A Vision of Asheville’s Future

Climate change poses an existential threat to modern civilization if not the survival of the human race. Even if you don’t share that view, it is inarguable that sea level rise, drought, increasingly “abnormal” weather, wildfire and crop failure are having a profound effect on our lives. As I write this California has just ended an evacuation of 200,000 people due to threat of dam failure but emergency teams are still racing to lower the water level behind the Oroville dam and shore up the spillway as another series of storms adds to the year’s record rainfall.

The problem seems completely out of scale from the perspective of municipal policy making, but we will all need to do everything we can if we are to stave off the worst. The Asheville City Council has been working to reduce the carbon footprint of municipal operations and we’ve cut it by more than 4 percent annually for several years. We used some federal grant money to conduct a carbon footprint analysis of the East of the Riverway neighborhood and committed ourselves to building only LEED certified structures. (LEED is one of the most stringent energy efficiency standards in the world.) But under NC law we cannot mandate carbon cutbacks for private citizens or businesses.

What more can be done? The biggest effect we can accomplish within our legal framework is to get people out of their cars. Personal automobile use is the single biggest optional consumer of fossil fuels. We can hardly expect people to live in cold, dark dwellings, and we can’t flip a switch and make all jobs and businesses “green.” We can, however, make it easier for people to not use private autos and harder for them to do so. At the same time we can make housing more affordable by working with the real estate market instead of fighting it.

Many people are unaware that the Americans with the lowest per capita carbon footprint live on Manhattan Island. They walk, use bicycles, take transit and don’t own many cars. They also live 6 years longer on average than the rest of us, probably due to their pedestrian ways.

We need to make parking less convenient and more expensive and use the higher parking rates to fund more frequent and more convenient transit options. Fortunately we have technological choices rolling our way faster than most of us can imagine.

At right you see a driverless bus now operating in The Netherlands. Similar vehicles are on the roads in Switzerland and Shanghai and rolling out elsewhere around the globe. Las Vegas tested one in January 2017, and the manufacturer has lined up demonstrations in Austin and Los Angeles. I am in touch with the company and hope to line up a demonstration project in Asheville later this year.

How will this change our city?

Driverless vehicles are poised to change EVERYTHING.

First you’ll see buses like these. The reason we currently run large buses is to distribute the cost of the driver over as many passengers as possible. Instead of operating 50-passenger buses hourly, we’ll be running 15-passenger buses every fifteen minutes. Suddenly transit becomes a lot more handy. Routes will extend out into the county where today’s big buses aren’t cost-effective and where real estate is cheaper. People will get out of their cars and commute from affordable homes via affordable, convenient transit routes.

Next we’ll have a transition away from car ownership. Some transportation experts predict a 90 percent drop over the next two decades. Today’s private autos are parked 95 percent of the time, tomorrow’s driverless fleet will be on call 24/7. Most people won’t want the expense of owning a parked car when mobility is what they are after. Cars and minivans will pick up passengers, drop them off and go on to serve others. The need for extensive parking facilities will evaporate. And for transit users who have off-route destinations, or suddenly need to pick up a child at school or other “incidental” uses, the driverless car fleet will fill in the gaps.

Today we have 6 parking spaces for every car on the road: home, work, school, church, supermarket, hardware store, mall, curbside, deck, etc. Imagine opening up all that space and consider how different a city will look when the need for parking is dramatically reduced. The driverless division of Google predicts that we have reached “peak lane” in the U.S., and that we will begin to disassemble our current multi-lane roads.

This is where planning and zoning come into play. We need to be thinking now about how we will adapt. New Urbanism instructs that in an ideal neighborhood everyone should live within ¼ mile of most daily necessities: food and hardware, professional services, entertainment, etc. In Asheville we have begun to implement what’s called a Form Based Code. (First on Haywood Road in West Asheville, currently underway in the River Arts District.) Old fashioned zoning put housing here, business there, shopping over yonder and manufacturing someplace else. This guaranteed a need for cars.

A Form Based Code is based on how a neighborhood will look, not what it will do. Buildings on main streets might have retail downstairs and offices or apartments upstairs. The proximity makes the neighborhood walkable, and the change will be profoundly transformative. Imagine the difference when the Asheville Mall parking lot is converted to apartments and mini parks, or when pedestrian and bike greenways thread into your current neighborhood when four lane roads are reduced to two.

The upshot of this story is that we ought not get in the way or the driverless revolution will run us over. We should be cautious about spending City money on more parking decks—extremely expensive structures with a 50-75 year life. If we do build decks they must be designed for later conversion to other purposes. During the transition we’d be better off to follow Boulder’s lead and subsidize Uber, Lyft and taxi services already at work to help people get out of their personal cars. The Boulder plan aims to make hired rides as cheap as operating and parking a personal auto. What we want in the short term is often framed as “more parking” but what we really want is less congested parking and if we get people out of their personal cars we achieve the same result.

Note that Uber is already operating a driverless fleet in Pittsburgh and is poised to start in Las Vegas. Daimler is operating driverless tractor-trailers in Nevada. Mining operations are using driverless dump trucks. The change is coming fast. Due to the life span of an average car the change will probably take a bit longer than the switch to cell phones, but the family car is going the way of the phone booth.

While we offer the carrot of subsidized rides we can implement the stick of higher parking fees. The local bargain plan I have advanced over the past couple of years looks doable in two more. It seems to me that City taxpayers ought to get a better parking rate in our decks than non-taxpaying commuters and tourists. We’ll be replacing our parking technology in two years and I’m pushing for a pass system that will allow locals to pay less. This is entirely feasible with current computer systems and will bump up parking receipts to help subsidize transit improvements.

Meanwhile we are replacing all of the City curbside meters with new models that can accept credit cards and which can be read after dark. This means we can extend our meter hours (the old fashioned ones have to be read with a flashlight which is why we don’t charge for nighttime parking.) Each extra hour of metered parking gains about $150,000 per year, so if we add four hours of meter enforcement we gain $600,000 to help fund transit. We can also do a great deal to ease parking problems in Biltmore Village by installing meters in that congested shopping district.

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