New Mobility and the Driverless Future in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Region

HR&A’s Raleigh office, established in 2016, hosted a discussion in July with leading transportation and urban development experts in the North Carolina Research Triangle Region on the impacts that new urban mobility options and autonomous vehicles will have on regional development. The conversation was animated by a focus on how autonomous vehicles can complement current and future transit investments underway in the Region to be a positive force for city building. These experts identified that autonomous vehicles will reduce the need for dedicated parking, helping free up developable land for more productive uses and reducing the burden of parking costs on future development. They also identified strategies to proactively leverage new mobility options and autonomous vehicles to enhance city building efforts in the Triangle Region.



Across the nation, technological advancements in transportation are reshaping how streets are used. Shared mobility platforms—carsharing, ride-hailing, bikesharing, scootersharing—offer convenient ways to get around and engage with cities. The Shared Use Mobility Center reports that the creation of robust mobility networks helps reduce car ownership and increases use of public transit. As detailed in HR&A’s 2017 report, Driverless Future, autonomous vehicle technologies are advancing rapidly. The state of North Carolina is already investing in infrastructure improvements and policy measures in anticipation of their widespread deployment that could arrive as early as next year. The Triangle must prepare itself for how these changes will affect city-making. Conversations about the ultimate impact of autonomous vehicles on our built environment are an important next step for policymakers.


The Shared Use Mobility Center contends that autonomous vehicles will build on current trends of shared mobility platforms and use of public transit to further supplant private car ownership, a position that potentially offers several advantages for city building. A vehicle fleet that transitions from traditional to autonomous would experience cost-savings in maintenance and operation. While the loss of jobs due to vehicle automation is a significant concern, one potential benefit is lowered fares for public transportation and private ride-hailing platforms that can both increase mobility and further incentivize car-light lifestyles. Reducing dependency on personally-owned vehicles can offer reduced congestion and a cleaner, safer environment.
Autonomous vehicles that move continually to pick up and drop off passengers would decrease demand for parking spaces. Parking spaces, lots, and decks currently located in central business districts can be located further away as autonomous vehicles add to the list of “first/last mile” solutions. Cities and real estate developers stand to benefit from the reduced need for parking, as existing and future parking space can be repurposed in ways that enhance the local urban context. Moreover, once lenders and regulators have confidence that autonomous vehicles can alleviate the need for the quantity of parking typically provided in the market today, the feasibility of delivering denser urban development in the Triangle will improve as the need for expensive structured parking is reduced.
While the above scenario represents one possibility, an alternate scenario must also be considered – that autonomous vehicles purchased for personal use could inhibit ridership of shared mobility platforms and public transit. According to a 2016 report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, by 2030 travelers could save an estimated $4,000 per year if they eschewed car ownership for shared mobility platforms. Still, many drivers could be inclined to pursue ownership of an autonomous vehicle to preserve privacy, avoid sharing, and ensure flexibility in where and when you travel. Only an estimated 2% of residents in the Triangle Region took public transit to work in 2016. In an area where public transportation options are not as robust as in other growing areas, and where driving is the established norm of transportation, the possibility of autonomous vehicle technology further entrenching car ownership must be acknowledged. If this comes to fruition it could mean more traffic congestion and more scattered development.
Monica Barrow, the Southeast Transit Planning Practice Leader at STV, Inc., stresses the importance of cities being proactive in planning for autonomous disruption and not adopting a “wait and see” approach. Development of robust transit infrastructure has a long timeline due to funding and permitting requirements and waiting to see how autonomy changes transit can be a recipe for frustration and inaction. The Triangle Region can prepare itself for the inevitable driverless future today, and it is already taking steps to do so. Legislators and public authorities are wrestling with the safety, infrastructure, and legal implications of autonomous vehicles to prepare for their widespread introduction. However, less focus has been placed on how autonomous vehicles will affect our built environment and interface with public transit systems. Faced with the uncertain impacts of autonomous vehicles on the ability to create healthy and sustainable built environments, HR&A’s Raleigh Office looks forward to supporting the Triangle Region in developing strategies to leverage autonomous vehicles as a positive force for progressive city-building and inclusive economic development.


#1 Update zoning ordinances to take advantage of autonomous vehicles reducing dependence on parking
In Triangle Region cities, like many throughout the country, there are minimum parking space requirements on a per square foot or per unit basis. These parking requirements are driven not only by local ordinances but also by investors and lenders who underwrite development projects. Parking is seen as necessary to attract tenants and make retail spaces viable. In Charlotte, the city has created flexible TOD zoning districts that reduce or eliminate parking needed for development along the Rail Trail, a 3.5-mile pedestrian trail and light rail line. However, few developers have taken the city up on the reduced parking requirements. This issue takes on new dimensions in the Triangle with the arrival of autonomous vehicles and implementation of regional public transit projects.
The advent of autonomous vehicles has potential to weaken the relationship between parking and retail, opening the door for new types of retail less dependent on dedicated parking. According to HR&A Partner Bob Geolas, autonomous vehicles may help re-focus the emphasis of retail centers on creating a great experience and quality of place for patrons, rather than providing a convenient place to park. Localities can then better support the goals of transit-oriented development by reducing parking requirements and even enacting parking maximums in transit-rich nodes to accompany potential density bonuses. The decreased construction costs that would have gone into providing additional parking could open up new development possibilities.
#2 Make strategic investments in complete streets in urban nodes and corridors
Rather than becoming denser, development in the Triangle Region has spread out. The design of our roads exemplifies this. Raleigh Planning Director Ken Bowers expressed that transit works best where it’s comfortable to be a pedestrian, and the key opportunity in the Region is to re-imagine commercial corridors and centers as more dynamic and walkable places. Recent trends in developing at a more compact and pedestrian-friendly urban scale have brought renewed interest in multimodal infrastructure that can accommodate new mobility options. In Raleigh, ride-hailing platforms as well as dockless bikes and scooters are transforming the way sidewalks and streets are used. The Triangle must prepare for the increased prevalence of new mobility modes in designing and planning for future right of ways, for example by:

  • Designing rights of way to include better lighting and continuous sidewalks to encourage walkability, and support bike and scooter usage
  • Providing convenient curb space for pick-up and drop-off to accommodate the rise of ride-hailing and ridesharing platforms as well as autonomous vehicles
  • Piloting the introduction of designated lanes funded by ridesharing platforms (and future autonomous vehicle fleets) that can be adapted over time based on usage and demand.

Intentional investments in place-making or the provision of incentives to encourage public realm improvements can make transit-oriented developments that appeal to residents seeking a car-light lifestyle more viable.
#3 Rethink existing transit operations and future transit investments
The Triangle Region is investing to improve accessibility and mobility, including a bus rapid transit system in Wake County, a light rail system connecting Durham and Orange Counties, and the completion of the I-540 loop in southern Wake County. In this time of immense opportunity, local transit agencies in the Triangle must also reimagine their operations. GoTriangle’s current pilot program in Research Triangle Park that replaces existing fixed-route shuttles with free on-demand service within the Park accessible via a mobile phone app, while met with positive feedback, has actually led to decreased ridership. Barriers to ridership for the service include 1) the lack of true destinations within RTP with potential to draw significant patronage from within the Park, and 2) the disincentive to using public transit when one has a private vehicle available and there is ample free parking. A similar on-demand service could function well in a more urban geography that does connect desirable destinations and has less readily-available parking. However, the geometrics of high transit ridership – density, walkability, linearity, and proximity – cannot be overcome with technology alone.
Overall, transportation authorities will have to rethink all transit routes and infrastructure to improve service. Transit stations and stops must be capable of accommodating the constant pick-up and drop-off of users in a way that is safe, welcoming, and maintains a steady flow of traffic. Autonomous vehicles can further improve connectivity by allowing transit stops to function as a feeder point for autonomous, shared, and on-demand services. Underperforming routes with low ridership could be replaced with more flexible public or private on-demand services. As autonomous vehicles are introduced into the market, these services can be scaled up and amplified, acting as complementary services that positively impact planned LRT and BRT investments for the Region.
HR&A’s Raleigh office is excited to be working in The Research Triangle during this time when great strides are being made with investments in transportation and urban development. However, these plans need to consider the impacts of the mobility revolution that is rapidly unfolding. We can unlock latent development potential confined in parking spaces to build more densely in urban nodes and do so more affordably. We can prioritize designing flexible and multimodal streets and sidewalks to concentrate development. We can rethink our transit systems and partnerships with private actors to provide better services.
To achieve these goals our governmental authorities, residents, and the business community must work collaboratively. Throughout the years the Triangle Region has developed a national reputation and strong track record of regional collaboration through endeavors involving economic development, education and job creation, and transportation. The Triangle should draw on this tradition of innovation and partnerships to the benefit of the Region’s residents as we prepare for a driverless future.
This paper was co-authored by the following individuals:

  • Richard Adams, Kimley-Horn
  • Summer Alston, City of Durham
  • Monica Barrow, STV, Inc.
  • Ken Bowers, City of Raleigh
  • Bob Geolas, HR&A Advisors
  • Peter Gorman, HR&A Advisors
  • James Kendall, HR&A Advisors
  • Michael Landguth, Raleigh-Durham International Airport
  • Jeff Mann, GoTriangle
  • Beau Memory, NCDOT
  • Ernest Muñoz, Gensler
  • Elizabeth Packer, HR&A Advisors
  • Julie Paul, Formerly of ULI
  • Allen Pratt, Perkins+Will
  • Eric Rothman, HR&A Advisors
  • Perry Safran, Safran Law
  • Kyle Vangel, HR&A Advisors