Stand at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 90th Street for a couple minutes and you’ll notice that, like many other New York City street corners, it’s loud. Cars and buses zoom by and horns blare. The occasional bike jockeys for space. Waves of pedestrians cross the three-lanes to enter Central Park.
That same intersection also welcomes visitors to The Road Ahead, a new exhibition on the future of mobility at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, on view through March 2019. The sound engineers at ARUP created a 3D-audio installation that offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the intersection could be like in the future, if new modes of transportation featured in the exhibition—such as autonomous vehicles, scooters, and drones—become widespread.
“We don’t know what the future is going to hold,” says curator Cynthia E. Smith, who organized the exhibition with curatorial director Cara McCarty and curatorial assistant Julie Pastor. “It could be a utopia or dystopia. It could be more congestion or less congestion. We’re trying to help people see how design can play a really important role [in the future] and understand what’s possible through design.”
As the rumble of gas engines fades, lightsaber-like whooshes of electric cars and bike bells enter into ear shot. The street narrows, and a lane of parked cars becomes a patch of greenery. Clinking utensils and laughter from a sidewalk cafe enter the soundscape.
“Livable streets, a place to be,” the video reads.
Across the country, mobility is reaching a tipping point. The share of “supercommuters,” or people who travel 90 miles or more to work, has been growing as people seek both job growth and affordable housing. From 2005 to 2016, the number of supercommuters in Seattle jumped 65.6 percent, in St. Louis the figure increased by 89 percent, San Francisco saw a 112.7 percent leap, and El Paso a staggering 234.7 percent difference. Transportation is now the U.S.’s biggest source of carbon emissions.
Mobility—or the movement of people, goods, services, and information—must change. Curbing car use, making cities more walkable, and perfecting public transit are common goals for many cities, but exactly how to execute on these ideals isn’t a given. Automakers are pushing driverless cars. Logistics companies are exploring drone delivery. Micromobility devices, like scooters, are rapidly entering cities.
The corporations behind these products and services always paint rosy futures if whatever they’re selling is involved. Yet reality doesn’t always live up to the hype: Despite claims that ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber would reduce traffic, they’ve actually increased congestion in many cities. Automation is presented as a foregone conclusion in so many of the concepts on view; visitors might assume the same. As much as designers and car companies—who are rebranding as mobility companies in a bid to stay relevant—are doubling down on tech, can tech really solve our transportation problems?
The future of mobility is still open ended, and The Road Ahead proposes asking even more questions to help all of us—meaning people who need to get around—envision and realize the future we’d like to see. Does it involve some of the ideas on view? Maybe. The Cooper Hewitt hopes to foster more engagement around mobility issues—and perhaps rally more political will around a future that works better for more people.
“It’s a conversation that we don’t yet know the answer to, but we thought Cooper Hewitt would be a good place to inspire visitors to engage in a dialog about how design can play a role in shaping the future of how we move,” Pastor says.
“Can [the future of mobility] be equitable? That’s one of the biggest questions,” Smith says.
Shareway 2030, a concept by the Boston-based firm Höweler + Yoon for the 2012 Audi Urban Future Initiative, focuses on the corridor between Washington D.C. and Boston. It proposes developing on unused land near highways instead of sprawling outward, further from means of multi-modal conveyance.
How new mobility systems will change the design of streets
Autonomous vehicles are a constant in the futurecasting of many designers featured in The Road Ahead. In one project created for the New York City’s Driverless Future design competition, FXCollaborative envisioned a series of modular street adaptations—like walking paths, rain gardens, and pervious surfaces—that would take the place of parked cars, assuming that AVs and a sharing economy translate to fewer cars on the road.
Mobility as a service
Figuring out how to accommodate the “last mile,” or the distance between mass transit and a traveler’s final destination, is a major challenge for designers. Some proposals? The Finnish mobile app Whim, a one-stop subscription service for taxis, car share, and bike share; Olli, a 3D-printed autonomous bus designed to accommodate people of all ability levels; a last-mile solution for wheelchair users; and a folding electric scooter from Moveo.
“A mobility show would not be complete without some beautiful vehicles,” Smith says.
How automation will change the delivery of goods
Freight and shipping poses a major challenge for mobility. “It’s about cutting carbon emissions,” Pastor says.
Companies like Peloton Technology are developing freight platooning systems that let large trucks follow one another at short distances to improve fuel economy. Automated drones and robots are another solution for transporting goods more effectively than driving large delivery vans to a package’s final destination—assuming they don’t spontaneously combust.
The UX of mobility
“There’s so much emphasis on experience,” Pastor says about how major automotive companies and designers are framing mobility. “They’re not selling a product so much as an experience and [thinking about] how they can deliver that in the best way possible. It’s interesting to see how that conversation is changing. The love of driving hasn’t gone away.”
IDEO’s Future of Automobility, for example, imagines offices coming to workers and automated curbside delivery.
How humans understand what these new mobility systems are doing is another challenge related to experience. Drive.ai’s new autonomous vehicles are experimenting with new communication systems that tell pedestrians what the computerized systems are doing, like using a screen to flash the message “waiting for you to cross.”
Then, there’s the thorny issue of ethics. The Moral Machine project from MIT invites people to decide who gets killed if an AV crash is imminent: Is it better to swerve and hit two criminals and a CEO or two athletes?
“They’re trying to raise awareness and establish universal ethical principles so we’re on the same page about how these vehicles should act in our spaces,” Pastor says. “When AVs can know all the data about our gender, socioeconomic status, and health history, what choice do they make? It’s scary.”
How shared data can improve urban design
Understanding and leveraging data is one of the major challenges for the future of mobility. Having facts, versus anecdotal evidence, is important to creating purposeful design solutions. Companies like Uber and dockless scooter companies own huge amounts of data about transit trips, which could help cities create better services for everyone. MIT’s Senseable City Lab proposed outfitting garbage trucks with sensors to better understand air quality in Boston.
“There are interesting low-tech, high-tech things you can do to improve the city,” Smith says.
So is the future going to include levitating autonomous vehicles, drones hovering overhead, and offices that come to you? One corner of the exhibition offers yet more context: The Design Fictions section showcases a 1947 flying car, a midcentury levitating concept car, a 1960s car with a desk inside, and a 1963 one-piece fiberglass car. These are ideas that designers have been mulling time and again for decades, riffing on many of the same ideas that never materialize.
“Urban design is messier than our fantasies want it to be,” Pastor says.