The hexagonal slices of wood don’t look like much. There’s the shape, sort of interesting in its architectural way, and the neutral wood color. A few are studded with bright, white lights, right in the center, which is fun. And the way the hexagons, each the size of a manhole cover, have been bunched into clusters feels natural and sensible. Surely a Fibonacci sequence is hiding somewhere in there.
What’s important about these shapes is what they represent to Sidewalk Labs, a sister company to Google, Waymo, and Loon. It’s how the company envisions the street of the future: as a series of removable, modular, flexible pavers. During a public roundtable hosted at Sidewalk Labs’ new Toronto office this week, participants sat on and played with the experimental shapes, the result of its collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its Senseable City Lab.
“The way that space is usually allocated on the street is fixed,” Jesse Shapins, Sidewalk Labs’ director of public realm, told the Toronto crowd on Tuesday night. (To make sure all interested locals could see the presentations, Sidewalk Labs repeated the performance on Wednesday.) “You have your curb and maybe paint, and that signals different uses. It’s hard to change, which means there’s less space for people.”
Contrary to today’s concrete-based, fixed way of doing things, the idea here is that these chunks of public space can be reconfigured or lit up differently at different times, thereby reordering the streets with a firm nudge or a flick of a light switch. What is during the morning rush hour a bus-only corridor might transform into a kids’ play space during the day. Monday’s commuter-carrying cycling lane might be Sunday’s farmer’s market. Streets should be ever-changing, flexible spaces, goes the argument—not the permanent province of fast-moving, sometimes inconsiderate, often dangerous cars.
Sidewalk Labs presented this concept during a drawn-out public process for an ambitious project it has been working on in Toronto since last year. In October, the Alphabet-owned company announced that it had formed a partnership with the city to revitalize a 12-acre swath of lakeside property called Quayside. The company pledged, with a lot of community input, to transform this brownfield into a living model for a city of the future. (This is slow going, by design: This week’s public roundtable is but an early step in the project, and the area won’t have a draft of a master plan until next spring.) According to the company, a big part of this vision will be rethinking how streets are used.
On the one hand, Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project embraces beloved Silicon Valley concepts like data crunching and constant iteration. It promises a tabula rasa, returning to “first principles” to query what city dwellers really need to be happy, wealthy, and wise. Should there be on-street parking? More public squares? Affordable housing made of wood? Self-driving shuttles? The Toronto team pledges to test, collect data, and adapt, over and over again.
The key is staying open to what the future holds. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with the autonomous vehicles—nobody does,” said Will Ng, a traffic engineer and mobility lead with the company. “But as they’re coming, as they’re adapting and training on the streets out there today, we think this offers us the opportunity to design the streets we want to see and make the autonomous vehicles toe a new line and meet a new standard.” (Fortunately for Sidewalk Labs, its sister company Waymo is the putative leader in self-driving tech, and should be able to share some intel.)
On the other hand, this idea of claiming streets for people, not vehicles, isn’t new. It’s the way things worked before the car muscled in. Even back in the 1960s and ’70s, “living street” movements in the Netherlands and elsewhere promoted a return to wide spaces, free of dictatorial lane markings.
“People lose responsibility when you give them their own space on the road,” says Nidhi Gulati, who runs transportation initiatives at the Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes the community-led rethinking of public spaces. “They don’t think they need to be looking out for other people on other modes. They start thinking of other cars as cars and bicycles as bicycles, but not people as people.” Indeed, research suggests that streets with more vegetation, narrower lanes, and elements like traffic circles are safer, because drivers must pay more attention to the ever-changing road.
More recently, cities have been leading projects to reclaim—or liberate—public space. New York kicked cars out of much of Times Square. Pittsburgh closed roads and widened sidewalks in Market Square. At the microscale, community activists have used planters, tires, and even plungers to urge citizens rethink the streetscape.
This concept, though, can make municipal traffic engineers (and their lawyers) nervous. After all, a mad swirl of people and scooters and cars may look dangerous, even if it isn’t. That’s why city planners get attached to curb cuts, which they think of as vital design cues keeping people and vehicles apart. Plus, installing and then maintaining ultra-flexible concrete pavers, like the kind Sidewalk Labs is envisioning, is more expensive than just laying down asphalt, so it’s difficult for cities to justify, cost-wise.
But Alphabet has money, it has the flexibility, and now it has some cool-looking tech to go with it. “I’m sometimes skeptical that technology is needed for things like that, when you can do it really simply, and cities have been doing similar things for a long time,” says Eran Ben-Joseph, who heads up MIT’s Urban Studies Planning Department and has studied flexible street space in the US and abroad. (His colleagues are collaborating with Sidewalk Labs on this project.)
“But changing perceptions and experimenting with something new—it’s pushing it in the right direction,” he says. “Maybe not new. Something old.”
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