Are Designers Letting Autonomous Vehicles Shape Future Cities?

After scanning piles of market research, policy activity, and testing of autonomous vehicles (AVs) it appears that very few (if any) architects and urban designers are involved in real-world work related to AVs. Which wouldn’t really matter, except for the fact that everyone seems to agree AVs will transform cities.

Who Designs Cities Anyways?

A British friend trying to make sense of American-style 20th century suburbs once said to me, “suburbs are the things that cars built while people were sleeping.” That may be giving the cars too much credit, but the addictive popularity of gas-guzzling, privately-owned, fourish-seater cars did enable the confluence of market, political, economic, and cultural forces that we call “suburbs.” Those emergent forces were encoded in design and planning decisions and now there’s a six lane highway separating my leafy neighborhood from downtown Detroit. The i-375 highway may have seemed like a good at one point in time, but so did using a stylus to operate a cell phone. Replacing an outdated cell phone takes minutes, but doing the same for mobility infrastructure can take decades.

The rapid onset of cars challenged the assumption that cities are best suited to tall buildings within walking distance of each other and flipped that on its side—instead favoring low, long structures where cars can easily pull up. Grand steps leading up to building entrances were replaced with port cochères, street walls were perforated by parking decks, and urban courtyards were demoted in favor of suburban cul-de-sacs. Decide how people get around the city and that influences many of the architectural decisions that follow, in one way or another.

With a growing chorus of voices heralding the potential for AVs to fundamentally change cities, including the design of urban spaces and buildings, it would be reasonable to expect that the technology is a top curiosity of architects and urban designers nowadays. Surprisingly, not so much.

A few examples are notable for how early they explored the spatial impacts of autonomous mobility. In the vehicular paradise of Houston, Alloybuild imagined a city of shared vehicles in constant circulation and SWA Group explored the ways that parking lots, streets, and cul-de-sacs might evolve. Students at Detroit’s College of Creative Studies proposed double layer streets for AVs, recalling the dream of multi-layer cities that was in vogue nearly 100 years ago. But perhaps the most thorough academic architectural exploration is also the one that involves the broadest set of perspectives. A team of architects, designers, engineers and lawyers teamed up to produce IIT’s Driverless City project which includes multiple videos worth a look. There are others, but not a ton.

AV Policy and Design are Isolated From Each Other

This year Dash Marshall has been working in collaboration with Bits and Atoms to support the Bloomberg Aspen initiative on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles, a global network of 10 cities who are focused on making the best possible transition to AVs. As part of that joint effort we conducted two research projects looking at the state of play for AVs and cities. First we developed a Primer for Cities that serves as a quick read to introduce autonomous mobility, its building blocks, and potential impacts.

While researching the Primer we reviewed hundreds of forecasts, analyst reports, research documents, advisory notes, and other materials but only a few mention implications for urban planning, urban design, or land use. Though it was released after our Primer research concluded, the NACTO Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism Module One is a notable exception in that at least one urban designer was involved.

Next we surveyed the globe to find cities that are piloting autonomous vehicles. Right now we know of 59 cities (and counting) that do, recently did, or very soon may have autonomous wheels on the ground. Of the 59 pilots listed on the Global Atlas (as of writing), zero appear to involve an architect or urban designer.

Architects and Designers Can Still Catch Up

The lack of architects and urban designers that we observed during our research effort inspired us to take a closer look at top design schools to see who is preparing their students to take a proactive, multidisciplinary role in the AV transition. Using Design Intelligence’s ranking of the top US graduate schools of architecture for 2017, we found that only 50% have any evidence of coursework or organized research related to the spatial impact of AVs in the past year. Just two have a research group currently looking at the topic (Columbia’s Experiments in Motion seems to have shuttered in 2012). Please reply to this post if you know of something we missed.

Broadly speaking we found a larger quantity of academic work focused on car design, including the physical spaces of interiors and new interactions enabled or required by AVs. Ironically, design decisions related to the technology of the vehicles themselves will be the easiest to change in future models, whereas decisions we make (or abdicate) about the built environment will be with us a lot longer—just like the persistence of car-focused planning that many American cities are still struggling to escape.

As the New York Times recently explored in a special issue of their Magazine, cars have been such a central part of our culture that changing mobility will mean changing the rituals and rhythms of urban life too. This is an area that architects and urban designers should be working on now, in advance of the tech being fully baked, so that when the technology does mature there’s a wealth of ideas about how to design cities with new forms of mobility, not subservient to them. In the 20th century dumb cars somehow tricked humanity into building a vehicular paradise. In the 21st century the cars are a lot smarter, and we should be too.

Thanks to Anthony Townsend, Melissa Cruz