West Newton in 1946, before the Mass Pike turned it into an onramp.

Last week in West Newton the city held a discussion around the changes both proposed and underway for the village center. Unfortunately, I had a previous engagement and couldn’t make it, though I listened to much of the conversation through the Facebook feed. 

The concerns center around two main issues. First is the types of buildings, both in terms of size and use, that the Hello Washington Street project and the proposed zoning allow. Related to that is the discussion of transportation, which settles on two main issues. One is the use of the commuter rail, which you can see play out in another post. The other is around the flow of cars, related backups, and the storage of personal cars. Off to the side is everything else, like walking, biking, and (hardly mentioned) buses. 

But what will the future of transportation look like? When you ask this question the issue of self-driving cars inevitably comes up, but there remains an assumption that people in Newton will own their cars, likely two, and need a place to store those cars when they’re home and when they’re out shopping, running errands, etc. So it’s interesting when you read a countervailing discussion from a company that focuses on transportation. 

Ride-hailing company Lyft is going public and this is what it had to say in its S1 filing, as quoted in Business Insider:

We believe that the world is at the beginning of a shift away from car ownership to Transportation-as-a-Service, or TaaS. Lyft is at the forefront of this massive societal change,” they told investors. “Car ownership has … economically burdened consumers. US households spend more on transportation than on any expenditure other than housing. … On a per household basis, the average annual spend on transportation is over $9,500, with the substantial majority spent on car ownership and operation.

Business Insider points out that in Britain, car sales are down significantly and car registrations are down in the US, so is the purchasing of new tires (albeit slightly). They are down much more significantly in China. 

There are huge issues at play here, including Brexit and uncertainty in the European markets, but the macro trend is clear: people don’t necessarily want to own a car and are finding ways to avoid doing so. 

What does this mean for us? As we examine our zoning we need to think about the future of our city. If car ownership goes down, so does the need for parking in villages. What do we do with our parking lots? What happens when we lose revenue from meters? What happens to the garages attached to many homes? How do we handle driveways? Are setbacks still desirable in an age when a vehicle stops in front of your house and you need to walk through the front door instead of pulling into a driveway or garage? 

Lyft asks the same questions in reverse:

We believe that cities should be built for people, not cars. Mass car ownership in the twentieth century brought unprecedented freedom to individuals and spurred significant economic growth. However, in the process, city infrastructure became overwhelmingly devoted to cars. Roads and parking lots have replaced too much green space. Mass car ownership strains our cities and reduces the very freedom that cars once provided.

These changes won’t come tomorrow, but if we’re planning for our future we should be thinking about them.