Conversations about our future cities and streets hinge around smart, interconnected technologies: Think sensors that monitor the progress of autonomous vehicles, stoplights that respond to the volume of traffic attempting to traverse an intersection. But what’s often skipped over is how the infrastructure–including the physical streets themselves–will eventually evolve alongside these new technologies.
That’s why, says Julia Thayne, director of urban development for the technology company Siemens’ Center of Competence Cities, it’s only going to become more important for technology and urban planning to merge. Integrated properly, she tells Fast Company, technology can and should facilitate streets on which vehicles move faster and more efficiently, and through which pedestrians and cyclists have ample space to navigate safely and comfortably. And perhaps most intriguingly, technology and design can begin to work together to create streets whose design and infrastructure are not static, but ever-flexible and adaptive to changing conditions in the city.
In recent years, Siemens has rolled out numerous technologies designed to ease traffic and keep both vehicles and pedestrians safe, from sensor networks to mobile internet connectivity. But in Thayne’s Cities division, there’s a subset of people working not necessarily on developing these new technologies, but on “thought leadership on what these new innovations are, and how they might fit into what cities are trying to do, especially when it comes to larger questions of sustainability and mobility,” Thayne says.
We’re already beginning to see how connected technology can benefit mobility in cities. Last year, Seattle installed a network of adaptive traffic lights, powered by Siemens tech, along the busy Mercer Street corridor, which hosts around 60,000 vehicles each day. Instead of the lights fluctuating between red and green in accordance with predetermined timing, they now vary based on the volume of congestion, allowing for longer green lights, for instance, when there’s a particularly high volume of cars. The new system has shaved 15 minutes of a notoriously awful 35-minute, 14-block commute. The adaptive lights came one year after Seattle contracted with Siemens to install Concert, a traffic-light software system that adapts to major events, like severe weather or a baseball game, by giving longer green lights at freeway entrances to calm the rest of the traffic grid (the adaptive lights along Mercer are a more fine-tuned version of Concert’s capabilities).
For residents of particularly traffic-strapped regions, the existence of this technology alone should warrant a sigh of relief. But where it gets truly innovative is in its potential to work with revamped street design–something Thayne has been exploring with Gehl Architects, a Copenhagen-based urban design studio focused on creating livable cities for people.
The concept Thayne is most excited about is called a flexible street–a flat, curb-less road whose usage can adjust in accordance with need. If, for example, there’s a rush of traffic along a particular corridor, and more cars and buses need to be able to traverse it, the city could choose to ban parking on the street for a day to open up another lane. Conversely, if a particular corridor is expecting a high volume of foot traffic due to a holiday shopping rush or an outdoor pop-up event, the street could transform temporarily into a pedestrian-only space.
The fact that a large tech company like Siemens has invested so heavily in supporting this type of thought leadership testifies to how businesses can and should be extending themselves beyond just selling and producing products, to understanding and playing a role in the impact they make. In other words, it’s not enough for a company to just develop the hardware needed to bring about a truly connected, smart city. They need to take an active role in the planning side, too.
Through her work at the Center of Competence Cities, Thayne has worked with a long list of city governments, from Seattle to Atlanta to Ann Arbor, providing pro-bono planning and connectivity advice. “We do a lot of modeling, showing how different technologies can improve sustainability and mobility,” Thayne sys. Of course, the advice often hinges around the need for a network of sensors on a particularly busy urban corridor, which is a product Siemens can provide, but selling technology, Thayne says, is not the point of the consults. Rather, it’s another step toward bridging the gaps between urban planners and technologists, so that planners can make decisions about their cities with technological capabilities in mind, and technologists can design products best tailored to cities’ needs.
Of course, a strong network of sensors–and a way to communicate information from the streets directly to inhabitants of the city–would be necessary to make flexible streets work; imagine the confusion of a regular car commuter pulling up to an intersection that has been, for the day, designated for pedestrian use. If people are forewarned, however–and even better, if a mobility app could suggest an alternate travel route–the flexibility of our streets could just become a matter of course.
The concept, and the importance of integrating urban design and tech, is best summed up in a paper coauthored by Thayne and Gehl’s Camilla Andersen:
One way to create a better foundation for the integration of the two sectors could be to consider the public realm less like a static, permanent installation and more like a highly flexible puzzle: If the street was put together by a series of different pieces in various formations, then changes could be implemented more easily and without the need for extensive construction work.