Andy Cohen Gensler

[Photo: Courtesy of Gensler]

For many of us, the notion that we will soon zip around in driverless vehicles remains a Jetson-esque fantasy. That may be only because we have never ridden in one. Google, Uber, Tesla, and other major companies are now neck-deep in building them, however, so the driverless future may be more real, and near, than it seems. Andy Cohen, co-CEO of Gensler, is convinced that it is, and he believes it will be here before we know what hit us. The implications for the built environment are many, as are the opportunities to leverage this change toward sustainable city-building.

Each of the 260 million vehicles in the U.S. spew 24 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for every gallon of fuel they burn. But transportation experts believe three simultaneous trends—car sharing, electric vehicles, and autonomous technology—could result in a 60% cut in transportation emissions, according to McKinsey & Company management consulting firm. If driverless car-sharing services rather than private vehicles become the norm for most trips—which could happen as soon as 2030—there will likely be 80% fewer vehicles on the road, according to reports from MIT Senseable City Lab. Driverless cars will drop you off where you need to go and then jet off to fetch the next passenger, rather than park—potentially eliminating the need for 90% of parking surfaces, along with the environmental problems that come with them, from polluted runoff to the urban heat island effect, a report from TechWorld says. What might we create in place of all those unneeded parking lots? Cohen has plenty of ideas for that.

Cohen has been with Gensler—the largest architecture firm in the world with 44 offices and 5,000-plus employees serving more than 120 countries—for 36 years, and says the advent of autonomous vehicles is the most daunting urban transformation he’s faced as a designer. But it’s a challenge he relishes because of the rare opportunity it presents.

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gb&d: Have you personally ridden in an autonomous vehicle?

Cohen: I’ve been in several. I can’t tell you which ones because I’d have to kill you [laughs]. Each car company has a different twist on how it works, so it is going to be very interesting to see who wins the race to roll out the first mass-produced model.

gb&d: Was it frightening as a passenger?

Cohen: Not at all. These were demonstration areas, so it’s a controlled environment, which is a little different than a real road. But the cars maneuvered around all kinds of obstacles; they knew when to stop. I felt really comfortable in them.

gb&d: How soon do you believe they’ll be adopted on a mass scale?

Cohen: Our research shows that by 2030, the vast majority of vehicles will be rideshare vehicles, and we expect most of those to be driverless. Uber already operates driverless vehicles in Pittsburgh. They have a “driver” who can take over the wheel, but that’s just so the passenger is comfortable.

gb&d: What intrigues you, as an architect, about driverless vehicles?

Cohen: Today, our vehicles are parked 95% of the time. There are approximately 500 million parking spaces in the U.S., most of which won’t be needed with shared, autonomous vehicles. There will be far fewer vehicles on the road, plus autonomous vehicles can travel very close together at high speeds without endangering humans, which means roads themselves can be much smaller. This will free up a huge amount of land that is currently congested with vehicles, which has tremendous implications for how cities and buildings are designed. This is the most profound shift in urban land use any architect alive today has seen, arguably since the transition from horses to cars a century ago.

gb&d: Clearly, it’s important that the design community take a leadership role as autonomous vehicles become mainstream. Is that starting to happen?

Cohen: So far I’ve been kind of a lone wolf talking about this. Everyone is talking about the technology, but no one is really connecting the dots to the built environment. About a year ago, the Urban Land Institute approached Gensler and asked if we could do some research on how to connect this incredible technological innovation with what is going to happen with the future of cities. I’ve become somewhat of an evangelist, speaking about this two or three times a week. Often I find myself on panels where I’m the only architect alongside folks from Microsoft, Tesla, Ford, and Uber.

gb&d: What is your take-home message when you speak to people about the design implications for autonomous vehicles?

Cohen: The switch to shared autonomous vehicles means most people won’t own cars. The impacts of that on the environment and climate change are huge. Also, cars are clogging our city streets and taking up valuable real estate. In the future, all that real estate can be repurposed for green amenities and for people. It’s an opportunity to create much more people-oriented cities, similar to what you find in places like Copenhagen.

gb&d: Are we really going to be able to get rid of most parking spaces?

Cohen: What I’m hearing from experts is that these cars aren’t going to park—they will be circulating constantly, or they will go back to a central yard owned by the car company, where they’ll have a maintenance facility and the cars are requisitioned based on how many they need on the road at a given time. So yes, we won’t need a lot of parking. What we will need in front of buildings are tons and tons of drop-off areas.

gb&d: You’ve suggested that many paved surfaces, whether parking lots or driving lanes, could be repurposed as urban green space, improving air quality, helping to filter storm water runoff, and creating space for people to be outdoors in contact with nature. What other improvements to the urban landscape do you envision?

Cohen: There are 125,000 gas stations in the United States that will eventually become obsolete. What we’ve been hearing from the major manufacturers, especially Tesla, is that the cars of the future will not have to go somewhere to be plugged in and charged. They will have battery packs that can be pulled out and replaced with a fully charged one as needed. Therefore, we won’t need charging stations. That means gas stations can be retrofitted for parks and other urban amenities, even photovoltaic farms. How great would that be, to take these polluted gas stations and make them into all sorts of green spaces. This could revolutionize cities.

gb&d: Obviously, such massive changes to urban infrastructure are not going to happen on their own. What changes are needed now to pave the way to take advantage of this opportunity?

Cohen: The one impediment is legislation, especially zoning laws. We are just starting to get cities to understand that zoning codes are going to have to change. For example, all the parking that is currently required for most buildings is not going to be necessary. I’ve been telling everyone that we have to talk to our political representatives about making changes like that, so the buildings that we are designing today won’t quickly become obsolete. The innovation of car companies has already outpaced land use policy, so we have to catch up.

gb&d: Are your clients already asking you to consider driverless vehicles in the new buildings you are designing today?

Cohen: What I call long-gestation clients—like airports, for example—definitely are. These are clients who are planning things that may not be built for 10 or 15 years. I just spoke at a sustainability-themed conference for airport operators, and they were all sitting on the edge of their chairs because they know they have to start planning for this now. If they don’t start replacing parking with pickup and drop-off areas, they’re going to start losing a lot of revenue from the unused parking, so some are already starting to do it.

gb&d: Do the real estate developers that you work for show any interest?

Cohen: The smart developers are paying attention, but for the most part the word is just getting out. We are sitting with clients all the time saying, “Listen, if you are building a parking deck, make sure it is designed to be adaptable for other uses in the future.” We’ve already started designing parking structures with flat floor plates, rather than the traditional sloped design, and we are putting the ramps on the outside of the structure so that later on you can take the ramps off and adapt it for office space or housing. There are millions and millions of square feet of parking that are going to have to be adapted for other uses. With any new buildings we are designing today, we better make damn sure they are adaptable.

gb&d: How do you respond to the folks who don’t believe most vehicles will soon be autonomous?

Cohen: There are often naysayers in the audience when I give my talks, and when we do the Q and A at the end they say, “Come on, do you really think this is going to happen in 10 or 15 years?” That’s when I give them the analogy of the horse and buggy. When the Ford Model T came out it only took four years to go from predominantly horse-powered transportation to vehicles dominating the streets. There was a tipping point.

gb&d: How do you think that tipping point for autonomous vehicles will start?

Cohen: The first wave will be deliveries. All UPS, FedEx, and Amazon deliveries will be driverless. I believe one of the reasons Amazon bought Whole Foods is as distribution points for their delivery service. Everyone is going to see these driverless delivery vehicles marching around the city and are going to wonder, “Hey, why aren’t we getting around that way, too?”

gb&d: Hopefully the fact that autonomous vehicles could be vastly more sustainable than our current transportation system will be a motivating force that helps to usher in the transition.

Cohen: The opportunity for sustainability is huge. Here we are designing net zero buildings, but the way we are getting to them is completely archaic. I like the idea that we can create an integrated city, where both buildings and transportation systems are sustainable. An incredible opportunity is coming our way.

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