Finding more room for people in streets with autonomous vehicles

A new urban planning guide considers how driverless vehicles could transform streets:

To that end, on Monday, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an international, 60-city organization of very serious transportation planners and engineers, published its own vision of the Promised Land, a 50-page blueprint outlining how to account for our autonomous future and build in flexible options that could result in less traffic for everyone, not just those riding on four wheels. “We don’t just need new software running on our streets—we need to update the hardware of the streets themselves,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, a former transportation head in New York City during the Bloomberg administration who now serves on the board for NACTO. “That’s why we need a new roadmap that puts humans first.”…

So what does transit heaven look like? In the future, the transportation planners suggest, vehicle lanes can be a lot thinner. Machines, after all, should be better at driving straight—and less distracted by Snapchat—than their human counterparts. That means more room in major boulevards for walking, biking, even loitering. Tiny parks might exist where parking meters once lived—no need to park self-driving taxis owned by companies, not individual drivers. In fact, vehicles might not even have their own dedicated spaces at all. “Flex zones” could be turned over to different services and vehicles for different times of day. During rush hour, there could be more lanes open to vehicles. During heavy delivery hours, there could be curb space dedicated to Amazon delivery vans (or landing delivery drones). At night, street space next to bars could be dedicated to picking up and dropping off carousers from driverless taxicabs…

“The blueprint is for building the safer future streets that cities need, where speeding is no longer an option, where cars are designed to yield and stop for pedestrians and bicyclists by default, and where people are free to cross the streets where it makes sense, rather than trek a mile to the nearest stoplight,” says Mollie Pelon, who oversees NACTO’s technology and city transportation program. Ignore the naysayers, these optimistic planners say. Autonomous vehicles don’t have to destroy the American city—they’re a shiny opportunity to rebuild it for the better.

I could imagine a number of interesting tweaks to free up more space for pedestrians, particularly since traffic can be more predictable (or at least known). At the same time, I wonder if autonomous vehicles could lead to dramatic changes in roads and cities. Imagine a community where main streets were dedicated to pedestrians and bicycles while vehicles were relegated to side streets or alleys.

A downside of private streets: who exactly owns it?

There is a dispute about the ownership of a wealthy private street in San Francisco:

Tina Lam and Michael Cheng of San Jose said that in 2015 they were looking at parcels being auctioned online by San Francisco’s tax office when they saw a description of “this odd property in a great location.”

“Part of Pacific Heights, the right location, land in a good neighborhood. We took a chance,” Cheng told the San Jose Mercury News. He said they bought the land sight-unseen, beating out 73 other bidders and dropping $90,000 for the street and its common areas…

The Presidio Homeowners Association, which has maintained the space since 1905, blames a wrong address for the misdirected tax bills at $14 a year, bound for an accountant who had not worked for the association since the 1980s. The debt grew to $994, and the street was sold to recoup additional fees and penalties.

But the association did not know the back taxes threatened ownership of the street, the suit against Lam said. No notices were posted on the street, and no one on Presidio Terrace knew it changed hands until May 2017, when an investor representing Lam asked whether the association wanted to buy it back, according to the suit.

Is an odd case like this enough to suggest that having private streets is a bad idea in the first place? While the municipality does not have to pay the same costs to maintain the infrastructure, it seems like the private street is often an attempt by wealthier residents – whether homeowners or firms – to control their settings. And then there is a compelling reason for local government to make a claim to the street, there is a fight from the owners who felt that this property was theirs.

Doing urban planning with driverless cars in mind

If and when driverless cars become the norm, how might places change?

The possibilities are dazzling. If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen…

At IIT, such efforts crystallized in the “The Driverless City,” a 168-page book by Brown and fellow faculty members Lili Du, Laura Forlano, Ron Henderson and Jack Guthman, an adjunct professor and well-known Chicago zoning lawyer. The book serves up visions of the future that read like an update of Verne’s Victorian-era novels, which foresaw the advent of inventions such as submarines. Take this description of future commuting patterns, which is rendered in the past tense:

“On heavily trafficked arterial roads in Chicago and cities throughout the country, human driving faded away as driverless cars become more affordable and widely available. … Collisions and fender benders became rare events. … The clutter of omnipresent traffic lights gave way to smaller furnishings with embedded infrastructure that helped control the flow of vehicles.”

The book also offers a vision of how driverless cars might break down traditional barriers between street and sidewalk, nature and technology. Focusing on a proposed transformation of the South Side’s King Drive, the authors see parking spaces disappearing and vegetation sprouting in their place:

This sounds what like a number of urban planners (such as Jeff Speck in Walkable City) have been suggesting for years: the streetscape could be organized around pedestrians and social life on the street rather than on moving as many cars as efficiently as possible. Americans like their cars and many don’t seem to mind the required changes that must go with it – but this could force their hand regarding urban planning. While American communities are clearly designed with the car in mind, it is interesting that it would take a major technological advance – vehicles that can safely operate themselves – to finally tip the scales toward other street users.

More broadly, driverless cars will likely be sold to the public because of their safety but they could transform all sorts of areas.

How Chicago became “the alley capital of the country”

Chicago has a lot of alleys and here is how they came to be:

According to Michael Martin, alley expert and professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, the “why alleys” question is easy to answer. You just have to go back to the late 1700s, decades before Chicago was founded. America was young, and had hardly touched any of its newest territories to the west…

According to cartographer and Chicago history buff Dennis McClendon, alleys had become so commonplace in the American West that the Illinois General Assembly “simply expected it to happen in Chicago.”…

The I&M Canal Commission hired surveyor James Thompson to lay out Chicago at the eastern end of the canal in 1830. To attract prospective land buyers, the General Assembly ordered that the new town of Chicago be “subdivided into town lots, streets, and alleys, as in their best judgment will best promote the interest of the said canal fund.”…

For its boom years in the 1800s, Chicago was an alley monster; it planned new blocks with alleys, annexed towns with alleys, and added territory to its alley-riddled gridiron. But all grid things must come to an end, and soon communities started popping up without alleys.

The first of those communities arrived in 1869. That year, Frederick Law Olmsted — the father of landscape architecture (and who later played a huge role in Chicago’s landscape) — planned the community of Riverside, which was situated on what was considered to be the far western outskirts of the Chicago region. It was the first planned suburb in America, and the earliest sign of divergence from Chicago’s alley trend.

In other words, Chicago has alleys because when it was founded, many communities had alleys. Chicago just happened to boom at this time and the alley was seen as a normal feature – until it slowly petered out in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then, different expectations took over which emphasized lawns and cars. The vast majority of post-World War II housing does not include alleys as the car is given a prominent spot at the front of the house (with a driveway and garage) and the backyard became a private and important space. Today, New Urbanists promote alleys largely because they are a traditional design feature that removes undesirable activities (like cars) to the back and allows the house to be closer to the street (encouraging sociability). And, I have hard time imagining many municipalities want to pay for alleys – they add an additional layer of cost and infrastructure.

Another downside: McMansions threaten trees

McMansion critics may have another argument at their disposal: constructing McMansions may often require removing trees.

About 2,000 street trees, or trees near Los Angeles roadways, are removed annually, according to Los Angeles City Hall leaders.

The trees are removed in some cases because of disease or death, but in other instances, they’re taken down because of the construction of so-called McMansions.

Concerned about the loss of trees at the hands of developers, a City Council committee called for a report back on new policies for the removal of street trees…

With some tear-downs, a “double driveway is needed where one used to be sufficient,” she said, resulting in the loss of a tree.

This doesn’t seem like that many trees, particularly since there could be multiple reasons behind the removal of street trees. Yet, losing trees could be another blow dealt by teardown McMansions to neighbors: not only will the new home fill up the lot and look out of place with nearby homes, it will require losing some of the greenery that residents tend to like. This is probably less about nature and more about appearances and quality of life where mature trees on residential properties lend gravitas and pleasant barriers between the street and sidewalks, lawns, and homes.

If the problem is the larger driveways for the new large homes, it would be interesting to see how Los Angeles regulates their width. Is there a ratio or size that could be invoked to fit all kinds of situations?

How about this crazy idea: builders of McMansions, teardowns or otherwise, should spend a little bit more money and cover their properties with decent-sized trees. Neighbors and others may still not like the house but who can argue with a number of new trees?

Converting street parking in neighborhoods into social spaces

As a resident of a neighborhood with frequent street parking, I was intrigued to see ideas about transforming the parking spots in front of their house into social spaces:

Given that people do have this relationship with the parking spot in front of their house, what if we enabled them to do something other than park there? Some compact neighborhoods have taken to putting bike corrals or patios in parking spots, provided a reasonable percentage of the neighbors agree…

The transformation of street parking in single family neighborhoods could make even more sense since there is more often room to spare in those parking lanes. Not to mention that if you have zero, or even one car per household, you’re not really allowed to do anything else with that space, so you’re losing out relative to your multi-car neighbors, which isn’t really fair.

What if cities allowed residential blocks to apply to convert those parking lanes to whatever they wanted to, including cottages, bike lanes, extra garden space, public p-patches or dedicated car-share parking? Even better, what if our cash-strapped cities started monetizing the value in those two lanes and allowing neighborhoods to do whatever they wanted (including parking there) as long as they rented out the space, and generally agreed on a plan? The drive lanes in the middle of the street would be conserved, we might find ourselves with more neighborhood parks, or perhaps more little cottages permeating the urban fabric. We might even find new neighborhood amenities in these spaces that we hadn’t even thought of.

Some interesting ideas for spaces that may have value elsewhere. Americans tend to lack public spaces but we do tend to provide lots of space to driving.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. Another added bonus might be that taking away free or cheap parking (though street parking is taxpayer funded) can lead to fewer cars when potential owners have to consider the added price of parking their vehicles.

2. Might this simply be done at the block or neighborhood level by applying some sort of ratio based on nearby housing units? If this were done on the broader level, it gets away from needing to individually monetize spaces and this may discourage driving for a larger number of people.

Essay on Chicago’s alleys

You aren’t going to find too many erudite essays like this one on the subject of Chicago’s alleys:

Thus, alleys in Chicago, as in most other cities, evolved organically: as a general product of function and construction, but with modulations in dimension, materiality, position, and construction, readily changed to suit the needs of its neighbors and occupants. Fluxing along their entire lengths, they cut a byzantine pattern in the city’s figure ground, contributing to its unmistakable appearance in plan without serving as the primary warp and weft of the fabric…

The results are not always beautiful or orthodox, but they are usually interesting; alleys seen in this light could be conceived as both museums and laboratories for material combinations and adjacencies, methods of assembly and detailing. But in another light, alleys are urban canyons—broken glass, vegetation clinging to the fragile mortar joints, with a single swath of sky above: more products of time and erosion, with human intervention to architectonic formations what glaciers are to geology. Again: raw super-nature registered through a Kantian impression of the sublime…

And consider this: glamour in its modern manifestations is generally assigned to objects and places that are alluring, attractive, and special. Its secondary connotation is less positive; a permutation of Norse and Scottish words that tie it to illusion and obfuscation, spells of the eye meant to conceal true natures. In that vein, is it so difficult to see ordinary as glamour, and alleys as extraordinary? We would do well to keep ourselves open; there may be something truly remarkable lying in plain sight within the gravel and brick.

For those who know cities well, I suspect many of them could tell of places where they found something sublime in the non-glamorous places. Much of the attention paid to major cities focuses on major works (like skylines) while residents and others who take a longer and deeper look see a different side.

I was reminded of Chicago’s alleys recently when showing my class part of Mitchell Duneier’s video supplement to his ethnography Sidewalk. In the film, we see images of the subjects of his research – homeless street vendors – wandering through New York City’s garbage in order to find books, magazines, and other things to sell at their sidewalk tables. There was so much garbage simply piled at the curb, not exactly a glamorous sight. In contrast, alleys allow some of these basic functions to be moved behind buildings and open up sidewalks for more pedestrian and social uses.