How Autonomous Vehicles Gave Us Our Streets Back

Local correspondent Alastair Warren spends a day with Emilie Whitt, founder and operator of MoveHub, a small chain of eclectic temporary workspaces in downtown San Francisco. Whitt is also a nominated curator of public arts for the city, and a locally-known interactive sculptor.

Rain pattered lightly on the windows, adding to the light, foggy glow of the streetscape. Emilie sat with her book, tucked in her chair and enjoying the rich aroma of coffee, thankful for the ease of catching the shuttle this morning. A wet but typical June morning, it was shrouded in fog, raining just enough to keep her and many other morning commuters from cycling.

The shuttles were busy today, a calm, orderly stream of movement along Market Street in downtown San Francisco. The shuttle’s barista calls out names in the background, “Josie”, “Rickard”, “Kate”, as Emilie took a moment to appreciate the downtime before her day started. A couple laughed lightly to each other across the aisle, the atmosphere relaxed.

“Mind if I join you?” An older lady smiled and sat next to her. It seems that as rush hour has dispersed throughout the day and the shuttles have become less crowded, conversation and general politeness have returned to MUNI.

Emilie chatted with the older lady for a few minutes until her bracelet vibrated — her stop was up next. Wishing the lady well as the side of the shuttle opened, Emilie stepped out and across the pavement to her office door.

“It’s something I didn’t realise we had in San Francisco until travelling for work recently — it’s comfortable to travel at any hour on the shuttles. We take it for granted now, but it sure isn’t everywhere.”

As a correspondent to San Francisco, the city never ceases to surprise me in the sixteen years I’ve lived here.

Of course San Francisco has led many progressive movements throughout the decades — environmental conservation, sexual diversity, all things tech — but there’s one cultural shift I certainly never expected to cherish: our approach to using our streets.

When autonomous delivery vehicles arrived in the city, skepticism abounded. But they seemed to simply do their job well, nothing more, nothing less — quite the non-event.

If anyone remembers the introduction of autonomous shuttles, however, a totally different story. These small re-routing buses had people up in arms, uncomfortable, scared, angry. I myself didn’t ride one for at least a year — the idea of being driven around by a computer, no safety belts, nada.

No thanks.

Yet, looking around at the city now, it’s hard to understand that point of view. It’s hard to believe we valued driving ourselves from A to B, and that we dedicated almost all of our precious public space to enabling us to do this.

Geary Avenue was one of the first major streets to be repurposed.

Back with Emilie, it was a relaxed day, although we travelled across town twice for events at her other workplace locations. A typical sounding day for many in this city. It was also a short workday — fortunately her friend Toni’s flex hours matching hers, she decided to meet later in the park.

We both picked up city bikes and headed across town — about a 15 minute jaunt. Our bikes whirring quietly under us as we pedalled lightly up the hill, we passed a cable car heading the other way. A family of tourists were hanging out the windows, staring at the descent. Turning and heading towards downtown SoMa, I’m curious to meet her friend Toni.

As we ride, Emilie tells me this is one of her favourite routes through town. Geary Boulevard is one of the countless transformed streets in the city, a product of an acceptance that maintaining the vast swathes of mid-1900s concrete roadways across San Francisco was both untenable and a missed opportunity.

“Honestly, I don’t know why you’d take a shuttle on a day like today, now that the sun’s out. I love seeing what’s happening on the streets, the smell of the flowers, seeing the gardens change over time.”

We passed small urban plots filled with ripening tomatoes and greens, a couple of skateparks, and the brilliant food truck market at Van Ness. In delightful San Francisco style, each neighbourhood feels different as we ride through, a village within a city. The new streetscapes have exaggerated this.

The citizens of San Francisco owe a lot to our previous Mayor, Fernanda Clark. An architect by training, Clark led the controversial, piece-by-piece reclaiming of the Embarcadero— the waterfront roadway — for greenspace, pop-up markets, and experimental community spaces, and somewhat shockingly, Clark rode the wave of popularity to mayorship. Often lamented and even hated initially, by 2020 it was already considered the “High Line of the West”, and had become the beloved icon of San Francisco’s shift to communal, shared spaces.

We rounded the final corner onto Folsom St, looking out over the square. At 3pm, it’s abuzz with workers, students, and what looks like a school field trip.

We dropped our bikes at the dock and wandered past the fragrant beds of wildflowers, Emilie spotting Toni at one of the small tables, people-watching. This street was once five lanes of traffic and two lanes of parking, all speeding towards the waterfront. It was loud, dangerous, and not somewhere you’d want to spend time — in a word, unpleasant. Today it’s clearly still SoMa, but it’s vibrant and alive.

I say hi to Toni, and we all order a fresh juices and chat. Cranberry-ginger for me, I can’t say no to it. A duo of guitarists are playing blues down the street, and we watch with amusement as a great stream of kids pile out of a shuttle, excitedly kicking off a game of soccer on the cobblestones.

Autonomous shuttles and delivery pods convey people and products around town.

We’re chatting away as our juices arrive. Toni jumps up and grabs them from the small delivery pod. Returning with our juices, Toni remarks how her parents only encountered a pod for the first time this last weekend, when they visited from out of state.

Autonomous vehicles took on a role they never intended to, to make the repurposing of our extensive streets feasible.

I’ve criss-crossed this city for many years, seeing the growing pains of a bustling economy and a strained transport network. Now that transit has evolved, it’s interesting to step back and consider how.

Emilie reminds us that this is not the future most of us had imagined, no glistening new freeways, no hyper-efficient expanded underground transit, and no flying cars. Instead, it is simply an intelligent mass of on-demand shuttle buses traversing a renewed, pleasurable streetscape.

Thanks to: Scott Paterson, Shoshana Berger, and many more at IDEO.

This is part five of Tomorrow in Progress from IDEO San Francisco. Tomorrow in Progress is a series that explores what the future of life in the Bay Area might be like in 10–15 years. It’s an outcome of Adventuring, a new capability we’re practicing, like Design Thinking, that examines futures, design fiction, and inhabitation.

Experience the changing foodscape of the city in our previous post: