Picture 10 lanes of gridlock. Now imagine replacing them with wide sidewalks, public benches, planters filled with lush flowers and grasses, trees offering shade, protected bike lanes, buses traveling from stop to stop without getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, a lane where all the passing ride-share vehicles are available to hail, and other lanes where carpooling autonomous vehicles move with room to breathe.
This is the street of the future as envisioned by Lyft. It comes on the heels of the company announcing a new autonomous vehicle partnership and test program with Drive.ai earlier this month, and is a glimpse at the way it thinks this kind of autonomous ride sharing could transform street design.
The concept, which was created with the architecture firm Perkins + Will and the transportation consultants Nelson\Nygaard, is a redesign of Wilshire Boulevard, one of Los Angeles’s busiest thoroughfares. The design itself isn’t very different than Complete Streets, the street design strategy of letting pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and public transportation coexist equally and safely, which urbanists have been championing for years. Yet the group’s proposal is notable in its own way–in that it’s cosigned by a ride-sharing-and-autonomous-vehicle company.
Ride sharing is here to stay, and autonomous vehicles are imminent. But the implications for cities are less than clear. While some studies say that ride sharing could reduce traffic if travelers carpool, other studies have shown that companies like Lyft and Uber have actually made traffic worse by adding more cars to the road. Public transit agencies cutting services are expecting ride sharing to pick up the slack. How should our aging infrastructure adapt to these changes–and who should be shaping (and funding) it?
Ride-sharing companies are eager to present themselves as the solution to transportation problems, not the cause of them. With this concept, Lyft seems to be demonstrating that it’s thinking about the issues surrounding its growth, unlike its less scrupulous competitors, and supporting policies that theoretically result in fewer cars on the road while serving more people (assuming that carpooling, buses, biking, and walking are more enticing than a private car).
“We’re really focused on how we can reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips,” Debs Schrimmer, a transportation policy manager at Lyft, says. “We want cities to reward this behavior. It shouldn’t be just about building lanes for autonomous vehicles or buses, but also paying equal attention to amenities that support cycling and walking. Fundamentally we need to redesign streets around people, not cars.”
Autonomous vehicles are already on our streets, but in order for them to achieve their purported full potential, including less congestion, less traffic, more efficient travel, infrastructure will have to change. According to the Urban Land Institute–an urban design think tank–these much-hyped benefits are only possible in environments free of non-autonomous vehicles. Additionally, if people treat AVs like conventional cars by using them like private vehicles, the congestion problems will persist.
There’s an imminent sense of concern among the architects and planners who will ultimately be redesigning city streets amid new kinds of mobility: Will we replicate the mistakes of the 20th century where streets were designed to prioritize one type of transportation technology? Or will we learn our lessons and redesign differently to support a variety of options?
Gerry Tierney–an associate principal at Perkins + Will and director of the firm’s mobility research lab–sees two possible scenarios for the streets of the future: one that’s urbanism first, like Lyft’s proposal, and one that’s technology first, which is essentially repeating the same model of streets today but subbing in AVs for conventional cars.
“AVs have tremendous opportunities for recreating the public realm, but if we don’t grasp those opportunities, it could go sideways,” he says. “We’ve been though this before. At the start of the 20th century, people had no idea that cars were going to run over their cities. They can plead ignorance. We have an opportunity to right the wrongs. We know what a dystopia looks like.”
In the model Lyft, Perkins + Will, and Nelson\Nygaard designed, they looked for ways to increase the total number of people a street could serve. Wilshire Boulevard and its 10 traffic lanes have a capacity of around 29,600 people. The multimodal approach Lyft envisions serves up to 77,000 through expanded pedestrian areas, bike lanes, ride sharing (including price incentives to entice more people to hail carpools instead of private cars), and public autonomous transit.
Perkins + Will purposefully designed the streetscape to look like a vision of the near future, with many elements that already exist in cities today. It’s “not a Jetsons version where you can’t imagine standing in this redesign,” Tierney says. In many cities, you can find rapid transit lanes, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, sidewalks designed for a strong pedestrian presence, protected bike lanes, biofiltration swales, and ample benches. What’s rare, though, is seeing all of this together in one street.
The design firms and Lyft submitted this idea to the 100 Hours LA public service campaign, which is hosted by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), an organization that will influence long-range regional transportation planning. By presenting this concept, Lyft hopes to “change the narrative of how a street is designed,” Schrimmer says, and show “shared enthusiasm” between private industry, urban designers, and governmental agencies on this vision.
“We as a company recognize that tech is not a silver bullet to creating a sustainable and vibrant community; it’s about bringing in policy and infrastructure questions,” Schrimmer says. “We can work alongside experts and start a conversation about how technology intersects with the built environment and amplify a larger conversation about the future of our infrastructure.”
Their proposal is more of a public policy agenda-setting exercise than the groundwork for actually tearing up Wilshire Boulevard’s 10 lanes of traffic now. As we’ve seen with other companies in the AV and ride-sharing space, politics are a crucial element of the industry. Lyft is aligning itself with the shared goals of politicians and setting itself up for a competitive edge in the future. Instead of back-channeling regulations–like Uber has infamously and repeatedly done–Lyft is trying to be an ally with cities. It’s trying to be the anti-Uber.
“Lyft sees itself as a collaborator with the city,” says Tierney, who has known Lyft’s founders since the company’s inception and has spoke on panels with Emily Castor, the company’s director of transportation policy. “The competitor sees itself as a disruption. Lyft sees itself as an enhancer of what’s going on in the city. . . . They understand they’re in a transit ecology.”
When a private company shares aspirations to redesign a public good like a major thoroughfare–one of the few remaining areas of cities that haven’t seen privatization, smaller neighborhood streets aside–it forces us to think more critically about what this might mean for the future of transportation. What would a public-private partnership look like in the context of street design?
Cities have advocated for many of the details in Lyft’s plan for years, but the challenges for implementation involve rallying voters behind this idea. (Removing traffic lanes is a tough sell for car commuters, despite research that shows more lanes add more traffic). How would private investors enter into the equation? Companies like Lyft, Uber, Alphabet, General Motors, and Ford–who are all developing AV technology in some capacity– have budgets to spend on ad campaigns that advance their interests and capital to lobby local, state, and federal governments.
Lyft is building itself up as the more-transparent alternative in the ride-sharing industry, and this proposal reinforces that strategy. And while Schrimmer says Lyft is “certainly company-agnostic” when it comes to which ride-sharing companies could access those dedicated AV lanes in the street design, I wonder how long that will be the case–and if this sentiment is shared industrywide.
Is monopolizing a lane an eventual goal? Can a street prioritize one company’s product over another? What happens when a private company controls the street, the vehicles on the street, and how you access the vehicles? Would cities allow this to happen? Look at the net neutrality debate today: Internet service providers and the Federal Communications Commission want to roll back consumer protections and allow prioritizing high speeds to the highest bidders. Mobile phone companies are already intentionally slowing users’ download speeds once they’ve reached a certain usage level.
How we experience technology is determined by who is providing the service, and ultimately these service providers are here to turn a profit. And as history has taught us, there’s a sliding scale on how much they’re willing to engage with social values and the common good outside of their business strategy. Some companies have stronger ethics than others.
“There is an inevitability of AVs,” Phil Harrison, CEO of Perkins + Will, points out. “There are so many companies interested in this technology happening, but there are many possible futures with AVs that are extremely bleak. Without this more social vision, a more physical green space vision, one that considers economics and equity, you could end up with a dystopian vision of this with all this tech but no humanity.”
The economy is changing. Infrastructure funding mechanisms, like the gas tax, are becoming less lucrative. Private industry is seeping into the public realm, as underfunded cities struggle to provide services. As our cities evolve and livability becomes more challenging, we’ll have to ask ourselves what type of future we want and how, exactly, we’ll get there.