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Buffalo officials plan for a future where cars drive themselves

Some day in the not-so-distant future, transit experts predict, Buffalo commuters will whiz to work in driverless cars that steer and park themselves.

Driverless Ubers already cruise Pittsburgh. A self-driving shuttle named Myla circles Columbus. And in Buffalo, city officials have announced, urban planners from across the country will gather this February to plot how the Queen City will look and feel when driverless vehicles rule the roads.

The $40,000, weeklong workshop series — a collaboration between the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency and the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national nonprofit planning group — will seek to future-proof the region as new technologies roll out, said Brendan Mehaffy, Buffalo’s chief planner. Attendees will tackle questions both futuristic and banal, from "What will become of all the parking ramps?" to "can a driverless car take a freeze-thaw pothole?"

Mehaffy said the recommendations will guide future infrastructure spending.

“Part of it is really to challenge people's beliefs about why it will or will not work,” he added.

Buffalo does already boast a handful of fledgling “Smart City” developments, from forthcoming priority bus signals on Niagara Street to ongoing autonomous vehicle, or AV, research at the University at Buffalo. Planners at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus recently finalized a yet-unpublished proposal to install smart sensors, traffic signals and other technologies along the Main Street corridor.

Despite these efforts, the city has never developed its own comprehensive plan to handle the myriad ways that driverless cars and other new technologies may change traffic, land use, transportation equity and quality of life for local residents. When representatives from the Congress for the New Urbanism offered to help prepare a plan for interested cities, Buffalo was one of the first volunteers, CNU President Lynn Richards said.

“This is the perfect time for cities to get ahead of this,” she added. “You don’t want to do this kind of creative thinking and problem-solving when [the technology] is right at your door – because then you’re just reacting to those changes.”

Those changes could transform not only how Buffalonians get around, but also how the city uses the vast amount of land now devoted to driving and storing cars. The driverless cars of the future may take themselves home after they drop passengers off, or work in shared fleets, much like Lyft and Uber.

Alternately, these AVs might not be “cars” at all. Lisa Kenney, of the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council, predicts driverless shuttles and big-rig trucks will be the first AVs to market. In a future Buffalo, they might share downtown curb space with electric scooters, while new parks and buildings grow in defunct surface lots.

Local planners and city officials say they want to strategize early so that they can begin building the necessary infrastructure, from high-speed fiber lines to new smart sensor networks. They also argue it’s important for today’s major transit projects to consider possible future developments.

“We’re looking at spending over a billion dollars on a light-rail extension, for instance,” said Michael Galligano, the chief executive of the local transportation nonprofit Shared Mobility. "Research in new transportation technologies may provide other options that complement and challenge this current ideal.”

The autonomous future may also be closer than casual observers think. In addition to those pilot projects in Columbus and Pittsburgh, University at Buffalo researchers are testing a driverless shuttle, called Olli, on a service road at North Campus. Earlier this year, the researchers also applied for a grant to pilot the shuttle downtown — though they did not ultimately receive funding for it.

[Related: Asked for input on driverless vehicles, Buffalo group is less than thrilled]

Some proto-driverless technology is also widely available already, from parking assist systems to sensor-enabled apps that alert drivers to open curb space.

“Something comes out every day: ‘AVs are coming in 10 years’ — ‘no, 20’ — ‘no, five.’ If I knew, I’d not be sitting here,” Kenney said.

“But we’re really excited” to begin planning for AVs, she added. “It’s a really great opportunity for the City of Buffalo and the region to sit down and be proactive and start thinking about this.”

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