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How can automated vehicles be deployed to combat 20th-century automobile-driven urbanism?
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AUTONOMOUS URBANISM

 
Los Angeles
2019 - current
Harvard Graduate School of Design
Design Research

The Autonomous Vehicle (AV) revolution is imminent, the forefront of which are huge tech companies like Tesla, Google, and Uber pushing for commercial roll-out while slow-reacting public agencies wait to see how this emerging tech will impact our cities. If there were to be a proliferation of the AV into the private ownership mobility sphere, there is real fear that automation would essentially become cars on steroids - exacerbating congestion, enabling greater urban sprawl, highlighting mobility inequalities. Therefore, the moment is crucial to envision an urban future that is improved by the introduction of AV's and to delineate the steps that cities must take to guide us toward a more positive urbanism before it is too late.

 

This manifesto envisions a near future (year 2047) in which the Autonomous Vehicle (AV) catalyzes a mobility paradigm shift towards autonomous public transit as a model of regional urban growth in the city of Los Angeles, in order to combat many of the major negative externalities that the private automobile has imparted onto its urban realm: urban sprawl, traffic congestion, environmental unsustainability, and mobility inequality. The manifesto instrumentalizes automation as a revolutionizing force in the NextGen bus transit network of LA, introducing a new range of automated vehicle sizes that plug mobility gaps while simultaneously critiquing current LA transit agencies’ obsession with the expansion of its light rail network. Methodologically, it proposes an alternative top-down AV-incorporated transit planning model that is populated by a bottom-up narrative framework, a graphic novel that envisions this future world through the eyes of 5 distinct Angeleno archetypes as they experience this mobility paradigm shift first-hand. By doing so, it offers a radical story that might convince the everyday Angeleno that alternatives to car culture can exist, a set of concrete policies to guide the city's evolution, and finally a set of urban implications and lessons-learned for the design and planning of the city of the future.

While the private car caused public transit to historically decline in the United States, we must now use the automated car to return us back to public transit as a model of urban growth. In envisioning this potential urban future and delineating the design, planning, & policy paths that one might take towards achieving it, this manifesto contends that there is hope in transitioning from the Autopia of today, to a Transitopia of tomorrow.

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3-Part Manifesto
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This manifesto is organized via 3 parts:

  • Part A envisions a radical new mobility MODEL that incorporates the Autonomous Vehicle, guided by key transportation policies.

  • Part B envisions how the everyday Angeleno would EXPERIENCE such a mobility paradigm shift through the format of a graphic novel.

  • Part C explores the IMPLICATIONS of such a paradigm shift for the city of the future.

 

These parts are not linear, but rather crucially influence and affect each other as a feedback loop in their evolution.

 

Click below to scroll to each respective section of the manifesto:

This research was invited to be curated & displayed at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture & Urbanism

Click                   to see photographs of that exhibition

 
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Technology has always had an intricate relationship with the urban growth of our cities - the introduction of locomotive or automobile technology becoming new foundational infrastructure for city planning in their respective eras. The history of 20th century America saw its cities planned around technology, which has always had a profound effect on urban growth patterns, often to various detrimental urban effects. However, this research argues that the qualities of a more positive built environment need to come first, before asking how & what technology can lead us there.

 

We also have to recognize that there has been a continual historic push and pull between private vs. shared mobility as the dominating driver of urban growth patterns. Despite the dominance of car culture today in the US, it is just one of many mobility modes used to get around the city. If there were to be a proliferation of the AV into the private mobility sphere - single-occupancy, gasoline powered, and privately owned - there is a real fear that automation would enable greater urban sprawl, exacerbate congestion, and highlight mobility inequalities. The manifesto therefore instrumentalizes automation as revolutionizing the entire NextGen bus transit network of LA. Firstly, a whole new range of transit vehicle sizes are introduced, smaller mini-shuttles that could run flexible and on-demand service. Secondly, the reduction of driver cost (which accounts for over 60% of the cost of running service) in existing rapid and local bus transit would allow an increase in both service frequency and coverage.

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This research situates itself in the city of Los Angeles as a testbed for several important reasons. First, if there was any city that needed such a paradigm shift, given its love affair with the car, it would be LA. Secondly, the city is a prime example of larger shifting cultural mobility trends in the US today. Termed the “Third” LA, the city is taking real and measurable steps to move past the freeway, the private car, the single family home. At the forefront of this emerging city, is massive investment in public transit that began since 1990. In late 2016, voters in LA approved Measure M, gifting Metro, $120 billion over the next 40 years to build a 21st century public transit system until the year 2047.

Analyzing MetroRail’s current light rail network and expansion plans reveals a mono-centric downtown-oriented rail network that has been overlaid on a Jeffersonian grid network of bus routes. Yet we know that LA is a prime example of a poly-nucleated city, with multiple job center outside of its downtown core.  Measure M’s expansion of the light rail network into the gridiron network of bus routes, fails to comprehensively capitalize on existing poly-nucleated employment centers, nor does it incorporate the impending arrival of the autonomous vehicle. This research therefore proposes an alternative Measure M transit network plan that transitions its downtown centered model, towards a poly-nucleated spoke model in which a hierarchy of rail and automated bus-rapid-transit form the long-distance backbone of the city’s poly-nucleated employment centers.

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EXISTING TRANSIT PATTERN

PROPOSED AV TRANSIT MODEL

In this new model, poly-nucleated centers are first hierarchically connected by new Autonomous Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRTs could serve as precursors to light rail, the first step in implementing transit spoke corridors that facilitate direct connections between poly-nucleated city centers. Then, fixed-route local bus service and frequency is intensified around these existing hubs, filling in the 3-5 mile mobility gap, and creating a blueprint from intensification of urban growth and land-use around these poly-nucleated centers. Lastly, areas between these centers, areas of low density that traditionally don’t have enough density and ridership to support fixed route transit, are serviced by flexible on-demand automated transit mini-shuttle.

Played out on the actual transit paradigm of LA, this results in a new model that cannot be categorized as either hub and spoke, nor as a grid, yet exhibits characteristics of both. Rather, the new AV incorporated transit model much more accurately reflects the poly-nucleated nature of the city of LA (a city which does not have the defined mono-centric downtown core that most other cities do), and transitions the Mononucleated Grid model of today toward a Poly-nucleated spoke model that reinforces and intensifies the 17 poly-nucleated job centers that exist in the city.

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Zooming into this model, new transit hierarchies and trip chaining are implemented. Firstly, Light rail (#1) and BRT (#2) as service line precursors form the long-distance backbone of connection between poly-nucleated cores Zone A’s. This is overlaid on top of the existing local bus network of the city (#3). Then a series of automated smaller fixed-route shuttles (#4) at a high density of coverage and frequency service these core districts Zone B. Finally, automated flex and on-demand mini transit shuttles (#5) service the lowest densities, single family suburbs. Low-occupancy vehicles are disincentivized from being used for longer distance commute by the presence of Transport zone fees when crossing Zone C boundaries, working in tandem to support the use of rail and BRT for long-distance commute, while smaller vehicles sizes are used for medium to short-range trips.

Read Part A: the Automation Model, more in-depth here:

 
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Methodologically, this manifesto argues that the autonomous revolution must be conceptualized both Top-Down, and Bottom-Up. Top down regional transit planning models in LA (illustrated previously in Part A) must assimilate the AV into its models, or risk it proliferating into the private ownership sector. But at the same time, we must re-envision the cultural and behavior norms - that is, the everyday Angeleno’s love of the car - as a bottom-up tactical methodology to convince them that there are alternatives to car culture. Through the format of a graphic novel, the manifesto will envision this future world through the eyes of the everyday user of such a technology. It is through their eyes that we must imagine an urban environment that evolves more positively for the human, rather than alienating us, something that technology has historically wrought upon the city.

The graphic novel is also a way to combat the historic prolific celebration of the car in the American imaginary, through media campaigns, car adverts, and especially through Hollywood. It offers an alternative story that might perhaps be read by children and the everyday Angeleno, and convince them that alternatives to car culture can exist, that there is hope to transition from the Autopia of today, to a Transitopia of tomorrow.

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It is the year 2047 in sunny Los Angeles...

The autonomous vehicle has long arrived in the sprawling metropolis. Yet its proliferation has not spelled doom on the congestion crises that plagued the once traffic-ridden city of the early 21st century. Rather, the AV has been absorbed, appropriated, and instrumentalized by LA transportation agencies to revolutionize its transit model, spear-heading the expansion of its rail & bus infrastructure. A mobility paradigm shift towards autonomous public transit has occurred, with vast implications for the everyday life of the typical Angeleno. The following stories trace a day in the life of 5 distinct households as they experience moving around the city in vastly different ways. Each of the households represents widely varying incomes, demographics, and family structures, representing the majority of the Angeleno population. Their interactions with each other, and with autonomous transit in the city has improved their lives in a variety of important & noticeable ways.

These are their stories...

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The Smith Family

Jane

C.J.

Suburban Nuclear Family

In the year 2019, the Smith's, a typical suburban family own two cars. Jane, took one car to commute to work, a trip that took almost one hour, while C.J. used their SUV for errands. The same vehicle was used for all trip types: work commute, dropping kids off at school, grocery shopping and other errands. For most of these trips, the car was occupied by a single person, and while not in use, sat in the driveway or a garage. The Smith family had no incentive to use transit, given the convenience of point to point travel afforded by their two cars, and the lack of transit options serving suburban areas. Even though the Smiths constantly complained about ever-worsening LA traffic, there are were no other mobility alternatives that could rival their personal car. LA was congested, polluted, and the Smith family spent over 600 hours in traffic every year. However, by the year 2047...

(Experience a day in the life of the Smith Family in

in the graphic novel below...)

Composite Household

In the year 2019, Adam & Ki, friends from college, were renting an apartment in Koreatown. Adam's job on the west side required him to commute over two hours round-trip in a car every day, most of this time stuck in typical rush-hour traffic. Adam considered using transit for his long commute, but ultimately wasn't willing to spend the additional 30 min per trip it took to ride the train over a car. Ki's job as a freelancer required him to always be on the go, meeting with multiple clients between various city centers. Ki tried to use a bike as his primary method of mobility, but the dearth of protected biking lanes in the city forced him to take Ubers most of the time. He preferred the privacy, reliability, and convenience of on-demand mobility for appointments & work-calls, something that bus transit in 2019 just couldn't guarantee. However, by the year 2047...

(Experience a day in the life of Roommates Adam & Ki in

 in the graphic novel below...)

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Roommates

Adam

Ki

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The Perez Family

Jose

Carlos

Dora

Maria

Extended Working Household

In the year 2019, the Perez family were a lower-income family living in Leimert Park. The Perez's could not afford to own a car, their only option to move around LA was to rely on bus transit which was unreliable, crowded, and slow. This limited the job options that Jose had available to him, while Maria's job as a bus driver required her to concentrate both on the road as well as her passengers. Grandpa Carlos took care of Dora by accompanying her between school and home. Each family member spent up to 3 hours per day commuting, leaving little time to spend together as a family. While bus was the only affordable option to move around the city, the family was saving up to purchase their first car, in hopes that this would allow them to access more jobs & better opportunities in a city that catered so much to automobile owners. However, by the year 2047...

(Experience a day in the life of the Perez Family in

in the graphic novel below...)

Business Traveler

In the year 2047, Mr. Gibson, Houston's transit deputy director, has heard of LA's success in reducing car traffic while substantially increasing transit ridership, using AV technology to spear-head these behavioral shifts. In Houston, transit agencies did not prepare in advance for the autonomous revolution, and when they were rolled out through private sector fleet operations, the city's sprawl, congestion, and pollution increased exponentially. Fed up, the Mayor has sent him to meet with public & private transportation actors in LA, to learn about how Houston might adopt some of the policy, planning, & design successes of LA. Previously in year 2019, he would have rented a car from LAX airport, driving to all his meetings in the city. Slow & unreliable transit would have been a non-starter while Uber would have cost far more than renting a car. However, in the year 2047...

(Experience a day in the life of Mr. Gibson in                                    

in the graphic novel below...)

Mr. Gibson

Ms. Reynolds

Transit Planner

In the year 2019, AV's are about to arrive in the city of LA. Most cities transportation departments are slow to react to this emerging technology, waiting to see how it will impact its cities. However, LA's public agencies decide to get ahead of this emerging technology by implementing progressive transportation policies, requiring data-sharing, and regulating how it interacts with the city's built realm. This forward-looking stance allows LA, in partnership with the communities that it serves, to guide the evolution of the city in ways that lead to a better built environment, reducing the city's dependency on the car, making transit accessible to all, densifying the city in ways that prevent displacement, and addressing historic inequality & segregation in the city's urban realm. This progressive groundwork has allowed the city to evolve to 2047 in the following radical ways...

(Experience  a  day  in  the  life  of  Ms. Reynolds  in

in the graphic novel below...)

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As the graphic novel will illustrate, these 5 household archetypes utilize this new AV transit network in vastly different ways, based on the different places that they live, work, and play. A day in their life takes them across many geographies and job centers in the metropolitan area, as they interact both with each other and with the network system. Collated together, they demonstrate a wide capacity of the new automated network to get Angelenos all around the city for a variety of distinctive mobility needs.

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Suburban Nuclear Family

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Composite Household

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Extended Working Household

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Business Traveler

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Transit Planner

 

Read Part B: the Automation Experience, more in-depth here:

 
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Part A has suggested a framework of transportation policies and a radical alternative mobility model that would shift the LA of 2019 to an LA that is illustrated in Part B, through the eyes of the citizens of the city. How then, do we determine if we have arrived to that LA 2047? Part C lays out key implications that transportation automation could have on the city of the future, directly relevant to the professions of urban design and planning. As detailed in the stories, and achievable by key policies, these are lessons that we must take away with us if we are to guide the future of the AV towards the more positive urbanism that this manifesto envisions.

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Adaptive Re-use of Car-centric Typologies

Car-centric typologies of Los Angeles - the fast-food drive-through, the LA strip mall, the single-family home, and of course its abundance of parking - all need to be re-configured for a driverless world, in ways that prioritize the experience of the street and its public realm, rather than primarily designed around the spatial constraints of queuing and parking requirements of the private automobile.

Drive-Thru Restaurant

One of the most infamous building types that have been invented since the rise of the automobile is the drive-through fast-food restaurant. Oriented primarily around the spatial queuing constraints of the automobile, these building types are often surrounded by parking and rarely incorporate outdoor seating or public space. When outdoor restaurant seating is included, it is often minimized, constrained, and separated from the urban realm. These building types are prevalent throughout the US, and especially in LA. With automation, a dramatic reduction in the need for parking presents opportunities to re-design and re-think how this existing building type can be adapted to better serve pedestrians, contribute to the public realm, and densify.

Retail Strip Mall

A unique building type that has proliferated in LA is the L-shaped retail strip mall. Precisely calibrated to the car, stacked retail shops are arranged around a parking lot, often serviced by valets. The typology's shop-fronts and signage orient towards the street to advertise to passing cars, while its sidewalks are often crowded with street vending. With automation, the need for parking dramatically disrupts the calibration of this typology, & creates an opportunity to densify existing lots while introducing new public space and formalized vending as part of the urban street experience.

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Automated Transit Prioritizes the Pedestrian

A complete re-conceptualization of the urban realm, including the street's sectional right-of-ways needs to be re-examined. As automation shifts dependence on private vehicular traffic towards shared mobility, typical contemporary streets - from major to minor arterial scales, from commercial to residential types - that currently prioritize the private automobile need to be re-configured for both transit and the pedestrian. Central to this restructuring is the idea of the street as public space that ensures safety for pedestrians, while access to well-designed, shaded, and integrated transit stops and bike lanes ensure a variety of multi-modal paths of travel.

Major Arterial Corridor

While LA is not traditionally known for having many high-density cores, it does exhibit certain key high-density corridors that connect its poly-nucleated job centers, one of the most famous corridors being Wilshire Boulevard. However, these high-density corridors and multi-lane wide streets are primarily oriented toward the car, rather than transit or personal mobility like cycling or even walking. Bus rapid transit or high-occupancy lanes are nonexistent, as are protected bicycle lanes. Sidewalks remain wide but underutilized, without much shade nor continuous street frontage to activate it. With automation, an opportunity to rethink these large-scale wide boulevards with transit, the urban realm, and the pedestrian in mind presents itself given the potential reduction in private automobiles on the road.

Commercial Street

Embedded within LA's grid are a series of commercial and retail corridors. Unlike other American cities in which retail businesses cluster around job centers or transit nodes, much of LA’s retail forms around street corridors and edges, a product of the fact that much of these retail footprints cater to parking minimum requirements. This has produced commercial streets that do not service the pedestrian and de-value the public realm. With automation, the need for street or lot parking will decrease, creating an opportunity for designers to re-think how the street right-of-way should be re-organized for the betterment of pedestrian activity and of the built environment.

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Automation catalyzes Density and Land-Use

Through a reduction of the need for street, lot, garage and driveway parking, automation opens up a key opportunities to densify and encourage more mixed-land uses in the current zoning of our cities today. These parameters - urban form, land-use zoning, and density - need to be in a constant feedback loop with transit planning. Comprehensive regional urban growth models reflect network service, and vice versa, having vast implications on the polycentric densification of the city of LA along hubs & spoke corridors. Central to densification is the critical affordability of housing, which must be prioritized as large percentage of land reclaimed from parking opens up for infill and up-zoning.

Single-Family Residential Block

The predominance of the garage and the driveway in 20th century suburban single-family residential development is exhibited in many of the suburbs of LA. Not only are the garages and driveways large uses of land, in most cases it has been built on the front face of the house, taking up valuable real estate. In an automated future, where the garage and driveway become obsolete due to decreased dependence on the private automobile, there is an opportunity for this large resource of land to address housing concerns facing an increasingly densifying city. Garages can be converted to Accessory Dwelling Units or even small businesses if traditional R1 zoning and land-use codes in these blocks is relaxed, while the street can be re-configured to prioritize public space and pedestrians, rather than street parking.

Mid-Density Residential Block

A common misperception of LA’s urban form is that it is primarily made up of low-density single-family homes. In fact, LA’s density is on a par with cities like DC or Seattle, but the difference is in the way this density is expressed. In LA, a sprawl of mid-density multi-family homes, constitute the majority of the city. These blocks, mid-rise perimeters with small interior courtyards often sitting on sub-grade parking, have a potential to evolve as the city densifies and as the need for parking decreases with automation.

Read Part C: the Automation Implications, more in-depth here:

 
Seoul Biennale of Architecture & Urbanism

This research was invited to be curated and displayed at both the Seoul Biennale of Architecture & Urbanism and the Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in the Fall of 2019 and Spring of 2020. The photographs below capture the design for the exhibition, in which a continuous curved gradient wall negotiates the irregularities and constraints of the wall that it covers, while simultaneously providing an enveloping undulating surface that draws visitors into subtle pockets of space and increases the amount of display area for the graphics. The exhibition acts as a backdrop that visually frames the ground floor of the main atrium space of the Cities Exhibit, while also providing relief space and lounge furniture for the entire gallery. The background color gradient was meant to evoke the cultural hues of the city of Los Angeles, as well as the mid-century modern furniture referencing famed LA designers like Eames and Neutra. Further research and graphics were also expanded for the Biennales, as well as a publication book that was displayed alongside the exhibition.

Displayed from 9.7.19 to 11.10.19 as part of the Cities Exhibit at the Donuimun Museum Village Venue in Seoul, South Korea.

Displayed from 12.22.19 to 3.15.20 as part of the Urbanism Exhibit at the Guangming Science City Venue in Shenzhen, China.

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How can automated vehicles be deployed to combat 20th-century automobile-driven urbanism?