Audi Somerville, MA, Create ‘Test Lab’ for Mobility, Parking
Melissa Bean Sterzick
Somerville, MA, and Audi AG, Volkswagen Group’s luxury brand, have entered into an agreement to test and implement the company’s technology on city streets.
Automated parking and networked traffic lights are two of the technologies that will be put in place. But the scope of the project is much larger than technology – it’s an entire urban mobility strategy.
A year ago, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone supported his city’s entry in the Audi Urban Future Initiative, which led to the collaboration with the company.
Just a few miles from Boston, Somerville is four square miles, with a population of more than 75,000. Its density and proximity to the metropolis are said to make it a good place to experiment. And city leaders are eager and willing to offer their streets as a test area for innovations that might make it possible to park more cars in less space and increase the pace of traffic flow.
“As a community, we are trying to work out how to address mobility,” Curtatone said. “Congestion is bad for public health and the economy. Planning our streets with smarter signalization, maximizing land use, and reducing the scale of parking structures are how we take on the legacy issues of mobility.”
Hadley, Somerville Chief of Staff, has been working with the Audi team since the collaboration began. He said the city’s demographics made it particularly qualified for the program.
“We have this huge proportion of young people in their 20s to 40s – the millennial generation,” he said. “A lot of folks get excited about technology and what it will do for cities. We and Audi have both said that our population of young people makes this a desirable place to do the lab.”
Audi launched the Urban Future Initiative in 2010 to discuss the issues that will arise as more and more of the world’s population lives in major cities. Because different cities have different needs, the goal of the initiative is to examine local conditions and possibilities for customized solutions.
Some cities need their public spaces made more accessible, while others need more seamless traffic flow. Somerville needs both.
Curtatone said the city will start its work with Audi in two specific areas: Union Square and Assembly Row. Union Square is set to be updated with more retail, commercial and residential buildings. An early small-scale self-parking vehicle pilot is coming soon, Hadley said. Improvements include a new street grid for better traffic flow and infrastructure / technology integration with a connected traffic management system.
Audi will support the project with a traffic light assistant and, eventually, a central traffic management system that includes all traffic participants by creating access through a smartphone app or other network.
“Traffic-light information online is just the first step on the road to the ‘smart city,’” said Gerhard Stanzl, Head of Predevelopment at Audi AG. “For many years, Audi has been examining the optimization of traffic flow in cities. We are working continuously on new car-to-infrastructure services in order to extend our portfolio further.
“On the basis of our fleet data and optimized communication between vehicles and infrastructure, future cities will be able to control traffic-light phases and traffic management systems dynamically.”
The Assembly Row area in Somerville is still in development. Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRT) is working with the city on a mixed-use project that includes residential buildings, a hotel, offices, retail and entertainment space, and parking — all supported currently by a dedicated high-speed transit station.
Two Audi innovations that could be applied are automated parking and an intelligent mobility service. Its “shared fleet” is a mobility service that organizes the use of a set number of vehicles within a neighborhood or district.
For example, the cars are used by day for residential customers and during the evening by business customers. The automated parking application would reduce land use and the costs of construction. FRT estimates that in Assembly Row, each parking space can cost upwards of $25,000 dollars.
“Parking is expensive to build and uses a huge land area,” said Chris Weilminster, Executive Vice President of Real Estate and Leasing at FRT. “Decreasing the amount of parking would allow developers to use that land area for other purposes that benefit the consumer experience, while also controlling costs, and driving profitability.”
Audi officials have estimated that, if implemented, FRT could save approximately 26% of parking space area in its first building phase with a piloted parking optimized garage – even though the garage serves conventional and self-parking cars.
Not every part of the plan is outlined in detail. The collaboration will involve the sharing of information between the city and Audi, and the possibility of innovations that arise from that. The self-driving car is the ultimate goal, and a work in progress.
“The intelligent car can unfold its enormous potential only in an intelligent city,” said Audi CEO Rupert Stadler. “Our joint work on urban innovations and the exchange and analysis of data are the keys to beneficial ‘swarm intelligence.’”
Mayor Curtatone said he looks forward to seeing the technology of the self-driving car work on real streets. “That technology is right at our fingertips, and as a matter of necessity, we are going to see how that technology is deployed,” he said. “The automobile plays a role in our future, but we have to ask ourselves, ‘How does it play a more sustainable role?’”
Hadley said the time line for the technology projects is not set in stone, but he does predict all of it will move more quickly than anyone expects. He believes that Audi is already testing technology that will be implemented during the next 15 years.
“We’ll start on small, piloted projects, and suddenly those pilots will turn into the new norm,” Hadley said. “We are both going to have to ensure that the project is mutually beneficial. We’ll explore what is good for Somerville and what is good for Audi.
“Before anything really concrete happens, we will make sure everything is safe and in the public’s best interests.”
Addressing parking and traffic-flow issues affects every aspect of the community, Curtatone said. Traffic congestion costs employers and employees alike in lost productivity. Excessive commitment of land to parking reduces the availability of space for commercial and residential uses.
“This is an absolute necessity, whether it’s LA or any other city. Mobility, housing and public health are sewn together tightly and mutually dependent for success,” he said. “The impact on our quality of life and our economy are tremendous.
“The car will always be part of our mobility. At the same time, due to traffic congestion and parking problems, today it shows us the limits to mobility.”
For Curtatone, the collaboration with Audi is for Somerville and beyond.
“As we have opened up our city as a test lab for these ideas,” the mayor said, “it will become very easy to share these ideas with larger cities in the world.”
Melissa Bean Sterzick is Parking Today’s proofreader, occasional writer and amateur parker. She can be reached at Melissa@parkingtoday.com.