Uber. Bike and scooter shares. And public transit. This trifecta seems like it covers every urban transportation need. But the truth is that each solution comes with its own flaws. Ubers clog the roads. Bikes can make you sweat. And especially during the COVID-19 era, sharing enclosed spaces with other people can feel scary.
In response to the current moment, the design firm NewDealDesign has revealed a compelling new concept in urban mobility that mixes all of these ideas into one package. It’s a small, open-aired vehicle called the Rolla. While the Rolla isn’t a functioning device planned for mass production, it’s a feasible, near-future idea that could solve some of our biggest pain points in traversing a city.
The Rolla is essentially an open-air, autonomous trolley, with standing room only. It’s an electric vehicle with a skateboard design, meaning all of the batteries and motors are in the bottom chassis. Rollas would run popular routes much like buses, cruising at somewhere between 8 and 12 miles per hour. They’d fit two to three people comfortably, and up to six with a real squeeze. You could hop on one to ride the public route, or commandeer it, like an Uber, to take you directly to your destination. The idea is that the Rolla is a highly flexible solution that could fill specific niches in a city-by-city context.
“There are benefits to micromobility options like bikes and scooters for some people, but for a lot [of circumstances], they don’t fit,” says Gadi Amit, founder of NewDeal Design. “If you want to dress nicely, if you’re taking your daughter to school, if you bought something large, you’re not going to ride a bike or scooter.”
Bikes and scooters also aren’t particularly accessible for people who have trouble walking or balancing. So the Rolla is built to ride low to the ground, meaning it’s easy to step on board, or even roll a wheelchair or stroller onto the platform from a curb. It cruises slowly enough that you might be able to hop right on. Or you could hail it, with an app, to stop.
The open-air design means that the Rolla isn’t built for extreme winters. But that approach enables unlimited airflow. Theoretically, that could make it safer to ride than closed vehicles with poor air circulation. (Note: Researchers believe riding the subway is fairly safe during COVID-19, but the recirculated air on subway platforms is full of dangerous particulates.) The open cabin also connects you more intimately to the city itself. “You’re still listening to the street. If you see an interesting store, you hop off,” says Amit. “We tend to underestimate the social element of urban environments.”
For sanitary purposes, Quinn Fitzgerald, the director of industrial design at NewDealDesign, who led the development of the concept, says he designed the Rolla to be something that you could literally hose down. Alongside the Rolla itself, the team conceptualized a cleaning unit, which is basically a small trailer. It could be dropped off by a truck and fit into a stock parking spot to sterilize and recharge Rollas without bringing them to some central facility.
As for the Rolla’s two walls covered in flashy LCD screens, Fitzgerald readily admits they could be filled with ads to subsidize the project (much like existing subway ads or Citibank’s sponsorship of the Citi Bike). Amit imagines that a restaurant might buy a Rolla, plaster its name all over the vehicle, and use it to offer diners a free trip to dinner.
So how could a city actually implement the Rolla? That could be through a private business or public investment. In either case, the barrier to entry would be much lower than something like a subway system, which can cost billions of dollars and many years to extend. NewDealDesign imagines that the system could be tested with just a few units in a city, and more units could easily be purchased and put onto streets to meet demand.
That model is relatively well understood, following the explosion of electric scooters. The trickier proposition might be exactly where the Rolla can drive. It’s designed with the same footprint as a typical bike, but while it could technically squeeze into a bike lane, the Rolla might run slower than a quick cyclist. At the same time, it’s too slow to cruise among cars.
NewDealDesign ultimately suggests that the Rolla might need a third dedicated lane on busy streets, while in more closed environments, such as college and corporate campuses, it might be safe enough to cruise amid pedestrians on walkways. That means the Rolla wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all transit option for every city. Rather, cities would need to make some accommodations to bring Rollas to their streets.
“The vehicle itself doesn’t require much of a headache to develop it,” says Amit. “The mindset [to implement it] . . . needs a lot of massaging.”