Will Autonomy Reignite Our Village High Street?
This post has been adapted from Humanising Autonomy: Where Are We Going?, the new book by ustwo Auto – download it in full here.
From interstate highways to congested city centers, the ‘big plans’ of our past have left us with noisy, dirty, dangerous places to live – further away from the things that matter to us most.
With the arrival of autonomy in our cities, we’ll have an opportunity to approach things differently. In this post, I’ll try to show why we need to stay away from large-scale, clumsy planning. We need to use human needs, wants and behaviours as a starting point to create sustainable change. And this means starting with small, but scalable, plans.
If we can, we might find that we’re spending less time moving anyway, and more time living. It’s possible that autonomy could bring those things that matter to us closer, by helping us reimagine our cities, suburbs, and villages.
Forget the damned motor car, and build the cities for lovers and friends.
FROM LOVE TO HATE, AND BACK AGAIN
The motor vehicle defined the 20th century. Sprawling metropolises, mass distribution, long-distance personal travel, and so-called “big box” retail, all developed from the increasing ease of movement afforded by cars, trucks and buses.
This blog post alone can’t tell the full story of the car, or the internal combustion engine’s role in economic development. It’s a huge topic, with a back catalogue of expert and bootleg appraisals. But it is worth noting a few significant moments in history so that we can examine what changes may take place over the coming years.
At ustwo, we think that the story of cars and trucks is specifically different to that of other transport modes. For example, during the industrial revolution, canals and rails changed much of the world. And their effects are still being felt today. Canal and rail travel have evolved, and both still enable the transport of goods and people on increasingly unprecedented scales. But fundamentally, despite changes in size and propulsion, these planned networks have continued to function in much the same way since they were first imagined. They took years to conceive and build, and they contribute to systems that were planned based on perceived economic need.
Even in the early 20th century, cars were challenging this model. In the UK, The Metropolitan Railway had helped suburban “garden cities” flourish, but the drastic contraction of more rural railways was challenging the economic viability of smaller towns and villages. Long before the mass construction of motorways (freeways), cars and trucks were filling the gaps left by the removal of slower, less direct and less reliable trains.
So, unlike boats and trains, the individual freedom afforded by cars meant that a planned system didn’t need to be in place before the benefits could start to be realised. When people wanted to go somewhere, for the most part, they could drive there. Old infrastructure for walking and horses was easy to use and upgrade for cars. But people didn’t just use their cars to make up the emerging shortfalls in the rail network. Crucially, rather than adopt a “mixed mode” approach where they may have driven to a railway or bus hub, to continue their journey that way, the majority of people chose to stay in their cars.
That’s important to note because when we look at autonomy’s promise of integrated, smart mobility systems that could allow early adopters to move, for example, from train to pod to bike, we should remind ourselves that the evidence of the 20th-century points towards a single dominant force undermining all other efforts.
As more people were enticed by the freedom of cars, the old roadways did start to reach their limits. By the 1960s, major infrastructure for these increasingly popular motor vehicles was the talk of politicians and town planners across the world, with huge schemes such as US President Eisenhower’s Interstate system, the Parisian Pérhiphérique, and London’s Ringways being inspired by the efforts of Germany and Italy in previous decades. The M1 just before it opened in 1959, image Hinkley Times.
Today, these freeways have come to define not just our built environment, but how we work and live. Public attractions and holiday destinations used to cluster around railways. Now, shopping malls, cinemas, stadiums and theme parks are within easy reach of a freeway intersection. Downtown trackside industrial zones have been replaced by out-of-town office and business parks. And the parking spaces for all the visiting cars have pushed the places we want to go further apart from each other, necessitating more and bigger roads and intersections, and more time in our cars.
The trucks on our freeways have enabled us to enjoy lower prices at discount supermarkets, by bringing larger quantities of stuff in from further afield. And our inner cities have become cleaner without the smoke of industry, as factories relocate globally; the stuff can still be transported back to us efficiently, by ship and truck.
Now, in the digital age, swarms of vans bypass the need even for supermarkets, as stuff can be shipped individually from warehouses straight to our houses and workplaces, giving us even lower prices. In many ways, the pioneering, freeway-laden vision of the post-war planners has enabled our modern, convenient lifestyle.
But not all of those schemes from the 1960s were built. When a protest movement fought for “little plans” in Manhattan that focused on local community needs, whole neighbourhoods were saved from demolition. The protesters opposed the grand plans being drawn up for highways through Greenwich Village and along the East River. In arguing against single-use boulevards, Jane Jacobs presented a case for the diverse neighbourhood street scene, with people out on the pavement visiting a whole range of local businesses. She called for a preservation of “strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own”. These strips, she said, would be anathema to the big plans being put before her community. These big plans were inherently boring “because of the fact that big plans are the product of too few minds”.
“Big plans, in theory, are justified as being gifts to the future. Planning is foresight; the future is what it is all about. Yet big plans, in which everything has been foreseen as far as possible, stifle alternative possibilities and new departures. To plan for the future, and at the same time stifle fresh possibilities, is a contradiction in terms.”
- Jane Jacobs in a speech in Hamburg in 1981 Can Big Plans Solve The Problem Of Renewal from the book Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs.
It’s not clear if Jacobs intended to become an advocate for Lean development principles, where hypotheses are tested by building, measuring and learning, building again, and so on, but the rationales are strikingly similar. How can we be sure now what people will want to do with the things we’re planning for the future?
While the campaign grew in Manhattan, a similar story was unfolding in London, where eventually only a few parts of the planned Ringways were realised. Some of London’s best-known neighbourhoods are very lucky to still exist, thanks to the efforts of protest groups, who successfully brought the plight of residents under the new A40 Westway flyover to national attention. Similar schemes around London were soon paused and later cancelled, as public resistance and costs escalated.
In Paris, the Périphérique has also been blamed for strangling the city’s economic and social development, effectively creating a stifling and isolating concrete belt between the core administrative area and the neighbouring towns and suburbs.
So, humanity has developed a complex relationship with cars. As soon as their benefits began to be felt, we started to push back. In the UK, in 2016, 252.6 billion miles were travelled in cars and taxis, up from 38.6 billion miles when the first stretch of the M1 motorway was opened in 1959. And the national economy has, for the most part, flourished and diversified, as people have been able to work further from home and to sell their wares even further afield. Image courtesy Orange County Archive.
Indeed, before the World Wide Web, the car allowed personal freedom in work, study, leisure and living more than any other technology. Many of the economic and political gains of the past century could probably be linked to the rise of the automobile.
And it’s not fair to suggest that roads were entirely scaled back after initial growth in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, outside of the efforts mentioned above, it’s more accurate to say that despite numerous and vociferous protests, highways have become ubiquitous in most developed countries. But the efforts of later campaigners like Swampy at the UK’s Newbury bypass project in 1996 did start to have an impact; newer road plans have found it increasingly hard to gain approval. In a number of cases, roads are even being scaled back or reconfigured to enable local communities more opportunity to flourish.
UN-BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME BACK
It’s become difficult to argue against the evidence for “induced demand”; that new roads bring more traffic, not less. Rather than easing congestion, people who previously avoided the area start to use the new road alongside everyone else. And it’s becoming harder to make a case for new roads on the basis of new jobs or businesses as well. In fact, a study of a highway “de-elevation” scheme in San Francisco showed that downgrading the road and integrating it better with surrounding businesses and residents actually increased economic activity, revitalising local jobs while also reducing the amount of traffic.
In London, the vast high-speed roundabouts in the Elephant and Castle area, built in 1959 for a future “where the car would be king”, have been made into more manageable two-way streets and junctions, with space for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s calmed traffic and created space for new small businesses and public art.
In the Bronx, just north of Manhattan, one 1950s freeway scheme that did go ahead is being downgraded to a pedestrian-first boulevard, re-linking the local community to waterside parklands that have been cut off, just like in Paris, for over 60 years. Community-generated proposal to unlock space taken up by the Sheridan Expressway in The Bronx, with riverfront parks, affordable housing and commercial space. Image Pratt Center.
Apart from the isolation of communities and spaces, there have been other notable downsides in the face of this democratisation and decentralisation. The World Health Organization estimates that around 1.3 million people are killed every year as a result of road traffic accidents. Nearly half of those killed aren’t in cars – they’ve been sharing the road space, or walking alongside. They’re classed as “vulnerable road users”: pedestrians, cyclists, or motorcyclists. Millions of people have died just trying to get where they wanted to go, because of cars.
And while our cities may be clearer of industrial pollution, a study at King’s College London found that in 2010, as many as 9,500 early deaths in the city could be attributed to airborne particles and nitrogen dioxide, largely a by-product of diesel engines.
Diesel engines which have enjoyed preferential treatment (in tax and fuel subsidies) by successive UK governments, until recent scandals wiped billions of dollars from automotive share values, consumer confidence and future revenue plans. What was once a trust in efficient design has become an existential misalignment between our hopes and dreams as drivers, and the now more unavoidable truth of what we probably knew all along: cars, as we currently know them, kill.
Although the vast freeway networks aren’t quite as vast as they may have been, subtler effects still proliferate. The big plans of our past have left us with noisy, dirty, dangerous places to live – further away from the things that matter to us most. That is the landscape into which we must consider the future of cars and of autonomy. Despite the many negatives, we are largely where we wanted to be as a society, and cars have taken us there. Where do we want to go next?
WHERE DO WE WANT TO GO?
At ustwo, our mission is to deliver products and services that make a meaningful difference. Often that involves working with our clients to figure out what “next” should look like for them, as well as being ready for what the landscape will look like after “next”. As we describe in the Prototyping & User Testing section of our book Humanising Autonomy: Where Are We Going?, in-depth qualitative research is one way to gain the insight needed to be able to guide these discussions and product stories.
One of the most rewarding parts of user research is discovering complicated behaviours and workarounds that people have developed for themselves, to solve problems that look, to the outside observer (or product designer) like they could be eminently solvable with a much simpler solution.
For example, on our GoPark project with Ford, it was estimated that up to 30% of London traffic could have been caused by people looking for parking spaces. When we travelled with users as they parked, we observed complex rituals of slow driving, craning necks, un-jargoning of parking signs, pulling in, pulling out again, and scrambles for coins, all before a successful “park” could be completed. When you list the steps we all go through just to park, you understand why it can feel so stressful!
What other workarounds do we accept in our daily mobility? What’s the mental load we take on, unquestioningly? For Londoners, travelling to a town whose transport network lacks a single, seamless payment solution like TFL’s Oyster card certainly seems like a step back in time to the Dark Ages. But even the Oyster card has turned out to be a transitory step towards an even simpler solution using contactless cards, phones and watches.
So when thinking about autonomy, part of the story will undoubtedly come from a deep understanding of where we are now as a society, and the way we solve the problems we perceive.
THE SILENT MACHINE
Apart from the challenges of road safety and air pollution, society is asking other questions. How can everyone have an affordable and healthy home? How can we plan for a dignified later life? How can we better integrate our communities? How can we encourage sustainable business growth? How can we present ourselves best to the rest of the world? How can we give the generations of tomorrow their best opportunities? A scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The answer to most of those questions starts with access. If people can access services, they can benefit from them. We can leave the design of the services themselves for another day. But in an urban environment, when we think about access we often use words like mobility – not just in terms of how people move around a space, but also the social mobility granted through access to education, culture and employment.
Cities themselves are mobility systems, giant machines to serve the needs of the people who live and work in them. They whirr and clackle with trains, subways, buses, boats and trams, and more private taxis, motorbikes and personal cars. Around the machine people walk and cycle, inserting themselves into the flow like ants, checking every space for the best way through.
Even though the car has enabled us to travel across most of the globe on four wheels, if we wanted to, one has to wonder: why did we put everything so far apart in the first place? With physically closer communities, we could create microcosms of society that would each foster a core set of businesses to serve their needs, as Jane Jacobs saw threatened in downtown New York. Because we don’t have the time, money or political will to come together and envision a better public network, we’ve created a self-fulfilling ideology that we need more private cars to go to more places, which are further and further away. We only walk for the “last mile”, we can’t cycle as much as we’d like to.
We’re dreamers at ustwo, and we’re excited that the conversation about autonomy has also turned out to be a conversation about energy. To curb our air and noise pollution problems, we need quieter, zero-emission vehicles to replace the internal combustion engine. There is a young love affair brewing: a flirtation between between cars powered completely by electricity, which seem to be finally growing up, and the “new on the scene” autonomy technologies. Love isn’t easy, but we hope this will blossom into a happy and successful life together.
As we continue, let’s dream that in the background there is a culture of micro-generation of energy, engaging individuals and communities to proactively monitor and respond to their energy usage. And that on a UK-wide level, we’ve had the difficult discussions about our energy mix and created a distributed grid of tidal, wind and solar, supported by batteries and smart meters. If we’re going to challenge 120 years of automotive evolution, we may as well do the same with energy.
In fact, since this chapter was published in Humanising Autonomy, we’ve seen National Grid speak about how they are planning for the kind of infrastructure we’ll need over the next 50 years. So perhaps it’s not so much of a dream.
When the “cycle superhighways” were first hastily introduced in London, the blue paint that started to snake around london was seen as sloppy design. It was often unsafe, giving neither cyclist or motor vehicle the space that they needed to co-exist. Seven years on, more permanent construction projects have followed, and parts of the city have been completely transformed. Where once noisy four-lane carriageways “flowed”, with pedestrians and cyclists choking on the edges, now peaceful, equally assigned spaces allow pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles to move together at a more human pace. Transport for London’s 2015 designs for an updated Blackfriars Road, with equal space for pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles.
In an autonomous future, every pavement could in effect be a subway platform, with vehicles darting between locations to take their passengers from point to point, before setting off to pick up the next person.
The nightmare in this scenario would be an extension of the “Prius pack” we see outside nightclubs and other events, where drivers jostle for space while they wait for their clients. But just as the cycle superhighways have transformed the urban realm in London, we should see the arrival of shared vehicles as an opportunity.
First, let’s reclaim the parking spaces that will be surplus to requirements, and give more space back to nature, or to local businesses who want to open out onto their streets. Every day could be market day, as self-regulating AV “pods” move smoothly through defined lanes.
Secondly, human drivers who are still on the roads should find their streets less daunting as well. Assistive technologies will help their vehicles follow the speed of surrounding autonomous vehicles. Road markings, signage and junctions will need to be made clearer to help our robot friends to understand, but actually, this simplification would help us all. As we’ve found with most technology at ustwo, making a space more inclusive for one user group actually opens it up and improves it for everyone.
As a society, we worry about later life because we’ve isolated our elderly, and made it difficult for them to independently get where they need to go. Things are so far away that the costs are prohibitive. We worry about housing because despite the decentralisation the car has allowed, property prices in cities are far higher than those in surrounding areas. Village businesses struggle to attract customers to their noisy shopfronts on narrow pavements, as people thunder by on their way to the supermarket. All of these problems could be alleviated with safe and regulated shared transportation.
This is for everyone
City streets will be quieter and calmer. Pavement conversations will no longer be interrupted by revving engines and noisy gear changes. The constant drone that people have learned to block out will give way to a lighter wave-like sound of tyres and asphalt, as autonomous “pods” cruise by at a more constant speed. The streets will proclaim: “we’re not just for drivers anymore; come and enjoy us!”
A 100-year reboot of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would hopefully show us proles not trudging through dark tunnels of smoke and pistons, but free to move at surface level to wherever we need to be that day. Instead of standing and sweating in cramped spaces, we’ll read, socialise and meditate. The planned machine-system of the 20th century will finally give way to a calmly spontaneous, openly inclusive urban realm.
CHALLENGING OUR MENTAL MAPS
In most European cities (and European-style cities elsewhere) there are distinct regions and neighbourhoods. There’s the plucky neighbourhood on the edge of the centre where young artists and entrepreneurs set up and interact. There’s the downtown business district where packaged sandwiches and newsstands litter the pavements. There are the inner suburbs where tree-lined streets branch off busy ribbon roads and roaring buses pull out from between parked cars. Further still, wider roads and roundabouts divide up playing fields and low-lying estates. There are countless other typologies as well; the identikit suburban high-street, the out-of-town strip mall, the leafy commuter suburb.
Depending on who we are, or who we hope to be, a lot of our identity comes from where in this mix of neighbourhood personalities we choose to spend our time. In this final segment, we’ll ask whether these ideas of city and space are still helpful as autonomous transportation emerges.
When we think about what we love about an app like Citymapper, it’s often difficult to see past the magic we felt when we first used it. In a way, all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, to plumb all the the data together, to map station platforms and entrances, and to calculate walking and changeover times, is superseded by the sheer joy of seeing options you’d never before considered, neatly laid out and rationalised to help you choose. And it’s in real-time! It solves the mental challenge we used to give ourselves every time we considered starting a journey in unfamiliar circumstances.
Essentially, it’s become the go-to partner for residents in any city it’s available. When it launched in London, Time Out proclaimed: “It’s so slick, oil is jealous!”.
It’s not much of a leap of the imagination for a Citymapper release of the future where autonomous ride-hail services are at the top of the list. Why walk all the way to the subway, when a ride could be summoned right to your feet? With companies like Uber and Lyft already (very) publicly testing autonomous software, it’s probably a leap they’re betting on as well.
There is an understandable worry about the potential rise in unemployment that this could bring. Not just for Uber drivers, but anyone whose employment relates to driving. “Increasingly capable systems”, as Susskind and Susskind put it in their book The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, will render the work of whole professions largely obsolete – first by standardising the craft, then systemising it, therefore enabling it to be opened up more widely and cheaply, and without the need for the individual craftsperson in the first place.
Manual skills like driving could be the next to be standardised and systemised. Much of driving already is: we have highway codes, white lines, road signs and traffic lights, and laws that govern how people should behave in different situations. As soon as a system can be shown to safely operate normally within those parameters, and to also have a safe way of dealing with extreme and unpredicted events, the role of human drivers will be mostly negated.
Through the 20th century, the idea of local employment, a job for life and the village high street crumbled. People found they could move more freely and further in search of better career options or cheaper goods. And as they could, they increasingly had to, as the stores and industries they left behind became less viable. In the 21st century, the jobs of moving those people and goods around are also under threat. So what can we do?
Perhaps we need to rethink how we see our towns and cities. An app like Citymapper is great for taking us to the places we think we want to be and planning the steps we need to take to get there. But if all of our streets became more pleasant spaces to stay, why should we be constrained by traditional transport – couldn’t every place become a nice place to be, and so, therefore, couldn’t we go anywhere? Illustration and header illustration by ustwobie Simon Child.
We see shared and driverless vehicles as vehicles for change in the places we live and work. Around major cities, our public transport infrastructure tends to point into the middle. But if public transport could go anywhere, we could herald a renaissance in the suburban and rural high street. Forgotten neighbourhoods, whose disenfranchised residents have to move themselves great distances to access the services they need today, could find themselves easily plugged into a whole network tomorrow. And the support could come to them, too.
How could this unfold, practically? When autonomy heralds so many changes, how might we help people challenge their own ideas of what a place is, and what it could be? We thought about whether a smartphone application was a good first touchpoint, and it probably isn’t. After all, we may not even still be glued to our smartphones by the time these possibilities emerge. And putting everything on a tiny screen is, well, boring.
Nevertheless, “the smartphone app” is a great space in which to construct the idea of a challenger to the utility and directness of an app like Citymapper. On our “Adventures” floor, where new startups have space to grow and imagine, Sally coined the term “Shittymapper” – essentially, it could be an app that takes you to places you didn’t think you wanted to go.
What if, instead of selecting a destination, a user could select a task:
- “Today I want to meet friends and discover somewhere new,” or “Today I need an inspiring meeting space for five, with wifi and great snacks.”
- “Today I need milk, new jeans and a haircut.”
Currently, we’d use our own mental models to decide the best way to solve those needs – but Citymapper has shown us the power of doing the hard work on behalf of the user. If, as well as showing the solution, we could take them there autonomously as well, there’s evidence to suggest that this would catch on pretty quickly. It’s the real-time-and-place Amazon for our suburban environment, the Uber, for, well, Uber.
In the first instance, we may ask “but where will people go?”, because the vacuum of talent and space that our cities have created in the spaces around them will be difficult to fill quickly. But it’s a chicken that will create the demand for more eggs.
Our suburban and rural spaces will behave like phoenixes, rising from the ashes of an age where cars promised to take us to better places but destroyed everything on the way. In Harry Potter, students are asked: “Which came first, the phoenix or the flame?” The answer is: “The circle has no beginning.”
And if it has no beginning, then it’s surely already circling. We must stop focusing on big, distant plans, and use the understanding we have today of human needs, wants and behaviours to get started. Let’s make little plans. Our jobs, as dreamers and doers, town councils, business leaders, and simply as people, is to imagine what we can do now to realise this future.
If your interested in reading more about a human-centered approach to our autonomous future – download the entire book from which this post was adapted here.
You can also get in contact with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.