merging mobility and civility
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Extemporaneous Postulation

Shaping the Driverless City

Remarks from AIANY’s Anticipating the Driverless City forum, New York, December 2017.

Imagining an autonomous future for NYC is slightly exhausting.  There is so much conflation – we conflate autonomous vehicles with electric vehicles with shared vehicles with transit with parking reform

I work around the world and in every city, large and small, the issues that grate the most are traffic and parking.  There is never enough parking (where and when you want it) and there is always too much congestion (why can’t life be like in the adverts?). People are desperate for a fix, and if autonomous vehicles can do that, bring it!

But they can’t, and they won’t.

At the end of the day, an autonomous vehicle is still a vehicle. Sure it may be more efficient and organized, but we will still be left with social isolation, lack of physical activity, and the spatial reality that vehicles are 33 times larger than people – this is why finding your ride at the airport is such a hassle. And there are so many unknowns: cost, equity, safety, pollution (unless we go all-solar all the time, we’ll still have to get the energy from somewhere).

Nevertheless, autonomous vehicles are coming, so BuroHappold set out to find out more. Beginning in 2016 we organized a series of workshops at nine (and counting) cities around the world from Pittsburgh to Berlin to Hong Kong. Called “design sprints”, the workshops brought together city officials, designers, technicians, and industry players to focus on a set of localized issues.

From BuroHappold’s design sprints I want to share four ideas that affect ‘placemaking’, so that it does not get lost in the high tech shuffle. I’ll go in order from pessimistic, to optimistic:

  1. Pick-ups and drop-offs will only get worse. Most of you have probably experienced the joy of trying to find your ride at the airport or train station.  The only difference is you’re your ride will be driverless.  Imaging the same at shopping centers, schools, churches, hotels, offices, and wherever else your day takes you.

  2. Finding parking may be a big winner, largely because you won’t have to. The car will park itself.  Or not – what do you care?  It will just go away.  Which brings us to the parallax: if there is no parking, there will just be cars circulating, aka traffic.  We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

  3. Ljubljana (Slovenia), a small city in the former Yugoslavia, has a wonderful pedestrianized downtown. For residents to schlep luggage and deliveries, they have a series of on-call, free, electric mini-vans.  While not autonomous (yet), they hold the promise of transit-oriented living.

  4. Without a driver, autonomous vehicles could be narrower. With narrower vehicles, we could have narrower streets, even pathways.  And if they don’t crash, then we would not need curbs or signs or signals.  It would be like a college campus, or Stuyvesant Town minus the parking lots.  Of all the ideas that sprung out of the design sprints, this might have the most positive impact of the design of our cities.

Finally, I think it’s worth challenging ourselves to demand that the driverless city be good for cities – and not repeat the mistakes of the 20th Century. There has been and will be great pressure for cities to accommodate autonomous vehicles – let’s use that to negotiate better parking policies, social equity, transit coordination, and street design.  Cities are worth it!

Michael King