Reinventing the Wheel

New transportation innovations are forcing planners and city officials to rethink everything about how we'll get around in California's cities of the future

Illustrations by Josh Ellingson

Imagine the city of the future: Los Angeles, say, or San Francisco — an urban landscape in which the streets have been reclaimed as public space. Visualize autonomous vehicles serving residents and making deliveries on demand. Envision a complex ecosystem of public and private transit: buses, light rail, subways, ride-sharing. Think about the use of bike paths, about sidewalks as pedestrian corridors. Consider mobility hubs — built-out transit stations that offer expanded services, such as bike-sharing, electric vehicle charging stations and ride-share access, all integrated via technology.

This vision seems close at hand and yet, at the same time, miles away. As cities have been revitalized in the past 20 years, urban transportation has come to a critical juncture — a crossroads, if you will. Our cities are gridlocked, with crumbling streets and insufficient parking. Our transportation systems are antiquated and, in many places, on the verge of failing. In New York City, $100 billion is needed to update and rebuild a subway system built at the beginning of the last century; in the Bay Area, BART is at the breaking point, with overcrowded trains and service outages and delays.

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Now, a number of new technologies are arriving that could help mitigate many of these problems — and maybe some we haven’t thought of yet. Autonomous cars, bike- and ride-sharing, high-speed rapid transit, new thinking on traffic management and street design — all portend major changes in thinking about transportation that could radically alter urban life and how our cities are designed. But each of these innovations comes with its own challenges as well.

Take autonomous vehicles, for instance. Urban planners and civic officials are beginning to grapple with what the transition to autonomous vehicles might look like, and how quickly or smoothly it can occur. Gerry Tierney, associate principal at San Francisco architecture firm Perkins+Will, offers one version: “Picture a city in which we use the latent efficiency of autonomous vehicles to restore the public realm.” For Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, it’s a bit more complex. “It’s going to be pretty rocky through 2030, 2040,” she warns, referring to the time it will take for autonomous vehicles to become not just common but also ubiquitous in our cities.

Even as cities begin to imagine the impact of such vehicles, ride-sharing and bike-sharing are becoming common. More ambitious pilot projects also are underway. Last year, Perkins+Will teamed with ride-sharing company Lyft to propose a redesign of a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles that illustrates both the challenges and opportunities faced by contemporary traffic planners. The project zeroed in on the intersection of Wilshire and Veteran Avenue. Sitting between the UCLA campus and the 405 Freeway, this intersection has long been a congestion flashpoint, with a capacity of 29,600 people moving through it every hour. And yet, the study’s findings indicate, that number could nearly triple in the future to 77,000 people, even as traffic lanes are reduced from 10 to three. An image created for the project indicates what this might look like: the streetscape as a kind of plaza, with bicycle lanes and a pedestrian corridor, but also small gardens and seating areas, and driverless vehicles moving through designated areas. The street would be used mostly by small buses — 20-seat pods in a continuous parade, running (perhaps) 60 or 90 seconds apart.

The key to this sort of city planning, says Tierney, who worked on the Wilshire project, is to rethink our preconceptions about transportation. “There’s going to be a transition period,” he acknowledges, “in which a lot of experiments will succeed or fail but, at the end of it, we need to have reframed our attitudes toward a more public or shared-vehicle model in which people are agnostic about how they get from points A to B.”

illustrations by josh ellingson


The advent of autonomous vehicles will hasten the transformation of how people get around. These driverless cars are on the verge of entering regular use: Already 35 cities, including San Francisco, are piloting autonomous vehicle programs, and 42 companies are testing AVs on California roads.

“We keep hearing 2021 as a magic number for when autonomous vehicles will join the fleet,” Reynolds says. “So three years from now, we’re looking at some kind of rollout in certain parts of the United States.” At the same time, the nonpartisan Rocky Mountain Institute, which works with communities and businesses on energy issues, has predicted that the United States might reach peak car ownership by 2019. Were that to happen, it would coincide almost exactly with the emergence of AVs into the marketplace.

For a sense of what this sort of transition might look like, all we need to do is look at ride-sharing, which has become a significant part of the urban transportation puzzle since Uber launched in 2009. “What we’ve seen in San Francisco,” says Jeff Hobson, deputy director for planning at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, “is that [ride-shares] provide the first mile/last mile connection” — the distance between transit and home or destination — “while also filling in gaps after hours.”

In the city’s South of Market area, Hobson says, ride-shares handle up to 25 percent of the morning and the afternoon commute. That’s a mixed bag in terms of impact. In October, a UC Davis study concluded that more than half of ride-hailing trips would not have been made at all, or took the place of walking, biking or mass transit trips. In that sense, ride-sharing may be increasing traffic on city streets rather than reducing it, much as adding lanes to freeways only leads to more congestion, a phenomenon known as induced demand.


A big part of the transformation of urban transportation is dependent on the enduring popularity of the single-driver car. “The dystopian future,” says Alissa Walker, urbanism editor of Curbed, “is one in which everyone gets into his or her pod-like vehicle, as in the movie ‘WALL-E.’ Sprawl will only become worse if we stick to the model of a single driver in a single car.” Hobson agrees. “The possible liabilities,” he says, “include the potential for a vast increase in private vehicles, which will add to congestion, hinder public transit and increase economic disparity.”

At the moment, all of this remains conjectural, which is why it’s so necessary to try to get it right. “There’s a good argument to be made,” Hobson says, “that autonomous vehicles come with two clear likely benefits: an increase in safety and also more access for people who are isolated and unable to drive.” As for the former, there is no indication that autonomous vehicles are less safe than those that are human-operated — in fact, quite the opposite. “Robots,” Reynolds says, “are not likely to break rules. They can be programmed not to speed, not to double park.” Autonomous vehicles also don’t get drunk or tired; they don’t hit the road after having a fight with their children or their spouse.

When it comes to access to transportation, AVs could also help open up the transportation grid in ways that could well be transformative. In a 2017 white paper, the Ruderman Family Foundation estimated that “15 million Americans have difficulty getting the transportation they need, including more than 6 million individuals with disabilities.” These include the elderly, people in rural or inaccessible areas, and those who, by reason of “visual impairments, ambulatory difficulties, cognitive difficulties or other disabilities,” are physically unable to drive. Autonomous vehicles may remove some, if not all, these barriers when more of them are on the road.



Still, for all the potential benefits, there are many existing problems autonomous vehicles do not solve. In fact, they may well come with issues of their own. The advent of cars that neither break traffic laws nor require street parking, for instance, threatens to remove a key source of civic revenue: hundreds of millions of dollars — something like $150 million a year in Los Angeles alone — in tickets and fines. There also have been ethical questions raised about how autonomous vehicles might deal with conflicting threats on the road, such as having to choose between hitting a pedestrian or another car. It’s also not entirely clear who would have the insurance liability for an automated accident — the vehicle’s user or its manufacturer.

There are other pressing matters facing cities in regard to transportation, especially the allocation of street space and rights of way. In Southern California, LADOT is in the process of inventorying and categorizing curbside usage and regulations as the first step in a comprehensive mobility plan that also takes into account parking, transit stops and pedestrian needs.

“If we get the inventory,” Reynolds points out, “we can begin to understand demand.” Among the benefits, she says, might be some form of congestion pricing, in which street access would be more expensive for the single driver than it would be for a shared vehicle. Such a strategy is already being put into practice in some cities — although, Reynolds acknowledges, it remains, for the moment anyway, a political third rail. Still, she emphasizes, what’s essential is “increasing access and keeping vehicle density down.”

To that end, Los Angeles has already begun to rethink its transportation templates, beginning at the neighborhood level. Mobility hubs are one part of these efforts, as is a pilot program to bring electric car-sharing to Westlake, a low-income neighborhood near downtown. The service is a public/private partnership between the city, in part through a grant from the California Air Resources Board, and Blue California, a division of the French company Bollare Group. These on-demand cars cost around 20 cents per minute, and drivers can pay with Metro TAP fare cards, which alleviates the need for a credit card or bank account. A key goal is what Reynolds refers to as “door-to-door happiness” — in other words, a transportation network that adapts to the individual rider rather than the other way around.


Of course, the elephant in the room — or in the street — is automobile ownership. If the dystopian vision of autonomous vehicles involves more traffic, more people cocooned in private vehicles, then the utopian model is built on ride-sharing. The reality will almost certainly be somewhere in between, but already some car manufacturers are discussing shifting to a subscription model, with valet-like on-demand automated delivery of vehicles that meet drivers’ specific needs. It’s a compelling notion, a different take on access: the idea that you can get up in the morning and summon a sedan, sports car or SUV to suit your needs.

But it may also be a hard sell, especially in California, where car culture continues to dominate and the automobile is not just a status symbol but also an emblem of the driver’s personality. “People change when it is in their interest to do so,” says Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer of the Los Angeles Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation, “so we have to think about that. You hear a lot about autonomous vehicles, how they will change everything. But that’s only true if the price is right and the trip is better.”

Whatever vehicles we use in the future, the streets we drive on will change as well. “The future of the street,” says Ratna Amin, transportation policy director at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, “is the future of the transportation system. When we design our streets, we design our cities and region. Streets that perform the functions we truly need — supporting water systems, public life, retail and more — should be the foundation of the transportation system. … The big challenge is how to fund these street changes at scale.”

Unfortunately, cities cannot simply shut down to reconstruct their transportation infrastructures, which means the metropolis of the future must be erected on the foundations of the past.

Southern California presents a vivid example of this, since much of its light rail — including the Expo Line, which in 2016 restored rail service between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica for the first time in more than 60 years, or the new Crenshaw line, scheduled to open in 2019 — operates along century-old Pacific Electric streetcar rights-of-way. “Back to the future,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called it when he lauded the completion of the Expo Line. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, however, offers a less breathless perspective. “We’re playing catch-up,” he says, “building this new system through the teeth of the built-out city.”



The city of the future, then, will incorporate a lot of the city of the present, even of the city of the past. It will be built along the streets we know, beside familiar buildings and storefronts. It will look the same and also different, the way cities always have.

By way of illustration, let’s consider an ancient bit of black-and-white footage, filmed in San Francisco in the spring of 1906, barely one week before the Great Earthquake and Fire. In a certain sense, it’s a historical oddity, a portrait of a city about to be destroyed. But as the camera — which has been attached to the front of a streetcar and shakes with every jostle of the vehicle — records a journey east on Market Street, with the Ferry Building as its terminus, a different set of correlations begins to emerge.

Pedestrians cut in front of the streetcar with seeming impunity, while cars and horse-drawn carts veer in and out of traffic lanes. The effect is somewhat chaotic, as if the citizens haven’t yet learned how to use the streets. In fact, however, it is a portrait of another version of city living, in which the streets have not yet been taken over by the automobile.

“When we turned streets into pipes of cars over the past century,” Amin argues, “we did all kinds of damage to communities, we killed people, and created traffic jams.” In this glimpse of San Francisco on the eve of its destruction, then, we observe not just the city as it was but also (perhaps) as it may again be.

“The instructive thing,” Tierney said of the film during a 2016 Curbed digital symposium, “is seeing people walk without being conditioned to walk under the front of buildings. They just use the space whatever way they want. Up until about 100 years ago, that was how everyone experienced the city. Only recently have we been trained to walk dutifully along a little sidewalk, waiting for the man on the sign to turn from white to red.”

The city, in other words, is not some fixed and finished monument, but a more fluid landscape, evolving, absorbing new ideas and new forms of transit in which, Seleta Reynolds imagines, “the arrival of good legitimate transit allows us to revisit an urban model that has become too monolithic.”•

David L. Ulin is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award.
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