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Thanks to autonomous vehicles, we could have these utopian, tree-filled streets

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An optimistic view of human-centered roadways in the age of driverless vehicles

This street redesign has few signs of autonomous vehicles for a reason

The oncoming rush of autonomous vehicle technology has led to rampant speculation over the future of cities, roads, and society. A recent issue of the New York Times magazine dedicated to the subject listed a number of utopian, dystopian, and downright fantastical visions of our driverless future (no more roadkill, ticketless policing, non-stop teenage car parties, etc.).

While this future, whatever shape it takes, is still a ways away, that hasn’t stopped urban planners and designers from envisioning the layouts, laws, and look of our streets when AV technology becomes mainstream. A recent conceptual design exercise from HOK, a global architecture and design firm, offers a more optimistic, environmentally friendly, and naturalistic take on how this technology may reshape our cities, one block at a time.

Many proposals for AV-enabled streets feature incremental changes, such as wider sidewalks, or the addition of bioswales, landscape elements that filter water and pollution. This HOK proposal focuses on nature first, and sought to answer the question of how we look at streets when technology could fundamentally change how they operate.

The result was a reverse engineered urban roadway, with lush tree canopies, extensive landscaping, wide pedestrian walkways, outdoor places and seating, and just a tiny set of tracks dedicated to fully autonomous vehicles.

“We haven’t spent enough time showing people what cities could look like if they’re not designed around the car.”

“We haven’t spent enough time showing people what cities could look like if they’re not designed around the car,” says Brian Jencek, director of planning at HOK, who helped envision this nature-centered look at the urban streetscape. “Today, you can’t design streets without thinking about vehicles. But those vehicles are about to change.”

These renderings present a vision placing the public realm first, says Jerome Unterreiner, a senior urban designer at HOK who collaborated on the exercise with Jencek and other colleagues. Instead of incremental changes, HOK designers used nature and the landscape as their starting point.

“We haven’t seen this kind of design yet because clients haven’t started thinking like this,” says Unterreiner.

While this speculative exercise relies on a degree of AV navigation technology and road safety that’s far from proven, the HOK team believes it’s important to look forward, consider how AV tech will reshape different paradigms of urban design, and set goals.

With AVs expected to require less space on the street due to computer navigation, how much asphalt can we reclaim for other uses? With cities, such as San Francisco, considering and implementing drop-off and pick-up spaces for ride-sharing and eventually AV cars, how can we design around those new transit points and create magnets for shopping and commerce? Can these new pedestrian focused streets create enough retail and commercial activity to make up for the lack of parking meter revenue?

The dimensions of today’s urban roadway.
Forest Bathing Diagram
HOK’s conceptual design for the AV age would turn excess street space into a walkable urban forest.

Featuring carpets of grass underneath a tree canopy, this revamped roadway also offers solutions to many of the environmental and health problems challenging cities, from cutting carbon emissions and air pollution to reducing the urban heat island effect. It would add more shaded and quiet spaces for relaxation. Adoption of autonomous and electric vehicles, the designers argue, would give space to plants and pedestrian activity, more natural solutions to cutting pollution.

“Health is where this concept starts and ends,” says Jencek.

Theoretically, adding walkable commercial districts may help make up revenue lost from parking meters and parking tickets.

These ideas, which grew out of discussions at an Urban Land Institute event in Seattle and have been used by HOK staff in presentations with planners in cities such as San Francisco, may be as utopian and optimistic as they come. The designers think they’d would work best as demonstration blocks, perhaps part of specific projects for developers who may see these types of walkable streets as a big draw.

The missing pieces needed to make these sketches more relevant and realistic, such as where emergency vehicles would go, are self-evident. But as long as it starts a dialogue, the Jencek and Unterreiner are happy.

“The future of streets touches the rich and poor,” says Jencek. “We need to start a bigger dialogue about what our streets can become.”