Westside Urban Forum on the Future of AVs on LA’s Streets & Planning


VX News excerpts a recent (December 8th) Westside Urban Forum panel, AI on LA’s Streets: Autonomous Vehicles are Arriving. Moderated by Justine Johnson, head of mobility engagement for SoCal, and Southwest regions at Ford Motor Company, the distinguished panel held in front of an an audience of city officials, planners, engineers, people in real estate, focused upon on the future of AVs in Los Angeles and the latter’s impact on design, land use, and city planning; and included: Ellie Casson, head of City Policy and Government Affairs at Waymo; John Yi, Executive Director of Los Angeles Walks; Kate Kigongo, Senior Innovation Analyst at the City of West Hollywood; and Nina Harvey, principal at Nelson Nygaard.

Justine Johnson: [Equity] is a term that I've heard a lot this year, and I would be really interested in how each of you and your respective organizations define equity and access.

Ellie Casson: At Waymo we're doing some very in-depth work right now defining equity for ourselves as a company. I think for this audience, which is mostly interested in the built environment and how our product and service will show up in the community, I'll note that one of the pillars of the work that we're doing is focused on our product. I’d say in 2020, if a company didn't already have stated principles on the issue of equity and team members dedicated to this topic, there was a big push to get that in place. I was very glad to see that Waymo interpreted that as both internal work, but also how we were designing and making sure that whatever work we did was reflected in the in the product itself. 

I also think it's really important that Waymo not get ahead of ourselves in terms of commitments on this topic. I think it's very tempting; it's a topic everyone is talking about. Every company is feeling compelled to commitments. One thing Waymo is very good about is that we have an incredibly ambitious goal, which is to introduce autonomous vehicle technology to the world, but we are very conservative about what we claim that technology can and will do. Right now, we're at a stage where we are listening and learning and trying to decide exactly what work we need to do and with whose expertise and help. We recognize that sometimes you can have good intentions, but the end result, if you have major blind spots, is not sufficient. 

John Yi: I was told before today's call that participants will be city officials, planners, engineers, people in real estate, so rarely am I in front of this kind of audience. I want to take advantage of this opportunity that I have and give you all one tip. This is an exercise I recommend y'all do in any work you do. Hopefully, I think this will help you center towards equity because it is a complex topic.

Ask yourself, is what I'm doing or what I'm working on or what service I’m producing, is it serving a pedestrian taking the bus? I think it's as simple as that. If your answer is no, it actually hurts a pedestrian taking the bus, then what you're working on does not have equity in it. I think there's no greater or better indicator of a city's health and equity than the fate of their pedestrian. I'm not just saying that because I happen to be with Los Angeles Walks, but I feel like that is the baseline in which we should be serving mobility in our country and our city. 

You might think like it's just kind of a kitschy thing to say, but I think once you keep doing that exercise in your head and you ask yourself these questions constantly, your worldview will slowly start to shift.

Justine Johnson: As we think about what implications AVs and emerging technology and mobility might have on design, land use, and planning, I'd love to hear what you think those might be. We're, in many ways, in a transition period. What are we thinking about in terms of how AVs might impact planning or design or land use?

Ellie Casson: I'll start with a skeptical take. I think the Waymo model is an excellent model for starting to talk about AVs. My fear is that as autonomous vehicle features become more prevalent in owned vehicles, we start to move away from the ride sharing idea of our promise of autonomous vehicles and move more towards the TNC model where a Uber or Lyft are an aid in your mobility portfolio, but they don't replace owning a vehicle. If they don't replace owning a vehicle, there are no changes to land use and parking needs. 

If they are part of a larger portfolio of new mobility options connected with civic investments in regional transportation as well as local transportation, then you have an opportunity to really get rid of your car and make AVs the way that you get to and from regional or local transportation. I think they have the biggest impact in that they are all electric. That greatly impacts the quality of life and the quality of the air in our cities. 

Electric vehicle charging should be the number one priority of all cities and all regions and building the infrastructure to support that. That will have an impact locally, but I really think about that portfolio of transportation, and I hope that all vehicle manufacturers are thinking about this shared model of ownership. We don't see what we need in any major city today, and hopefully the new infrastructure bill will help with that.

Justine Johnson: There is now a lot of money soon to come down from the federal government, trickling to states and municipalities. As we think about infrastructure to support emerging new mobility and as we think about electrification, what are some of the big things that the City of West Hollywood might be thinking about, especially as it relates to this ecosystem of electrification and all of the infrastructure needs to support a variety of different modes on our roads and streets?

Kate Kigongo: Electric vehicle infrastructure is our primary focus right now for thinking about mobility in the future. Not just for our own vehicles, but for our fleet vehicles and for our transit vehicles. That is a complex project. We are a customer of Southern California Edison, and we don't have the electric capacity as we stand now to build the amount of electric vehicle chargers needed for the future. We just conducted a study, and we need 380 new electric vehicle chargers to be publicly owned and 2400 to be privately owned by 2035 to handle the demand. That may not seem like a lot, but we're only 1.9 square miles, and we've been building about 10 to 12 new publicly-owned EVs per year. At that rate, we're 20-25 years away.

We're thinking about things like building conduit and fiber throughout the cities so that we can connect our traffic signals to centralized traffic databases. We're thinking about testing sensors, so that we can understand what sensors do in our city and how we can connect to autonomous vehicles. We're really looking for an answer from the private sector about what do we need, but as you know, those infrastructure projects cost a lot and take a lot of time. 

Finally, we're thinking about resiliency. What do we do in terms of power outages or emergencies or hacking? If Tesla owners couldn't turn on their cars for 30 minutes, what do we do? What do we do when we have a major shock to the system? How do we keep the city running? How do we prevent traffic from coming to a halt? How do we make sure that people need to get people are able to get where they need to go to keep our residents working, our businesses humming, and getting people to and from their day to day life? 

Nina Harvey: I also had all of those on my list. The other thing that I was thinking is really about getting back to some of the old school transportation planning concepts of good street design, traffic calming, and thinking about dedicated space for transit because to the point of redundancy, we still need to have a solid backbone of transit running through this city. If transit vehicles also become AV's that's even more a benefit in that shuttles could use that infrastructure. 

Then, if we still want active transportation and safe streets, we need to continue to design our cities in that direction. When the technology comes, it can only function as well as the city streets provide. So, if we have six lane roads where AVs can just like zoom through, that will be one future. If we could have nice, slower streets in urban areas that vehicles have to follow those rules and follow the speed limits and stop at all of those intersections, then I think there is a positive impact to safety and some of those elements.

Ellie Casson: I strongly agree with that. There was an article about Peter Calthorpe being asked will autonomous vehicles make sprawl worse. He said that autonomous vehicles will basically take whatever your city has already been building and amplify it. So, if you have a jobs/housing imbalance that causes people to have to commute from a long distance away, then autonomous vehicles might facilitate those super commutes and things like that.

To take what Nina and Kate are saying and blend it together, when I had the opportunity to speak to people in development and planning, I really encouraged them to stay focused on the sort of core priorities as we look ahead. Cities are asking how to plan for these new technologies. What new infrastructure do we need? 

At least for Waymo, I'm not speaking for all AV companies, we’re very intentionally designing our tech to be dependent on road conditions of today and not relying on any kind of smart technology, partly because that would greatly limit where we could drive. There's been no sort of universal adoption of even one type of smart technology. Maybe one city adopts one type, another city adapts another type. That would mean we couldn't travel between the two. Waymo has very intentionally designed our tech to work with regular road striping, etc. Aside from EV infrastructure, which I think everyone is agreeing is increasingly important for us to be building; there isn't anything specific that we will need. I encourage cities to not be distracted by what might enable this new tech and leave the private sector to adapt to communities as opposed to the other way around. You guys set your priorities, and we adapt to them.

John Yi: We have solutions already to make our streets safer. We’ve just got to implement them. In addition to that, we also need government reform because if it takes over a year to get one speed bump in Los Angeles, we don't deserve a right to regulate what AVs should be. It makes me nervous to think about that. Who's going to be dictating that if it takes that long bureaucratically for basic pedestrian infrastructure? I think we need to really look at how do we make government more efficient in providing these resources, especially when it comes to regulating this emerging tech.

Justine Johnson: We're talking about emerging mobility and autonomous vehicles. How are we preparing the workforce for many of these new jobs that are going to be coming down the line now? When we talk about workforce, I’m thinking of two groups: folks who are looking for jobs today, and those who might still be in the K-12 system who don't know anything about planning or transportation? How can we make sure that there is a pathway for our K-12 populations to know about some of these jobs of the future? 

John Yi: I love this question because we've developed a program that past two years at Los Angeles was called Safe Street Community Promatora Educators. Some of y'all maybe recognize the word Promatora, but it's usually used in the public health space, right? They are community navigators who understand the community, language, culture, and issues that are able to navigate themselves and bring in outside health resources which normally wouldn't have been brought in. 

Here at Los Angeles Walks, we're firm believers that transportation is moving into the realm of public health. I think we all know that to some degree, but I think more and more people are recognizing that like in public health as in transportation, we need to do a better job engaging the community, getting the feedback, and making sure the designs that we have reflect their needs. 

At Los Angeles Walks, we're actually training Promatoras to work in a transportation and city planning space so that they can be navigators in their own communities, compensated by the city through contracts, grants, or nonprofits like ourselves and by developing that professional niche. Our hope is that we can develop, you know, a cadre of Promatoras doing the same kind of work as in public health in transportation. 

“My fear is that as autonomous vehicle features become more prevalent in owned vehicles, we start to move away from the ride sharing idea of our promise of autonomous vehicles… (that) they don't replace owning a vehicle. If they don't replace owning a vehicle, there are no changes to land use and parking needs.” -Ellie Casson, Waymo