Visions of 'cities of the future' get it wrong when it comes to cars

A century ago, cars took over city streets, and they won't relinquish control anytime soon.

We keep hearing that the future will be very different once autonomous cars and other forms of smart mobility take over, and that cities will be radically altered. A similar transformation occurred a century or so ago when cars first became mainstream and city streets were forced to accommodate them.

An article by University of Virginia associate professor Peter D. Norton titled "Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street" noted that at the turn of the 19 th century, city streets were shared by "private horse-drawn vehicles, pedestrians, pushcart vendors and children at play. The balance was always delicate and sometimes unstable, and crowds of automobiles soon disrupted it."

Norton notes that a battle for city streets and a war of words between motorists and what they derisively described as "jaywalkers" (yep, that's where the term comes from) ensued. "By 1930," he writes, "in the new street equilibrium based on the supremacy of automobiles, jaywalker was a conventional term routinely applied to pedestrians engaging in street uses once beyond reproach. By then most agreed, readily or grudgingly, that streets were chiefly motor thoroughfares, open to others only under carefully defined restrictions."

Now that self-driving vehicles are in the vanguard, they're being envisioned as a way to reclaim city streets so they're no longer clogged with cars. And while urban planners are apt to envision a utopian future of cities sans cars, we're now seeing concepts of how cities can be reimagined in the age of smart mobility from the likes of Ford and ride-sharing provider Lyft.

At the Detroit Auto Show in January, Ford unveiled its vision for the City of Tomorrow, in which "reconfigurable roads fluidly respond to commuter needs and traffic flow. Bikes and drones provide last-mile solutions for both people and goods." Ford also imagines "converting road space into green space and parks, allowing for higher quality of life and healthier communities."

With the assistance of architecture firm Perkins + Will and transportation consultants Nelson/Nygaard, Lyft recently reimagined LA's Wilshire Boulevard in the era of autonomous cars, "transforming it from 10 lanes of vexing car traffic into a multi-transit space with wider sidewalks, benches, planters, bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes and lanes for shared self-driving cars," writes the website Curbed. Lyft says that the redesigned So Cal street could accommodate up to 77,000 commuters per day compared to less than 30,000 in its current car-centric configuration.

These ideas certainly are eye-catching and cool — but ignore two inconvenient truths regarding the number of cars currently on the road. First, the auto industry sold a record 17.6 million new vehicles in the U.S. last year, and that was on top of 17.5 million in 2015. Second, cars are lasting longer, on average 11.5 years, which means we'll have legacy human-piloted vehicles on the road for decades to come.

"We've been through this before," Gerry Tierney, an associate principal at Perkins + Will and director of the firm's mobility research lab, told Curbed. "At the start of the 20th century, people had no idea that cars were going to run over their cities. We know what a dystopia looks like."

Sure, "dystopia" could easily describe almost any urban artery at rush hour, but I believe that despite these fanciful visions of our urban future, we have no idea what's down the road. Just look at predictions from 50 years ago of what life would look like at the turn of the 21 st century — and how self-driving and flying cars would figure into these concepts — as proof of how hard it is to predict the future.

And evidence of how silly some of today's renderings will look a half-century from now, when human-driven cars will still likely rule the roads.

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