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Reporter’s Notebook: Wide awake at the wheel

Monday, October 21, 2019 by Austin Monitor

Letting go of control… Ford Motor Company has announced plans to carry people and goods around Austin in self-driving cars as early as 2021, but most people in the general public say they wouldn’t feel comfortable taking their eyes off the road in an autonomous car. In August, the Zebra, an insurance comparison company, conducted a survey of around 1,000 people that found 54 percent would watch the road and 79 percent would not be able to or would not want to fall asleep as a passenger in an autonomous car. Only 13 percent say they would feel OK using their phones and 10 percent say they would use the opportunity to catch up on sleep. The survey found that the greatest concern about riding in an autonomous car is the lack of control for about 42 percent of participants. Thirty percent cited safety as their biggest concern and 9 percent said they simply enjoy driving. In theory, autonomous cars could help prevent safety issues caused by human errors like speeding, drinking or texting while driving. (A separate study by the Zebra found that a full 10 percent of iPhone users and 4 percent of Android users watch YouTube videos while driving.) But self-driving cars will likely introduce other safety concerns, both for those inside of them and other users of the road like pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrian fatalities nationwide are up sharply in recent years, reaching their highest since 1990 in 2018. The Governors Highway Safety Association estimates the total 2018 pedestrian fatality count at 6,227. At the same time, autonomous cars are not promising to reverse that trend. The American Automobile Association recently performed simulations with autonomous cars and test dummies at neighborhood speeds; the cars failed miserably, hitting a child-sized dummy 89 percent of the time and an adult-sized dummy 60 percent of the time at 20 mph. According to the test results, the numbers only worsened as speed increased.

Story time at the Zoning and Platting Commission… With a scheduled 60 days to review and comment on the new version of the Land Development Code, the draft has been the topic du jour nearly everywhere in town – including the Oct. 15 meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission. Unlike other commissioners who have chosen to parse the language of the LDC piece by piece, Vice Chair Jim Duncan took the floor to give a 30-minute history lesson about why the suburbs are an integral and necessary part of Austin’s development landscape. After displaying a comparison of Austin to Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver and Portland, Duncan highlighted the fact that even with the largest metro population of these cities, Austin has the lowest density. This is thanks to the historical approach to development, in which suburbs featured heavily. “It was by design, it was not by accident,” Duncan said. Duncan, who was a city planner in Austin for decades, displayed two surveys from the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders that showed two-thirds of Baby Boomers and half of millennials prefer to reside in suburbs. According to Duncan, that lifestyle is in jeopardy with the new land use code. “CodeNEXT facilitates the demise of detached single-family homes,” he said. “I think that’s a fundamental flaw that we need to address.” He pointed to the increase of up-zoning for multifamily units, which he said allows for the division of single-family lots in some of the most staunchly suburban areas like Northwest Hills to be divided into multiplexes. He based his assertion on the assessment of his own home, which he said is 10 blocks away from the nearest transition zone. Although he made it clear that affordability is an issue that needs to be addressed in the city, the draft as it stands, he said, is an “unwise, unwarranted assault on Austin’s suburbs.”

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jessi Devenyns and Ryan Thornton.

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