Posts by Will Handsfield
|Will Handsfield earned his master's degree in public policy from the University of Denver in 2008, and has worked on transportation projects in Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, DC. Will bike commutes and lives with his wife and son in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Capitol Hill. His posts reflect his personal views.|
On sunny days, Lafayette Square is filled with people. Tourists snap pictures of the White House behind them. Bicyclists and pedestrians enjoy a space where they, not cars, have the right of way.
Although two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed for security reasons, it has become similar to what the Dutch call a woonerf (plural woonerven, which translates roughly to "living street."
A woonerf is a low-speed street where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over drivers. In practice, cars, bikes, and people on foot mix freely. Unlike a standard woonerf, Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't regular drivers, but it has taken on many of the elements of the woonerf. Security needs can also close them at a moment's notice. Therefore, I like to call this a "security woonerf."
Since the mid-1990s, cordoned-off areas have popped up throughout the city. Yet, few of them could be called security woonerven. Could this change?
The two most prominent security woonerven in DC are on the east side of the US Capitol and on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. In these areas, activity takes place mainly on foot or on a bike.
Although security vehicles operate in those areas, they're parked most of the time, so pedestrians and cyclists essentially have the run these spaces. These two locations are obviously popular with residents and visitors alike. Both are now important hubs in DC's expanding bicycle network and as important activity centers for all manner of activity: tourism, lunch breaks, leisurely strolls, running, you name it.
Following the tragedy at Oklahoma City in 1995, federal planners redesigned facilities to minimize risks to important buildings from motor vehicles. All across the city, barriers went up, starting with jersey barriers, giant planters, and police roadblocks.
Over time, these evolved into permanent hardened perimeters with bollards, sally ports, guard gates, and delta barriers. As much as possible, these elements were planned with an eye toward improving aesthetics, or at least in comparison to original concrete jersey barriers.
While the two security woonerven at the White House and the Capitol are great assets to the city, other cordoned-off areas are not.
The security professionals who planned these facilities gave little consideration to bicycle and pedestrian access. The spaces are attractive for walkers and bikers by default, because of their lack of traffic. However, it often isn't easy to travel into or through the perimeter of these areas.
Another security woonerf is in the works for E Street, south of the White House. As many commenters noted during the design competition, though, cyclists appeared to be an afterthought in most of the submitted proposals.
Often, small tweaks could really improve access into these potentially great spaces. Even Lafayette Square has access issues on the north side at the Madison Place sally-port.
The State Department closed C Street NW and segments of other roads next to their Foggy Bottom headquarters, but they have not replaced the jersey barriers and planters with bollards and other elements more hospitable to bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The House and Senate office buildings have several cordoned streets around them that only admit authorized cars, but the access points are difficult to get through by bike.
Although Union Station has closed off driving access through Columbus Circle for security, the space was subsequently devoted to passenger pick-up and drop-off, making this potential security woonerf very difficult for pedestrians and cyclists. Thankfully, work already underway on the Circle will improve upon current conditions.
Beyond these spaces, there are a number of closed campuses in DC which would greatly benefit from adopting some of the more successful security woonerven designs. Specifically, I'd love to see security woonerven at the Old Soldier's Home, the future Walter Reed development (both the DC and State Department portions), and the Washington Hospital Center.
Areas around the Pentagon, and Joint Base Bolling also have potential if security priorities are better balanced with pedestrian and bike permeability. Universities like Catholic, Georgetown, and Howard you can get through, but it's not obvious or direct. Even at the Arboretum and the Navy Yard, where trails and woonerven already exist, extended hours would vastly improve these spaces.
Regardless of why and how we established these areas, federal and local planners need to recognize their success, and understand their best elements. Then they can adopt those elements into sites that have potential, but aren't quite security woonerven yet.
Are there other places we could have a great security woonerf? Also, can you think of a better term? Whatever you you call them, if streets have to close for security, we would all benefit from making more of them living streets.
Yesterday, I argued that we will start seeing autonomous vehicles operating on our roadways in 7-12 years. But whether self-driving cars hit the roads 5 years or 30 years from now, they will bring major changes in our transportation system and even our society.
They'll be more often in use, less often parked: Since most cars are parked for 98% of their existence, a self-driving car can be put into use when it would otherwise be idle. This can kill several birds with one stone. After dropping off its passengers, the car can do double duty as a taxi, delivery vehicle, or just get out of a congested area.
A model like Zipcar becomes an on-demand taxi service with self-driving cars. And a model like SuperShuttle becomes a micro-jitney service with self-driving cars. Now, SuperShuttle only serves airports, and the driver and dispatcher try to create the most efficient routes based on their ever-changing flow of customers. A computerized system could make this work everywhere.
If it's not needed, a self-driving car can park itself at an offsite location, thus eliminating the need to build large amounts of parking at desirable (and expensive) locations.
They'll reduce labor costs: A self-driving car needs no operator, thus removing human labor from the equation. Self-driving cars will put taxicab drivers out of business. What will those thousands of people do with their skillset when a computerized system makes them obsolete?
They'll expand access to transportation: The process of driver training and licensing will be obsolete, and the requirement that people be 16 or 18 to drive a car will be irrelevant since now there are no drivers, only passengers.
This is great news for the disabled, especially the sight-impaired, as well as for adults who have lost the ability to drive. Will we create some new paradigm of age restrictions for being an unattended passenger?
Self-driving cars eradicate the car-ownership paradigm. If you can easily and affordably (remember, no labor to pay) book taxi service from your smartphone, more people than ever will eschew the costs and annoyance of car ownership.
They'll be safer: Self-driving cars likely won't make human errors. Auto crashes typically claim around 38,000 lives per year, and that's been true for decades. Over 80% of these are attributable to human error, either negligence, distraction, incapacitation, malice or other uniquely human quality.
They'll reduce congestion: Self-driving cars can manage congestion as a system, rather than a collection of self-interested units. A lot of congestion stems from the way each driver acts in his own self-interest. For example, changing lanes might (or might not) help one individual driver, but hurts the overall performance of the road. Speeding into a gap and then braking also creates worse congestion overall.
If all cars are self-driving, then they can cooperate to mitigate congestion. For instance, the cars could all slow down to 35 mph past a crash or police traffic stop, rather than allowing the speeding up and slowing down and rubbernecking which lead to traffic and more crashes. Over time game theory and other disciplines will help engineers devise ever more complex strategies to keep the system performing optimally.
They'll make current transit economics obsolete: Self-driving cars represent a major existential threat for current and planned transit systems. Our current transit paradigm relies on capital and operational subsidies. We can't charge riders enough to pay for everything that goes into making transit work. As we raise fares, more riders forego transit and choose the automobile.
If, as I suspect, self-driving cars are handled primarily in the private sector, their operations will not be subsidized, and their relative convenience and utility will call into question the logic of investing billions into the construction and operation of transit systems.
They won't last as long: Automobile manufacturers will have to adapt the volume of vehicles they produce annually. While many fewer cars will be needed across the economy, those that are autonomous will be driving much more frequently. Their replacement cycle would be more similar to police vehicles, which only last around 3-5 years before wear and tear makes replacement a better option than repair.
Most passenger cars today spend around 98% of their time parked somewhere in between single-occupancy trips. Consequently, their average lifespan is between 15 and 26 years.
They can be electric: An electric self-driving car can go to where the charging stations are. DC and other governments are currently embarking on a campaign of spreading electric vehicle charging stations around the urban environment under the assumption that we must cast a wide net of these kiosks around so that they are convenient to an EV owner's origin or destination. But in a few years, it is likely that this will be entirely unnecessary, and rather the car can take itself to a central charging location, like a power substation or electrified parking garage that can efficiently charge hundreds of vehicles on an as-needed basis.
They'll change culture: A self-driving car eradicates a unique part of the American identity, the freewheeling mastery of the open road. We'll wax nostalgic for what we've lost, but everyone will benefit from the gains.
A world with self-driving cars would operate very differently than the one we currently live in. I would say that's mostly for the better. As urbanists, we've often succumbed to a gut reaction that cars are bad, transit is good. However, the reality is that it is not cars that are bad, but the single-occupancy driver paradigm that is so damaging to our environment, urban fabric and quality of life.
We still live in an America where 78% of people drive to their jobs by themselves. I'm convinced that we're about to see that start to change as self-driving cars become a reality. It is time to start having the conversation about how we want this future to unfold in order to best plan for a very different world.
Whether we are prepared for it or not, the next revolution in transportation will be here soon, and it won't be streetcars, monorails, segways, or electric vehicles. It will be self-driving cars, and the adoption of this technology will change everything we accept as a given in the field of transportation planning.
There is a fundamental flaw in the practice of transportation planning. Our local and regional transportation models assume that 20 years from now, the transportation system will be largely the same, with slight adjustments on the margin.
But history shows that every so often, unexpected technology arises. The most obvious was the move from horses and horse-conveyed vehicles for personal and short-haul transportation to the automobile, but it also happened with railroads superseding canals and short-distance shipping, and airplanes superseding railroads for long-distance personal travel.
In only 32 years at the turn of the twentieth century, the primary power source for human mobility for 7 millennia became obsolete. If there was a comparable transportation planning field at the time, using our current system of forecasting, their models from 1890 would have estimated a linear increase in horse trips for the next 30 years, with some additional subway and horse-drawn streetcar lines.
They would not have imagined that there would be no horses at all. Instead, they would need a complex set of signal and traffic control technologies to address the new safety and mobility issues presented by automobiles.
Today we are at a similar inflection point. The occasional news story in Popular Science or the New York Times describes the wondrous technology that allows cars to operate under complex scenarios without any driver input. However, we don't hear a peep from transportation planning organizations about how society will adapt and plan for this change, even though it seems increasingly imminent.
Washingtonian recently interviewed Michael Pack, the region's foremost traffic technologist. The interview is alarming: "I ask how long before we can all stop driving and let the cars do the work," the interviewer asks. Pack responds, "Oh, a while, Maybe 30 years." Pack appears to be considering a network of interconnected cars that can talk to each other and have a situational awareness that allows them to travel at 65 mph and 6 inches from one bumper to the next.
If Pack's estimate is reliable, then that means we should start seeing the first generation of autonomous cars that replace the human driver with superior situational awareness in a matter of years. It also means we are already within the 30-year window where transportation planners should anticipate adoption of this technology and its consequences.
My best guess, based on publicly available information, is that within 7-12 years, there will be a commercially available autonomous vehicle sold in the US
In sharing this theory, I've heard my share of skepticism. But most people would accept on faith that within 100 years we'll have autonomous vehicles. Some would accept that they'll be here in 50 years, while few would accept that we'll have them in 5 years. So at heart, the discussion is not a question of if this technology will develop, but when, and whether we have to start thinking about it from a policy and planning standpoint.
Whichever manufacturer is first to roll out a consumer-ready version of this technology will have a blockbuster product, so the economic incentive to be first is enormous.
In a future post, I'll discuss some of the changes we're likely to see in a world with self-driving cars.
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