Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How to make robots, drones and FedEx trucks part of Complete Streets

JJust as the military is always fighting the last war, complete street legislation tends to manage the past while the future is already here.

New councilman Ryan Dorsey recognizes that legislation is a slow affair, even in the City Council: committee deliberation, three readers in the full council, law department review, inscrutable language, the whole bit.

For his Complete Streets legislation Dorsey concluded that design guidelines shouldn't be part of the bill itself so adjustments could go through a simpler process. But the meat of any Complete Street policy is not in the bill but in the design manual.

It assigns certain design templates to a typology of streets which varies from city to city. Eastern legacy cities have much narrower cart-ways than their western peers. This, of course, makes the accommodation of everything that Complete Streets policies want to accommodate so much trickier in those denser conditions.

Every inch of space is already assigned to something: Curb and gutter, stormdrains, sidewalks with lightpoles, fire-hydrants, ADA required unobstructed passageways and curb ramps, outdoor seating, vending carts, tree-pits, bio-swales, parking kiosks are only the first layer. The space between the curbs is even more embattled: Next to the sidewalk parking lanes, bike lanes, loading zones, valet parking, taxi stands, Zip-Car parking, bike-sharing corrals, bus stops, food trucks, regular parking, handicap parking, bus lanes, turn-lanes compete for precious space. Finally, there are the through lanes, medians, safety islands, bollards and planters; all that before trash has to be collected, snow must be stored or a fire truck has to pass, an ambulance to load, a tow truck to tow or a utility line to be dug up.

USPS: More than letters
A new international street design guide published last week by NACTO tries to make sense of it all.

“Streets are the foundation of a city’s entire social structure—getting around, working, living, shopping, and playing. With the guide, cities have, for the first time, a universal resource for creating cities that operate for everyone who uses them.” – Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogotá.

But even that extensive litany is so yesterday: Add Uber pick-up zones, delivery robots, UPS and FedEx trolleys, drone landing areas and now mini-robots cruising along sidewalks to deliver pizza. None of that is futuristic, all of it happens already somewhere, chiefly in San Francisco.
Delivery by drone

Delivery by robotic sidewalk truck
While complete streets are an outflow of a rather romantic notion of the walkable city with street-cafes and beautiful storefront displays where people do their shopping on foot, an ever larger number of residents are clicking away on their sofas ordering everything from pizza to organic food, books, dresses, copy paper and furniture setting off an armada of trucks, vans and bikes  for lightning speed delivery. All this stuff gets driven through city streets before showing up at the door-step. The situations that ensue in the process are far from romantic.

Baltimore is in full distribution of road-space mode: Link adds more bus-lanes which are shared with bikes and turning traffic. Then there are the protected bike lanes which move parking away from the curb into the street and confuse traditional perceptions where what is, resulting in turning cars sometimes lining up behind parked cars confusing them for a traffic queue. Valet spaces are carved out and Zip-car corrals.

The specter of this new space assignment raises considerable concerns from the logistics folks who dispatch their fleets of all sizes from the 55' tractor trailer rigs to unload Frito-Lays for the local 7-11, to the funny looking postal trucks who preferably park in the end-zone of a bus stops, to the endless variety of white, yellow and brown vans that descend on every downtown from coast to coast like never ending locust. Needless to say, there just isn't the space for it all and so most of the loading and unloading happens outside the law and beyond what roadway designers and complete street manuals had in mind.
Delivery by cargo bike

If Baltimoreans haven't seen the robotic six-wheel beer coolers yet, it is because we are not as hip as DC or San Francisco where those innovations have already brought legislators into position ready to strike back.

The disrupters  have it all mapped out, the cool data-driven smart city in which convenience reigns supreme and any online order is only minutes away. The drone, the robotic mini-truck or the electric cargo bike are only the logical extensions and represent the current frontier. Next up: The self driving car circulating for potential passengers, for a parking space or on its way to deliver pizza may be next. The hipsters may jubilate about all the innovation, but one doesn't have to be a pessimist to get the sense that a veritable nightmare could be in the making compared to which the old car friendly city was outright quaint.

Contrary to what libertarians say, governmental oversight and regulation is what is needed, even if it is slow and tends to fight the wars from yesteryear. Some innovative ideas may have to be interspersed. Some may have to be invented: Demand-based bus lanes that give cars a chance to clear a bus lane 60 seconds ahead of a nearing bus, electronically booked and reserved delivery spaces, sidewalks with delivery lanes, for example, others exist already such as congestion tolls. Councilman Dorsey's complete street bill starts with step 1: higher fines for parking in bike lanes. It better addresses all the electrified high tech toys such as Hover Boards, Segways and robotic mini trucks before they make life in the walk-lane hell on wheels.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Message by robot

Fresh food by robotic delivery
Plenty of conflicts with the space assignment
UPS e-bike solution

trolley use by UPS: "Last 1/4 mile" issues

The book, Baltimore: Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City is my take on the post industrial American city and Baltimore after the unrest. 
The book is now for sale and can currently be ordered online directly from the publisher with free shipping. 

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