In the not-too-distant-future, it’s predicted that autonomous vehicles will dominate cityscapes and redefine how urbanites commute.
By 2030, a quarter of all miles driven in the U.S. could be in shared autonomous vehicles, according to research by the Boston Consulting Group.
Take New York City, for instance. If drivers decided to ditch their cars in favor of self-driving vehicles, the shift could potentially free up thousands of square feet of parking space, thereby creating an opportunity for inventive reuse of the space.
To explore these possibilities, The Driverless Future Challenge, an open competition organized by Blank Space and the City of New York, solicited submissions from design and architecture firms from more than 25 countries. The premise: Imagine a New York City (one of the most congested urban centers in the world) where the advent of driverless cars could transform the design of infrastructure and the way New Yorkers regularly commute.
FXFOWLE Architects, a N.Y.-based architecture and urban design firm, jumped at the chance to participate in the competition, as it offered an opportunity to explore new ideas that could impact the urban realm, notes Dan Kaplan, senior partner, FAIA, LEED AP, at the firm. It was, to put it simply, a challenge.
The one predictable thing about how autonomous vehicles are going to be adapted to daily life is … unpredictability.
“The one predictable thing about how autonomous vehicles are going to be adapted to daily life is … unpredictability,” says Kaplan. But if the advent of driverless vehicles lessened the demand for public parking spaces, there had to be a new and cost-effective way to reclaim these open spaces for public and pedestrianized uses. By Kaplan’s estimation, if 5 percent of the existing road bed in all of New York City’s five boroughs was converted into pedestrian areas, it would be “the equivalent of gaining a Central Park.”
“If you think of the streets as a resource, and a parked vehicle uses it only a low percentage of the time, why should it take up this very precious space for what is a very low rental?” Kaplan says.
Faced with this problem, Kaplan and his team of 15 designers, along with transportation engineer Sam Schwartz, devised a solution: FXFOWLE’s Public Square, a plug-and-play system of interlocking unitized squares that can be used for a variety of public-friendly applications, from retail stands to gardens and green space.
Modular Green Space
The Public Square modules can be assembled and modified into myriad configurations to meet the needs of different neighborhoods, creating a raised-floor environment for the street.
“They’re very shallow pedestal systems that basically extend the sidewalks out,” Kaplan says.
Another key feature: The squares feature interchangeable permeable surfaces and stormwater retention material that can hold 100 gallons of water. In New York City, where 72 percent of the city’s 305 square miles of land area is covered by impervious surfaces, introducing more water retention material can help offset stormwater runoff into sewers, Kaplan notes.
The installation of a Public Square module isn’t intended to be permanent. “I expect this could be a 20-year solution,” Kaplan says.
And regardless of whether or not autonomous vehicles take off as predicted, Kaplan believes there will be a demand for public space solutions like Public Square in urban areas, as well as on corporate and college campuses.
“There is such a desperate need for public space and streetscape enhancement,” says Kaplan. “And this could be deployed without autonomous vehicles serving as the catalyst.”