How driverless cars, drones and other tech will change the urban landscape of Southern California
In this photo, a Google self-driving car is on exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
Joni Mitchell once lamented how developers “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” But what happens when demand for parking lots fades?
For more than a century, the urban landscape of Southern California has been shaped by the century-old technology: the car. But now developers and urban planning experts are envisioning how the next disruptive technologies of the 21st century – driverless cars, drones and virtual reality – may lead to smaller parking lots, fewer shopping centers and new kinds of housing designed to accommodate the evolving economy.
What does this future look like?
. Driverless cars: That big yellow taxi Joni Mitchell sang about? It just might be the self-driving kind in the future.
. Shopping centers: Passengers in those driverless cars could be whisked away to shopping centers featuring fewer retail stores because of increasing online shopping, but with more entertainment options, such as restaurants, bowling alleys and movie theaters to draw in customers.
. New areas to develop: With less demand for parking, real estate devoted to lots serving adjacent structures could be transitioned into additional housing units, office space or parks.
. More in-home tech: High-speed fiber internet service and virtual reality could see more residents working and shopping online from home.
. Deliveries: Packages will be dropped off by self-driving vehicles or drones.
Could all this change mean a push to build suburbs farther and farther from city centers? Yes, says the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis in a recent policy brief, which doesn’t necessarily view the sprawl as a good thing.
According to the report by regional transportation experts, the advent of electric and driverless cars could accelerate sprawl by increasing distances people would be willing to commute. Just as combustion engine cars encouraged the growth of suburbia then, driverless cars could move the suburban frontier even farther afield, where housing units are larger, more available and housing costs are lower per square foot.
That sprawl runs counter to recent trends of positioning dense housing in pedestrian-friendly downtowns with access to mass transit, the report says. The authors suggest lawmakers tax miles traveled – in place of gas taxes – as people consume less gas in the future with electric or hybrid cars.
“(More urban sprawl) is possible, but it depends on the cost of travel,” said Richard Willson, professor of urban and regional planning at Cal Poly Pomona, and an expert on transportation and parking. “If it’s expensive on a per-mile basis to use your driverless car, there might be charges for how much you drive, if you’re not buying gas.
“It will depend on how (the vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, tax) is structured. If you pay more during peak hours, that would discourage peak hour travel for people who commute a long way from the suburbs,” he said.
Then again, market forces may come to bear, especially from millenials who like higher-density urban living, Willson said.
“A lot of people are expressing preference for urban places that are walkable,” Willson said.
The car(less) culture
The enthusiasm for ride-sharing technologies, such as Uber, and self-driving cars will alter urban landscapes as well, with a corresponding decline in the need for never-ending parking lots and parking structures, said urban planning expert Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona and former general manager of Flexcar, the first car-sharing service in Southern California.
“It seems likely that the owners of these parking structures are going to think of new ways to recycle what was originally designed as storage for cars,” said Woo, who served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1985 to 1993.
More than meets the eye
Developers are now building flexibility into parking structures, so they can transform into something new in anticipation of the reduced demand for parking, Willson said. That translates into level floors and centrally located elevators, designing them to convert to housing or offices in the future, Willson said.
Today’s underground parking structures, Woo said, could be repurposed for movie theaters, nightclubs and restaurants.
“I think these kinds of issues are now being debated by planners architects (and) property owners who are trying to figure out how to repurpose this existing space,” Woo said.
High in fiber
Expanding technologies help keep people closer to home.
“People will have alternatives to traveling because of virtual reality and teleconferencing (from home),” Willson said.
The anticipation for most household items to be connected to the internet, and widespread adoption of data-heavy applications such as virtual reality and more video-based internet use, will demand higher internet speeds, experts say. In response, developers and cities are increasingly incorporating fiber-optic communications infrastructure to large, master-planned housing projects.
“It’s enabling the internet of things and technologies we haven’t considered yet by (having) that foundation of fiber in place,” said Jeff Reiman, principal of The Broadband Group, a consulting firm based in Las Vegas that helps cities and businesses incorporate the technology. “When you’re designing a development for the next 20 years, you do not want to put in infrastructure that was designed for the last 20 years.”
For example, in Ontario, every new home in the new Ontario Ranch development, planned for about 46,000 units, will be connected to a system that will provide faster internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, analogous to the difference between a slightly turned on water faucet and a faucet at full blast.
“The city’s strategy is to future-proof the community,” said developer Randall Lewis, principal of the Lewis Group of Companies, which is helping to build Park Place, one of the first neighborhoods in Ontario Ranch. “The hope is that it will be attractive to families for communications, for entertainment, for working, and for uses that may emerge in the future.”
The changing mall
Have doubts? Already the comparatively humble smartphone has already led to big changes in the retail world.
As more people shop on their phones, the rise of Amazon and other online retailers has led to fewer customers trekking to traditional brick and mortar retailers – and subsequent store closures.
Experts envision a reduced number of shopping centers in the coming decades with the closure of older shopping centers and their redevelopment into other uses, such as housing. Examples are already seen in the transformation going on at the Laguna Hills Mall, a new plan for office and residential at Montclair Place and an even more ambitious plan at the Promenade in Woodland Hills.
At the latter, owner Westfield Corp. announced late last year its desire to redevelop the mall into a mixed-use residential and retail center with office space and space for entertainment and sports. Construction, officials said, could begin in 2020, pending environmental review and Los Angeles Planning Commission approval.
The city of Laguna Hills approved and construction is underway on luxury apartments, a movie theater, park and indoor and outdoor shops at the Laguna Hills Mall, with completion of the first phase expected next year, officials said.
“When I was younger, the mall was the place to hang out,” said David Chantarangsu, community development director for the city of Laguna Hills. “I’d much rather be outside and eating at a restaurant that has an outdoor patio and go someplace to walk around in the great California weather. It’s more experiential-based now.”
Lewis agrees: “It’s becoming more place-driven. There’s more emphasis on services. There’s more emphasis on entertainment. There’s more emphasis on food.”
The future is now
Much of the changes hinted at are already under way. Lewis said his firm’s new apartment projects, including a yet-to-be named 570-unit rental project to be built just north of the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, will incorporate design concepts for people to better work from home and areas to accept packages from Amazon and other online retailers.
Which brings us back to Joni Mitchell – or perhaps her modern-day alter ego – changing those lyrics to pave a parking lot to put up paradise.
“If self-driving cars reduce the stress of traffic, if building in parking lots makes more walkable places that people enjoy, and if driverless cars make accessibility available for everyone, including those who can’t drive because of disability or age, those three things are an opportunity that arises from all this new technology,” Willson said