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Self-Driving Cars Could Revolutionize Our Sidewalks, Too

The design studio Pensa envisions the way autonomous vehicles could transform far more than our streets.

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Self-driving electric cars are coming from Google, Uber, even Apple. We’ll work in them, lounge in them, share them, and never have to park them.

And a result, our streets may never be the same. But what they will be like is still unclear. So Co.Design asked the New York City design consultancy Pensa to imagine the streets of the future. Pensa is uniquely suited to imagine that future, since it's already playing a tangible role in designing technology into cities. The studio's Streetcharge solar stations, which are built into sidewalks and parks to give people free charging in public spaces, were actually adopted by New York City in 2013.

Pensa's vision is called the Third Space—an illustration of how cities could use the wealth of urban space that autonomous cars promise to free up by removing all those parallel parking spaces.

How Much Will Cities Change?

Freeing parking spots would be a big boon to open real estate in urban areas. There are an estimated one billion parking spots in the U.S., for only a quarter billion cars. That's a 4:1 ratio of supply to demand, which makes little sense for a world where cars can drive around the block, network to a central database, and park themselves in an open spot—especially if they, like taxis of today, might only stop to refuel anyway.

Meanwhile, cities as we know them are already changing the way we do our jobs in subtle ways. "A lot of the lines and ways we think about traditional space in urban environments are getting very blurry," says Pensa partner Mark Prommel. "Even what was my office space before, now there’s free Wi-Fi through most of the city. My office extends onto the sidewalk; that’s where I have meetings and do work."

Given that self-driving vehicles will decentralize the office even more, there’s an opportunity to be had in the literal space between buildings themselves and cars—space that most of us currently use for moving between building and car, or standing as we refresh the time until our Uber arrives. But the possibilities of that space change when you consider what cars of the future will be like: electric, spewing no exhaust, and whirring by almost silently—all while driving by with more nonthreatening safety than a human pilot could ever convey.

The Third Space

"One way to think about it is, you could just stand there and wait," says Prommel. "But when you start to add the layers of what those [future] vehicles represent, and the power of it, the space can change in more subtle ways. If you’re not worried about standing on the edge and being hit, or the noise, or the pollution from vehicles, you can think of this third place as a place to sit."

Cafes. Meeting spaces. It’s easy to imagine a line of pop-up restaurants, or tiny Starbucks, in a more formal architectural representation of the street vendors we have today.

Pensa chose to render this third space not in metal or concrete, but in an inviting, downright anachronistic bent wood facade. "Right now, we’re concerned with the materials we typically think about for being streetside and curbside taking a ton of abuse. Maybe that concern is alleviated a lot by the fact that the vehicles themselves won’t abuse much," says Prommel. "[And] we didn't want something like the slick white gloss of Futurama. This bent wood facade structure felt natural and inviting."

Prommel admits that the choice of wood may be optimistic (graffiti and gum aren't being automated anytime soon), but the material successfully illustrates the project’s larger theme: that when we don’t need to give a second thought to our cars, our city streets can become a lot more precious instead.

Pensa is not the only firm giving this changing landscape thought, of course. The Boston architectural firm Arrowstreet has released a new vision of the parking garage for autonomously driving vehicles. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan, fueled by investments from across the auto industry, has constructed a 32-acre fake town to test the limits to which autopiloted cars can understand the cues of road environments like freeway signs and HOV lanes. Undoubtedly, the way we think about designing cars and urban spaces could change as a result of the research.

And finally, the impact self-driving cars might have on cities isn't yet clear. Recent research suggests that they may or may not significantly reduce commute times even if traffic jams are eliminated, for instance, and they may or may not save much energy as a result. Another study suggests that if we all own cars that circle the block while they wait to pick us up, traffic could get far worse.

All of these vagaries are precisely why self-driving cars make for such a fertile design exercise. Besides, a line of micro coffee shops to grab some overpriced pour-over sounds like the perfect way to kill five minutes before that Uber arrives.

All Images: courtesy Pensa

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