Are you a futurist? Do you know a futurist? You do if you know me.
Let me disabuse you of the vision that just came into your mind. I am not a “Dr. Who” enthusiast and long ago got over “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.”
Members of the World Future Society consider how current trends and technologies will and should shape the future. How will a futurist mindset benefit you? A recent study reveals that optimism decreases risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and early death. Planning for the future assumes the optimistic notion that you will be here for a while; therefore, a forward vision may help you to a long and happy life.
Futurism is central to one of my interests: land use planning. Planning is essential to the success of any pursuit. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.
Because the earth’s resources, including land area, are finite even as population grows, we must plan carefully. In planning local land use, we think about future-proofing the place where we live. That means thinking about making our part of the world functional and attractive for our children and grandchildren.
One sticky subject for land use planners everywhere is parking. Is there any space more lonely appearing than an empty parking lot?
Members of the New York planning community come together for a series of fall webinars every year to learn the latest on the subject. At a recent class we learned that in five to ten years each self-driving car will replace 12 traditional vehicles, eliminating the parking spaces needed for those vehicles. This prediction is based on the idea of public transit expanding to include driverless vans. Our teachers believe that in the future, when people want to go somewhere, they will summon an autonomous car. The dispatcher (Don’t tell anyone. It’s an algorithm with a voice.) will dispatch a robotic vehicle to them. That vehicle will take them to their destination, then continue on to serve other consumers.
Think of shuttles circulating through downtown, picking up and dropping off. Today’s automobile is parked 95% of the time, and when it is in use only one or two of the available five to eight seats are usually occupied. Autonomous public transit cars will rarely be parked, will be fully or almost fully occupied most of the time, and will relieve the consumer of the responsibility of some aspects of vehicle ownership. As a case in point, many two- and three-car families will only need one.
Our educators come to us from downstate, where traffic is dense and public transportation is essential, which means that autonomous public transit may soon become normal there. They do not explain why our residents, many of whom avoid public transportation, will suddenly come to embrace it, nor do they offer a rationale for financing it. No doubt it will take longer for the trend to come to our region; however, consider that Tesla’s vision is to transform the automotive manufacturing paradigm. They aspire to become a transit provider rather than simply a new car manufacturer. They expect to transition from selling cars to individuals to providing transit to regions. What does this have to do with land use and the future? Based on this prediction, we will eliminate up to eleven out of every twelve existing parking spaces. Much of this space could become buildings, green space, athletic venues or grand plazas.
Recently, there has been controversy over Oneonta’s allowing development of a small part of the Dietz Street parking lot. The new building will contain publicly supported artists’ lofts, medium income housing and the Hartwick Grain Innovation Center. Its location will cause users of nearby businesses to take an extra 150 steps from their parking spots.
Oh, the horror!
On its face, developing a new residential building in a downtown that is plagued with empty upstairs spaces seems counterintuitive. That being said, the project, if it fulfills its promise, will draw consumers downtown, keep tourists there longer, and move 64 family units — about two hundred consumers — close to Main Street where they can stroll and shop.
Springbrook’s plan to develop market-rate housing in the Ford Block is a cause for additional optimism. The logical extension of downtown population growth is that restaurateurs and retailers will need storefront space.
Project completion is a year or two in the future. When it is complete we will be that much closer to the predicted autonomous transit utopia with its reduced parking needs. There is reason for hope that we will see downtown revitalized. But where will all these new residents work? That is a topic for another column.
Edmond Overbey lives in Oneonta.