting.