Tunnel Vision: LoopNYC and the Future of Autonomous Vehicles in Cities

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

Tags: transportation , autonomous vehicles

Pedestrian activity in New York City (from NYC Business Atlas)

New York City has a congestion problem.

I’m not talking about the crush of taxis, Ubers, trucks, buses and the occasional private car on the streets of Manhattan – though that kind of congestion is legendary as well. I’m talking about the crush of people on Manhattan’s sidewalks. As an occasional visitor to New York, I am always amazed by the sheer number of people jostling for space – especially in Midtown at rush hour.

Earlier this week, CityLab profiled a new scheme for addressing vehicular congestion in New York City called “LoopNYC.” The idea is to convert one lane in each direction on the river roads circling Manhattan for the exclusive use of autonomous vehicles and to convert major cross streets such as 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th, 86th and 110th into “driverless expressways” capable of whisking autonomous vehicles across the city. The system, it is said, will lead to a dramatic reduction in travel times by car from Midtown to Lower Manhattan.

Which is all well and good, except that most people don’t travel to or around Manhattan by car. Under LoopNYC, those who walk in Manhattan – which is just about everyone – will need to find their way across these “driverless expressways” using a series of overpasses and underpasses, which will take additional time and effort to cross.

So, despite promises of glorious linear parks (which we’ll get back to in a minute), LoopNYC represents a classic public policy choice in which some people – pedestrians – are inconvenienced so that others – those driving or riding in autonomous vehicles – can get where they’re going a bit faster.

Many recent visions of our autonomous vehicle future – from signal-less intersections to autonomous freeways – simply ignore the effects on those not traveling in autonomous cars, including people on foot, on bikes or even driving conventional cars. Or, just as problematically, they presume that other users must adjust their behavior to account for the limitations of autonomous vehicles, not the other way around. Questions regarding who should pay for dedicated autonomous vehicle infrastructure go unasked and unanswered.

New York City, it turns out, is one of the few places where pedestrians are actually counted and the effect on them of a plan such as LoopNYC can be (at least loosely) quantified. New York City has a history of collecting pedestrian counts at various points in the city. Even these counts aren’t perfect in that they don’t tell us, for example, how many people cross 34th Street on a given day. But they do give us some idea of the foot traffic along some of the streets proposed for “expressway-ization” under LoopNYC.

For example, along a single block of West 34th Street between Broadway and 7th Avenue, there were nearly 14,000 pedestrians in the morning (between 7 and 9 a.m.) and 33,000 in the evening (between 4 and 7 p.m.) in May 2016. In Times Square, there were more than 41,000 pedestrians traveling on Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd streets each day in June 2017, along with 74,000 on the Broadway pedestrian plaza between 42nd and 43rd streets.

These are eye-popping numbers, but they don’t quite do matters justice, as they count pedestrian activity along a single block. The proposed driverless expressways would run the width of Manhattan, disrupting existing crosswalks at every north-south avenue. New York City does count pedestrians along each major avenue and Broadway along a line between 50th and 51st streets, giving us some idea of the order of magnitude of the potential disruption.

In total, 46,000 people walked across this transect of Manhattan between 7 and 9 a.m. in May 2016, with 132,000 people crossing it between 4 and 7 o’clock in the afternoon. One might then conservatively estimate that there are well more than 200,000 crossings of 50th or 51st streets across their entire length on a given weekday. Given that there are seven “driverless expressways” proposed for Manhattan, the number of crossings affected by the plan each day could approach a milllion.

You wouldn’t guess of that impact by viewing the LoopNYC renderings. You won’t see New Yorkers pushing baby strollers up ramps or (quite possibly) dodging across high-speed traffic to avoid the overpasses entirely. You will see people walking leisurely (not typical New York speed from my observations) on elegant overpasses over whizzing traffic and folks picnicking and doing yoga on the vast linear park to be created along Broadway and Park Avenue –  a park with lots and lots of open space.

About those linear parks: LoopNYC assumes that the “driverless expressways” are a precondition for the closure of Broadway and Park Ave. to vehicle traffic and creation of the parks – that it’s a package deal. But in reality, there is nothing stopping New York City from converting Broadway and Park Avenue to linear parks right now.

And there are good reasons to consider doing so (though the renderings of the parks in LoopNYC more resemble scenes from a suburban office park or college campus than an active street in one of the densest cities in the world.) New York’s efforts to repurpose large stretches of Broadway have shown the promise of reclaiming space from automobile traffic, making travel faster and safer for pedestrians, encouraging more people to travel by bike, and increasing the number of people who visit and linger in places like Times Square.

Taking apart a proposal like LoopNYC, as I’m doing in this blog post, is in one sense, a silly way to spend time. The proposal is never going to be implemented. But it is important to recognize and call out the assumptions and values that undergird proposals like this – including the idea that travel speed matters above everything else, that the needs of people who walk and bike are barely worth serious consideration (even in places where walking or biking are the dominant forms of transportation), and that the main problem with our densest cities is that they are too “city-ish.”

These are assumptions and values that urbanists and sustainable transportation advocates have been pushing back against for decades. But in this era of rapid technological change and uncertainty, pushing back is not enough. It is time to create new and better visions for how emerging technologies and tech-enabled services – from autonomous vehicles to shared mobility – can help to achieve our goals of safety, fiscal and environmental sustainability, and access for all. Only then will it be possible to muster the public support and political will to achieve the policy changes needed to make it happen.

Otherwise, the shape of our cities and our transportation system in the 21st century will be defined by the same misconceptions and ill-considered ideas that did so much damage in the 20th century.