Less than a decade ago, the concept of autonomous vehicles roaming streets and highways seemed nothing more than a moonshot. Today, we now have Uber and Google and NuTonomy and Tesla testing and tweaking their tech in the race to take driverless vehicles mainstream. While most trials are successful, there have been enough accidents for consumers and policy makers to worry that public safety and solving traffic congestion is taking a backseat to rapid-fire innovation.
As designers of cities, we’ve been watching the spasmodic innovation unfold in the news and on the ground. Without question, autonomous vehicles (AV) will have limitless impact on how we live. The good news an AV revolution brings is the possibility to replace vehicle-serving cities with urban environments that reduce car-dependency and put people first.
Expert predictions of what the world will look like when the floodgates of AV open are in no short supply, mostly in advocacy of its necessity to make us smarter, more connected, more efficient, and more resourceful. Superhuman, if you will. Is it possible, however, that the insurgence of AV will make us less machinelike and more human? Our bet is on yes, because the proof for the future is in the present.
Commuting As Communities
Daily travelers will use apps to reserve spots on AV-operated car shares. Automating short-distance neighborhood travel has the potential to streamline and de-stress daily travel. The deployment of commuter pods can eliminate the need for single occupancy vehicles, obliterate traffic congestion, and reduce transit pollution. We’re seeing the early stage of this development unfold as UberPool continues its expansion to cities outside of the urban core. In Finland, startup MaaS partnered with transport providers to develop Whim, an app to order multiple transit modes–buses, taxis, car rental, or bike share–to coordinate the journey to a single destination. The intention is to replace car ownership in Helsinki with sustainable and efficient door-to-door travel systems.
As people begin to commute as communities, building entrances can be set up like school zones. Replacing car pileup and sky-high parking prices, buildings can feature robust pickup and drop-off zones with laneways developed for safe, pin-drop precise navigation among walkers, cyclists, and commuter pods.
Fewer vehicles sitting in idle would considerably reduce, and possibly eliminate, the need for parking lots. Major human-oriented developments could emerge, like community gardens, park cafes, learning and wellness centers, shops, and homes with ultra-wide, multi-use laneways. This would allow more people to move, rest, and socialize in safety and comfort.
The rise of parklets in Chicago and San Francisco is an early example of this. Street parking turned curbside green space acts as “people spots” or leisure areas. This comes with its own economic benefits, too. Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council found that 73% of parklet users surveyed on an average afternoon would have stayed home if the miniature park didn’t exist. This increased foot traffic positively impacted surrounding small businesses, with some reporting a sales increase of 10% to 20%.
While the rise of AVs is a symptom of society in search of efficiency and convenience, it is likely to influence areas beyond transporting people and in ways that will make our communities healthier. As the world becomes smarter, waste is projected to decrease. Soon, we will live in a circular economy that will enable us to recycle or compost everything we produce, creating a chain of sustainable production and closed-loop consumption. Waste removal, recycling, and compost services operated by AVs and executed with careful design have the potential to run discreetly and infrequently. Already, semiautomated garbage trucks exist in several cities in North America doing the work of garbage collectors. As we see in Edmonton, Canada, this saves on resources and eases the physical strain of workers.
Whether by automated truck, a drone, or a six-wheeled robot, deliveries can become agile and elegant just the same. From snail mail to the mass-delivery of goods, reimagining pickups and drop-offs can eradicate the need for complex and cumbersome loading zones. Buildings and homes can adapt by architecting delivery portals, similar to how water is delivered, from distribution center to recipient. Though we have a very long way to go, this way of thinking is slowly unfolding as more warehouses use robots like Amazon’s Kiva to move and transport goods.
With more people moving around outside as communities free up new space, people-oriented environments will overthrow vehicle-serving cities. People-scale lighting, for one, will take safety to a new and lowered level, as we’re seeing with wayfinding systems like +Light Line in Germany and the Netherlands. The LED strip lines the sidewalk’s edge and turns green to indicate “walk” and red for “stop,” alerting preoccupied smartphone users when to cross safely.
Tall and bulky streetlamps designed to illuminate roadways for vehicles can be replaced with shorter and intimate replacements. This is happening already in Nashville, where short, warmly lit streetlamps are creating environments equally inviting as functional. People-powered lighting has taken off in Las Vegas where LED streetlights powered by solar panels and kinetic footstep pads are illuminating walkways, charging phones, and powering security cameras. With every footstep, four to eight watts of energy is generated, and can save the nearly 100 million metrics tons of CO2 emitted by streetlights each year.
Closing the loop on energy use goes well beyond harmonizing lighting systems. Lakeside cities experiencing record-setting rainfall and water levels like Toronto and Chicago can look to vegetated roofs and rainwater-harvesting systems to waterproof cities. Vegetated roofs absorb rainwater, provide insulation, offer wildlife sanctuary, and control internal and external temperatures, while rainwater-harvesting systems collect rainfall to be cleaned and reused for irrigation, drinking water, and home use.
As we continue to trial and tweak AV tech, let’s benefit from rethinking the power of the real-life environments we share. The solution is in the city, because it has been all along.
Antonio Gomez-Palacio and Alan Boniface are urbanists and city builders at Dialog.