Could Driverless Cars Turn Manhattan Into A Lush Pedestrian Paradise?

Autonomous vehicles promise to transform life for drivers. They may also transform life for walkers, cyclists, and subway riders.

Autonomous vehicles are the future. This we know. In fact, self-driving cars are already cruising around on city streets.


But what’s less certain is how our cities will change to accommodate them. Some urban designers propose ripping out streets and planting parks, for example, while MIT technologists imagine intersections with no traffic signals at all. Meanwhile, another new concept called Loop NYC envisions how New York’s existing infrastructure could be adapted for AVs–and how it could make room for more walkable streets throughout the city.

The concept, created by the architecture and engineering firm EDG, involves transforming existing highways and thoroughfares into a ring of self-driving car expressways to make traveling in and out of the city more efficient. One lane in each direction of the FDR and West Side Highway would be reserved for autonomous vehicles, and so would major cross streets, like 14th, 23rd, 34th, 57th, and 86th. The concept calls for building pedestrian overpasses on these streets so that people and cars are separate, reducing the potential for collisions. EDG also calls for turning existing boulevards in the city into linear parks where bikes and pedestrians can freely move.

[Image: courtesy EDG]
In EDG’s plan, vehicular travel is restricted to just a few streets, meaning that multimodal transportation–like walking, biking, or using subways–would have to take the place of AVs on the streets they don’t serve. It’s not unlike car-free zones in European cities like Madrid, Paris, and Copenhagen–but on a much larger scale. There are several uncertainties in EDG’s plan, too, like how drivers would hail the AVs, what would happen to the rest of the street grid that isn’t part of the AV expressway, and if the designers imagine conventional vehicles operating alongside AVs.

These are issues that urban designers and technologists will face as self-driving cars infiltrate our streets–and as we begin to reevaluate the infrastructure and safety protocols, created largely for automobiles, that govern our cities.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.