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SOM Thinks Autonomous Vehicles Could Rapidly Change How Cities Grow and Develop

Existing streets could host new high-tech transportation services, though ensuring those new transit systems bring equitable growth is a challenge.

autonomous vehicles chicago
SOM’s Autonomous Vehicle transit research project Courtesy SOM

Chicago’s UI Labs is a high-tech makerspace and fabrication lab that enlists experts from government, industry, academia, and the public to solve a wide range of problems at the intersection of technology and urban life. That made it the perfect venue for a Metropolis Think Tank panel discussion about the future of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

The event, moderated by Metropolis’s director of design innovation, Susan S. Szenasy, began with a short video detailing SOM’s ChicaGO plan, which imagines how housing, employment, urban planning, and equity might change in the driverless future. On a more technical level, the project calls for a mixed fleet of electric double-decker buses and small shuttles that would run on surface streets and along Chicago Transit Authority train tracks; these could be summoned on demand or at pop-up stations. ChicaGO complements panelist Pierre Bourgin of NAVYA North America’s vision of AVs, in which “the main goal is to create something that does not need [extra] infrastructure.” Unlike, say, Elon Musk’s prescriptions for AVs beneath Chicago’s streets, NAVYA has developed shuttles that can be seamlessly inserted into existing urban fabrics.

With this sort of rapidly deployable autonomous transit in mind, Seanna Walsh, panelist and senior designer at SOM, argued that the configuration of today’s default urban development—locating housing and retail atop arterial heavy rail hubs—may be outmoded. Instead, more dispersed transit networks might inspire new patterns of development. “There’s a kind of democracy to that,” Walsh said, because they might encourage more fluid investment in neighborhoods that have seen little of it, and need it most. SOM design partner Scott Duncan emphasized the point: “The transit mode may not matter anymore, so why not put your next development in a neighborhood that maybe wouldn’t be [one of the] usual suspects?”

autonomous vehicles chicago
The Metropolis Think Tank panel, “Autonomous in Chicago: Transit Beyond the Grid,” was hosted at Chicago’s UI Labs, a high-tech makerspace and fabrication lab. Courtesy Evan Jenkins

Of course, it’s possible that the ability of AV technology to extend equitable investment to underserved areas will be offset by its potential to further consolidate wealth via the privatization of transit, warned David Leopold, director of product management at City Tech Collaborative, one of the lab’s resident institutions. “It’s important for this conversation to be placed in a context of public investment,” he argued. “[This AV system] is running on a street that was built with public dollars. We built the infrastructure to support this, and there should be active controls over what we adopt and what we want this technology to do for us.”

Pete Costa, of the mobility and transit planning firm Nelson\Nygaard, said employers need to recognize that workers see transit as part of their benefit package. But, Costa admitted, there’s a danger in thinking of transit as a luxury good to attract white-collar professionals: “We can’t leave people behind. Transportation is a right for all of us.”

The Think Tank discussions in Chicago were held on July 18 and 19. The conversations were presented in partnership with Sunbrella, Wilsonart, DXV/GROHE, Visa Lighting, and DWR Contract.

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