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Atlanta Summit Raises Fresh Questions Around Smart Transit

The ConnectATL summit last week united elected, public and business officials discussing the future of transit, transportation and planning in the region.

by / September 29, 2017
A man pays his fare on an Atlanta bus.

Getting around metro Atlanta in the future — or for that matter many cities across the nation — could easily involve an autonomous car or bus, electric vehicles, expanded bike-share and other cycling networks.

And public officials from across the region huddled at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center for a day-long summit last week to hear from transportation, business as well as planning and development experts to explore how cities should be shaping policy to better plan for this future.

“The future is so uncertain, and the technology is changing so rapidly, it’s nearly impossible to keep up,” said Cain Williamson, manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Mobility Services Group.

“You feel a little bit guilty about not being able to give people the answers,” Williamson remarked, calling to mind a technology-heavy future that’s still somewhat in soft-focus. “They’re trying to make sure that their communities remain viable over the long term, and we certainly are there to help our local governments do that.”

Some 350 elected and other government officials, along with representatives from the private sector came out for the summit, known as ConnectATL, organized by the Atlanta Regional Commission. It included a number of panel discussions headed up by leaders in the region’s transit and transportation agencies.

The summit was meant to put officials from local government “in a room with leaders from the private sector who function in this space,” said Williamson, “and facilitate a dialogue to discuss what the array of issues might be. We looked at everything from infrastructure to implications for the workforce, to implications on equity."

“We looked at connected and autonomous vehicles. We looked at the connection of that to electric vehicles, and the connection of all of that to ‘mobility as a service,’” he added, referring to another way of describing ride-hailing providers like Uber or Lyft.

“It was really a broad conversation,” Williamson said.

As transportation and transit shapeshift into tomorrow’s systems buoyed by new technology, cities are left with questions such as what happens to gas-tax revenue when electric cars gain increasing traction? Or, what are the parking needs in a future where individually owned vehicles are less common?

"We talked about those implications, and what that might mean to land-use and development patterns,” Williamson offered. “If you have a fleet of autonomous vehicles driving around all the time, what does that mean for the curb-space, for pick-up and drop off, competition with parking, competition for loading and unloading for delivers and what-not? We talked about equity. What is the affordability of mobility-as-a-service in the longer term, for folks who may be lower income or on fixed income?”

At the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, more commonly known as MARTA, officials are already thinking about and planning for autonomous buses and other self-driving vehicles.

AV technology in the Atlanta metro area is “teetering between conversation and then actual planning and development,” said Ben Limmer, assistant general manager at MARTA.

“We do have a whole host of safety and liability considerations,” he said, recalling some of MARTA’s top concerns as AV technology inches its way into the collective consciousness of public transit. “Related to that, how does this interface with passengers getting on and off these autonomous vehicles, is it your traditional bus stop or are there other considerations?”

Some of the big planning and development considerations in transit have generally focused on the capital-intense costs like buying buses and building shelters and other passenger or vehicle  infrastructure, said Limmer.

“With autonomous vehicles you’re going to have to significantly increase the infrastructure needed on the sidewalk,” he added, offering a glimpse of the kinds of conversations transit planning officials are now having. “And you’re probably going to need wider sidewalks, and more significant transit shelters, or stops, in order to safely accommodate passengers boarding and alighting the transit vehicle.”

“Autonomous vehicles are definitely the sexy topic right now,” said Williamson. “And so many of our local elected officials — those that were there and those that weren’t — were thinking that they would learn answers to questions that don’t exist yet, with regard to autonomous vehicles.”

In some ways Atlanta is already dipping its toe into the smart cities swimming pool. MARTA partnered with the city of Atlanta to form the North Avenue Smart Corridor Project — a several-mile stretch from the Coca-Cola headquarters and Georgia Tech to the Ponce City Market — which has already been a test site for an autonomous bus and includes a smorgasboard of cameras, “adaptive” street signals and other technologies for testing.

“The future of smart transportation is bright,” said Limmer. “And MARTA’s role in that, as a public transportation provider, we are part of the mobility playing field, and we definitely look forward to more partnership opportunities.” 

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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