Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
So far, tech companies have been determining how driverless cars will fit into the grid. ReStreet invites you to weigh in.
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.