Opinion: Fast-moving technology requires regional response

It seems like science fiction: Self-driving vehicles that can be summoned on demand; autonomous transit shuttles that whisk commuters along “smart” corridors that optimize traffic flow; and connected cars that communicate with each other to avoid collisions.

Technology is advancing quickly, and experts say this future may actually be close at hand. In a sign of things to come, autonomous vehicles recently began rolling along Atlanta’s North Avenue in an ambitious, real-world test. Simply amazing.

These changes promise to fundamentally transform our region – not unlike when the horse and buggy gave way to the internal combustion engine.

But we must work together, as a region, to prepare for this new world. Why? Consider what the future might look like if we don’t act in concert.

Traffic may flow smoothly in one jurisdiction where high-tech signals have been installed, only to jam when crossing into a neighboring city or county that hasn’t made such an investment.

Similarly, self-driving cars may work well in some areas but not others and may not be properly integrated with the region’s transit systems, a step needed to provide key “last-mile” connectivity.

Failure to tackle this issue from a regional perspective may also threaten metro Atlanta’s standing as a leading freight and logistics hub – not to mention our competitiveness down the road, when the next big company comes looking for a new headquarters.

To begin planning for the changes to come, the Atlanta Regional Commission recently brought together 300 local government officials and transportation experts for ConnectATL, our region’s first-ever summit on the future of mobility.

It was heartening to see so many smart, dedicated people in one room, discussing regional collaboration and how the new technology will affect not only how we travel, but also our economy and our quality of life.

Throughout the day, we heard from industry leaders and national experts who explored the many opportunities and challenges headed our way. Several key takeaways emerged:

  • A robust infrastructure that is seamless and regional in scope is required to truly leverage the new technology. These improvements may include things like sensors in roads, traffic light cameras, and a secure IT infrastructure to process and disseminate all the data being collected.
  • The autonomous and connected future must include the entire community, not just the few. To achieve this, equity considerations should be part of the planning process for any smart mobility project.
  • Smart technology can help create “ladders of opportunity” by providing increased access to jobs and services for people in historically disadvantaged communities, said keynote speaker Andrew J. Ginther, mayor of Columbus, Ohio, winner of the U.S. Smart Cities Challenge. “It’s not just about roads, transit or ride sharing,” he told us. “It’s about how people live.”
  • The rise of autonomous vehicles could mean the end of the one-car-per- person paradigm that has shaped our region during the past century, dramatically reducing the need for parking. Think about the possibilities: Parks where parking lots once stood, and wider, safer sidewalks to encourage the vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that are so in demand today.

ConnectATL was a critically important first step for our region that showcased our determination to meet this challenge head-on.

It’s also clear that we have a long way to go. ARC will be convening ConnectATL forums throughout the year, and we’re planning a second summit to keep the momentum going.

The future of mobility is right around the corner. The Atlanta region must take active steps to prepare for whatever comes down the road and to set ourselves up to take advantage of this historic opportunity.

Doug Hooker is executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

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