Next Forma Urbis: On Driverless Cars and the (near) Future of Los Angeles
by Andrea Pavia
The metaphor of the city as human body has endured since the Renaissance, sustained by master designers and theorists, to give sense and structure to the city’s different parts, their functions and interrelations. Using this metaphor, we can understand the city’s mobility system like the human body’s skeleton, providing support, movement, and regulation to the other parts, like muscles and organs. As technologies for urban mobility evolve, so does the body.
With the revolution of the private automobile after World War I, Los Angeles witnessed a rapid and unprecedented transformation that is still underway. The body mutated beyond recognition.
Today we are on the verge of a similar revolution. Connected & Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs), drones for individual passenger and cargo transport, all linked through big data to a shared economy will become, according to the latest industry predictions, a reality in Los Angeles within the next 10 years. Is the body going to mutate once again beyond recognition? And, if so, what is this going to look like? How will this mutation unfold? Will the metaphor altogether shift from the analogy to the human body to the analogy of the complexity of the human brain?
Over the last 20 years Los Angeles has made relatively modest progresses in addressing modernist mistakes of car-led city planning, in dismantling barriers that were created by making traffic efficiency the driving force, and in desegregating uses. Still today only suggesting of removing or re-configuring urban freeways (or at least some of them) is considered an utopian dream (but already done in many other parts of the country like in San Francisco or Boston). Complete Streets and Vision zero efforts have recently received fiery push-backs because of this car-led planning culture (see West Side stories here) and even Measure M is, de-facto, a still mostly pro-car measure!
One of the much-presaged benefits of the CAVs revolution will be a more efficient traffic operations leading to increased carrying-capacity of existing road infrastructure and less parking requirements, with the potential to reallocate road and parking space away from vehicles to other uses. With the ever-increasing levels of traffic congestion that we are experiencing in Los Angeles and that we will keep experiencing in the coming years because of population’s growth, there will be a temptation to simply use the space ‘gained’ for more vehicles.
Urban planners should instead take this opportunity to instigate a paradigm shift and break the cycle of motor vehicle dominance on our streets. We should champion the reallocation of any space away from motorized vehicles, to more productive/resilient uses, people and human-scale activities and finally break the perpetual circle of traffic-induced demand. It would be a great opportunity to use this ‘extra space’ to retrofit our cities in a more climate/context-conscious and sustainable way!
With the advent of CAVs, planners and stakeholders involved in city making will have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-consider how Los Angeles streets function as part of a movement network. This is to say, of introducing a hierarchy to a traditionally undifferentiated (to other than cars) urban grid. A multi-layered network approach, looking at different scales to create connected routes for all modes. This entails identifying strategic routes for CAVs, CABRTs, LRT and streetcars, manually operated vehicles, buses, and bicycles, and not necessarily all on the same streets. In some streets, automated buses and CAVs may be prioritized, in other pedestrians and bicycles may be prioritized with minimal or no CAVs, or other vehicles allowed at all.
As planners, we should welcome this leap forward. At the same time, we should value lessons learned from the mistakes of the last century and recognize that technology is a tool, not a means. Now is the time to formulate ideas and policies to drive this imminent mutation as we cannot afford to shape our cities to a new technology by creating (again) new infrastructural rigidities and hyper-dependence. In this direction check out the most recent APA efforts on the topic here!
*This post is an extract from Steer Davies Gleave’s project on the impacts of CAVs and urban form, in collaboration with my colleagues Riccardo Bobisse and Richard Crappsley.
Andrea Pavia, is senior urban designer / planner at Steer Davies Gleave – Los Angeles.
Visionary yet pragmatic, his research focuses on good-resilient urban form, mobility systems, and place-making, at the intersection between city planning and urban design. He strives to apply civic-minded design principles in complex contexts. You can reach him at Andrea.Pavia@sdgworld.net