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Driverless Cars Could Turn N.Y.C. Into A City Of Tiny Parks

What cities look like in the age of autonomous cars? For starters, we’ll have a lot more street space.

When the driverless car revolution arrives, how will it transform the city–and what can we do to prepare for it now?

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For the New York-based architecture and urban design firm FXFOWLE, that means redesigning the street space that’s currently occupied by parked cars. The firm’s design concept, Public Square, imagines a future where the edges of city streets are reclaimed as public space. The proposal recently won the Driverless Future Challenge–a competition run by Blank Space and the city of New York, focused on the urban implications of autonomous cars.

Public Square is a modular, plug-and-play tile that could be installed along roadways to turn parking spots into usable public space. Designed to sit on the street, the six- or eight-inch deep tiles feature an adjustable pedestal system to account for uneven surfaces and allow the platform to sit flush with the curb. These reclaimed spaces could be used to support anything from greenery and seating to bike paths and communications or retail kiosks. The flexible structure would also enable smart city technology like sensors to be installed within each tile.

“No one truly understands how the driverless car is going to impact the streetscape,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior partner at FXFOWLE. “And our feeling was that there is today, and then there’s 50 years in the future where maybe it’s all driverless cars, but there’s this major period in between. We wanted this to address something that’s going to be transitional and help communities adapt to the change.”

Entries to the Driverless Future Challenge were supposed to conceive imaginative ways to approach a driverless future while also improving city infrastructure, bolstering sustainability, and enhancing safety and durability of transit–while also ensuring equitable access for all citizens. A group of New York City commissioners chose the finalists and the winner.

Whether the future is dominated by driverless vehicles, shared vehicles, or electric vehicles, FXFOWLE felt confident betting that in the future, there will be fewer parked cars. To understand just how much space is used for parking in a dense urban area, the company measured the square footage used for parking on the block of their office in Manhattan. It was about 8,000 square feet–and that’s just one block of one street. New York City has millions of parking spaces in all.

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Public Square is designed to utilize that public space by providing seating and greenery, almost like the parklets that pop up around many cities each year. Kaplan and FXFOWLE partner Jack Robbins envision the concept as a platform, where other people could build their own programming on top of their Public Space tiles. Currently, FXFOWLE is planning to develop the concept into a prototype.

The other finalists for the Driverless Future competition included a system for mobile food carts aimed at solving the issue of New York’s food deserts, a concept for a city-owned, universally accessible autonomous ridesharing service, and an idea to streamline the process of getting a ride at a transit hub.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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