ReStreet lets users play road-planner and set aside lanes for their mode of choice. ReStreet

So far, tech companies have been determining how driverless cars will fit into the grid. ReStreet invites you to weigh in.

Updated: September 25, 2017

When autonomous vehicles take over the streets, the streets will change to accommodate them: Expect special priority lanes, curbside pickup “docks,” and a massive reconfiguration of superfluous parking spaces once people no longer drive themselves.

Put in charge, how would you shape the thoroughfares of the future? A simple but intriguing tool called ReStreet invites any would-be transportation engineer to flesh out ideas. Developed and released by a team of planning and design specialists at the University of San Francisco and California Polytechnic State University, ReStreet offers two template streetscapes, one urban and suburban, for reimagining. (As sharp-eyed readers noticed, CityLab’s Emily Badger wrote about an earlier version of the tool called StreetMix back in 2013.)

Designate a preferred width for the street, and a use for the land sandwiching it—homes, vacant lots, a waterfront, and high-density apartments are all options. As you see fit, drag and drop in lanes for AVs, streetcars, light rail and buses, plus bike paths, sidewalks, planters, and benches. The tool will stop you if you try to cram in too much. When you’ve sealed your plan, hit submit—it’ll join a repository of other users’ designs. Theoretically, that stash can be tapped by designers and planners also working to reimagine a city streetscape. You also get a permanent link to share it with others.  

A time-killing diversion for amateur street design nerds, sure. But ReStreet’s purpose goes a little deeper than that. So far, private tech companies and carmakers have mostly been the ones determining streetscapes of the future—look no further than Lyft’s recent release of its AV-oriented vision for LA’s Wilshire Boulevard. That should be concerning for anyone who cares about what are, after all, public rights-of-way. For example, if autonomous vehicles are given priority lanes, shouldn’t buses have them, too? Should shared AVs be treated differently than private ones?

Cities are starting to weigh in, too, with forward-looking design plans, but as preemptive legislation moves forward at the state and federal level, their power might already be waning. Meanwhile, with little exposure to the technology to begin with, the public has been largely shut out of the conversation about driverless cars in general.

ReStreet “could be really powerful in democratizing what Lyft did in LA,” says William Riggs, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco specializing in technology and mobility and one of ReStreet’s lead developers, via email. The tool proved successful in helping San Luis Obispo (where Cal Poly is located) gather public input on downtown redesign plans that includes AV-minded elements, Riggs says. Other cities might tap it as a starting place to involve citizen voices in design and engineering decisions that inform everyone’s transportation future.

As it is, most streets enforce a hierarchy of transportation modes with personal cars at the top; they’re rarely built with buses, bikes, or feet in mind. There’s hope—but no guarantee—that the advent of AVs can make streets much more equitable. That’s definitely not happening if the public stays quiet.

Beyond sparking conversation about technology that’s not fully here yet, a better version of ReStreet would let citizens dive deeper into the rights-of-way they’d like to see now. For while driverless cars might represent the most transformative future agents in street planning, bike lanes, bus rapid transit corridors, and disappearing parking spots are provoking public outrage right now. As many public servants will admit, the processes for involving citizens in design and planning phases of government-funded projects often feel like token gestures, rather than serious commitments—not least because it’s hard to please everybody. Hate those new bollards? Despise that blind turn? OK, wise guy—you try it.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    Cities Deserve Better Than These Thomas Heatherwick Gimmicks

    The “Vessel” at New York’s Hudson Yards—like so many of his designs—look as if the dystopian world of 1984 has been given a precious makeover.

  2. North Carolina's legislature building.
    Life

    Should Government Agencies Move Out of Capital Cities?

    North Carolina may relocate its Division of Motor Vehicles from Raleigh to boost lagging Rocky Mount. Can this be a national model for decentralizing power?

  3. Homes in Amsterdam are pictured.
    Equity

    Amsterdam's Plan: If You Buy a Newly Built House, You Can't Rent It Out

    In an effort to make housing more affordable, the Dutch capital is crafting a law that says anyone who buys a newly built home must live in it themselves.

  4. A photo of a police officer guarding the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal.
    Perspective

    The Troubling Limits of the ‘Great Crime Decline’

    The fall of urban violence since the 1990s was a public health breakthrough, as NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey says in his book Uneasy Peace. But we must go further.

  5. Transportation

    Japan Keeps This Train Station Running for Just One Regular Passenger

    Trains here make only a few stops—when a lone high-school student leaves for school, and when class is over.