Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Tactical Commons

Insights from Gen. James E. Oglethorpe's Development Plan for Savannah

Part One

Ten years ago, after a visit to Savannah at the end of 2009, I began to research the Oglethorpe Plan for Savannah and record my thoughts on this blog. Already back then, I was inferring things that I would never suspect would actually be backed up historically, such as the influence of John Locke on the plan. I already suspected then that I was scratching the surface of a deeply rewarding study, and by the middle of the past decade, my hunch had borne out in ways I could not have imagined. 

I shall begin posting the important lessons this past decade of thinking about Savannah has surfaced to me. This is just the first installment, and our introduction. Because these thoughts started on this blog, I think it only proper to revisit ProperScale and rekindle the love affair with Savannah's origins from whence we left them here last.

For a shortish preview of my study, you can consult my 2018 Twitter thread on the Oglethorpe Plan to peek at where my studies took me these past ten years.

A Subdivision Plan is Publicized

One of the most incredible artifacts of American colonial history is an 18th century sepia drawing housed in a repository of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Georgia. It depicts the early progress of construction for the settlement of Savannah, the first settlement of the charitable trust governing the Colony of Georgia then at the southernmost frontier of the colonies. Under the leadership of the sole attending member of the Georgia Trustees who had directed the settlement of the colony, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, 114 English colonists landed at this pine covered bluff on the 1st of February, 1733. They had erected a dockside crane by the first week of their landing, and within a little over a month, the 35 settler families had completed the timber magazine and its battery of cannon and had erected two clapboard homes on the lots staked out, with work in progress for others.

Savannah, Georgia in the 10th-14th months after its founding. Sketch by George Jones, after Peter Gordon's account and Noble Jones's Nov. 1733 plat map ("His Majesty's Colony of Georgia in America"; London, Feb.-June 1734; located in: Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia)

This drawing depicts the state of the colony only a little over a year later. Very likely produced at the hand of a London draughtsman named George Jones in early 1734, it is a striking oblique perspective. Composed as a bird’s eye image of the town as viewed from the Hutchinson Island side of the Savannah River, it richly details the general situation of the town on the flat plain of the bluff on the southern bank. To an amazing level of detail, it depicts each individual home and public structure of the colony, including Oglethorpe’s tent, and charmingly illustrates the unmistakable characteristics of the surrounding Southern Pines, the tranquil commerce of trade ships and native canoes in the river, and the Trustees’ cattle lolling about Hutchinson Island in the foreground.
These details were probably informed by the memory of the colonist Peter Gordon, an upholsterer from London, who had left the Savannah colony in early November 1733 after serving a stint there as Savannah’s first bailiff. Gordon had returned to London to seek medical care for a fistula and brought with him a copy of the town plat drawn by its surveyor, Noble Jones. Most likely with this, Jones had included instructions for the production of a perspective, which George Jones used to prepare a sketch by the February of 1734. The same general composition was later approved for printing in mid-1734 by General Oglethorpe himself, who had returned to London after leaving the colony at the end of March 1734 to seek military reinforcements. Hereupon, some additions may have been sketched in for the commissioned engraving, and so the perspectival view, as the printed engraving claims, likely represents the state of the colony as it had stood that March in just its fourteenth month of construction. 

According to Oglethorpe's December 1733 letter to the Trustees, however, three and a half of the wards had already been occupied by that time (at what state the housing was in, he doesn't make clear). This is substantially more than depicted on Jones's drawing. The sketch could actually be conveying the state of the wards as they stood the November of 1733 from Peter Gordon’s accounting. Regardless of the case, the general extent of the program of construction - considering the travails and hints of discord communicated in the preserved correspondence we have - is simply remarkable, both in the breadth of the execution and the thoughtful, thoroughgoing cohesion of the details. What’s evident from the correspondence, however, was that neither the colonists nor Oglethorpe seemed satisfied with the speed of progress. You almost get the impression that the drawing was more of a clarion call than a mere propagandist effort - a tool to convey the urgency of the work needing to be done. Rather than today's absurdly atmospheric architectural renderings, it instead shares a curious semblance to the kind of plat maps you see in subdivision sales offices, with a portion of lots marked “sold” with red tags. Functionally, it really did serve a similar kind of marketing prerogative in inducing immigration to the colony. 

Something formative in the long-standing frame of our culture is being conveyed on this sketch, and I don’t mean that cynically. Thinking over this composition of humble structures now for over a decade, a Promethean reflection of our development culture is brilliantly peering at us here. And yet, I have lately become aware in hindsight that this sketch has made our contemporary renderings of architectural utopias today read socially unambitious to me. They toot like the resolved lonesome notes of individualized futures, ill equipped and weightless in comparison to Savannah’s social project. My contemporaries have no similar faith in the might of voluntary mobilization for the public good. Not at this scale.

The First Levers of Association

What resourced this incredible scene? When inspecting the correspondence we have, the colonists of Savannah’s first year mobilized their work with at least three levers of association. Labor, naturally, was the first reason for company, comprised by the work gangs Oglethorpe organized at the start for construction tasks. These units were based upon the available abilities and trades of the colonists. Not all tasks, however, could be accomplished well by the gangs due to the inexperience of colonists, and so Oglethorpe found it necessary to supplement these often by hiring itinerant laborers and slaves from Carolina, explaining that the work had been proceeding too slowly. While they were short lived, the gangs were effective tinder to start the industry that created the scene depicted in Jones’s drawing. 

The construction tasks organized daily life for the colonists early on. What is important about these work units is that they initiated a collaborative framework for work projects, synchronized with all such units in the colony. Once that collaborative base was there to root from, construction roles could extend over to farming projects and other works. With the flow of newcomers, the aggregate of these embers would eventually glow stronger with the progressive specialization of work into professions and occupations. What George Jones captured in his drawing was the point in time when the furnace was beginning to get hot.

Jones’s drawing shows the progress of tidy, identically-sized homes that each settler family was building on one of the 60 by 90-foot town lots they were granted. These were located in square “wards” near the protected bluff edge by the Savannah River. Each ward unit, which was centered on an open square fronted by public buildings, contained four blocks of ten homes each called “Tythings”. Six wards of forty homes each were planned, but the drawing only depicts four wards under construction, one of which, Derby Ward, is all but complete except for a vacant church lot (where today Christ Church Episcopal now sits facing Johnson Square). 

In this post from my early days encountering the Oglethorpe Plan, I noted that Savannah’s uniformly repetitive ward fabric of 60 by 90-foot town lots arose from the need to settle a colony of commoners in as fair and efficient a manner as could be contrived for this purpose. The cellular pattern of four Tything blocks to a ward was also useful for military reasons, as each Tything of ten households comprised a militia troop that kept the night watch of every fourth night, which was rotated with the other three Tythings of their ward. Note that this meant that the four day guard rotation didn’t coincide with the days of the week, always falling one day more advanced than the week before and thereby preserving strict fairness in the calendar cycle with regard to sabbaths. This is your first clue to the high degree of intelligent comportment riding with the geometric qualities of the plan. 

The Jones drawing also shows that the first public buildings of the colony were among the first erected, and, as with the homes, they appear to be very similarly designed gable roof structures, rectangular in plan, about double the size of the homes in length and height. Most of these were located in a “Trust Lot” belonging to the Georgia Trust, which overlook the central square next to each Tything block. Initially, Jones’s drawing shows that these lots served public uses, such as the public guest house (“House for Strangers”) and the “Publick Mill” for the colony, but the trustees would also grant some of the these lots to congregations founded by the settlers. Thus granted in reserved prime locations near to all homes, the trustees could assign Trust Lots to spur the assemblies, charities and public halls of the town, as such associations could develop in due course in the colony. The Trust Lots, put in our terms, provide a prime reserve grant for civic enterprise, but, to access it, the common benefit must be clear to the greater colony, and the improvements must be collectively resourced. 

The Tactical Commons

This Trust Lot civic strategy has some expedient features for organizational and economic development with quite some genius behind it. 

To construct the first public buildings shown on Jones’s 1734 sketch in just 10 months with all hands pitching in, for instance, the critical role of organizing the collaborative training and labor must be undertaken. The build tasks must be divided by skills required, the materials sourced and allocated, and the labor rotations rationalized in a planned out in sequence. Expediting development with teamwork, the collaboration will mobilize the drive to clear fields systematically and prepare lumber, bringing in organizational advantages, such as the forecasting and rationing of supplies with the processing of building materials. Moreover, the work gangs acting in necessary concert with one another will be passively eliminating hoarding behavior and wasted labor better by reallocating labor to where the need most benefits the whole.

The total construction activity arising from the division of labor in the colony would have certainly exceeded, in scale, timeliness and quality, whatever would have been undertaken had each colonist been engaged only in his own separate homebuild project in some homestead in the wilderness at the start. The drawing is incontrovertible evidence of what happened. I know this is quite a difficult thing for an American to intuit today, particularly if you are a consultant type. Due to our irremediable gigging culture and emptied ranks of middle-management, we are no longer our daddy’s Organization Men. But, in a very true sense, the Savannah commons is creating the “social infrastructure” for town building. Without its public projects at the outset creating the setting of group labor and quickly normalizing exchange value concretely, the colony could have fared for the worse. 

The collaborative framework of the Savannah Trust Lot scheme hints at many upsides, but an essential one is that it grants private industry resources and economic information it would not otherwise acquire easily. Based on person hours, the collective labor to build the public projects will allow laborers to assess the value of work and goods first hand, granting all colonists insight to the quantifiable value of tasks - such as the labor value required for production of quality lumber, for example. They will probably assess immediately the total lumber that is generated on one’s own effort versus the vast more totals generated by a team of laborers. Once the initial construction of public buildings are underway, as colonists also continue improving their properties on their own, a maturing supply chain will be set in place, alongside a field of skilled labor teams with wage and material value intelligence. From this, a labor trading economy will ensue that families can tap into for their own home construction and farm projects. 

This is an incredibly important spark of industry that a “booster” project for the commons can grant a community. In a pioneering setting, especially, where the settlers are new to the skills and methods of development and most are still untested in the field, common uses that benefit the whole of them are themselves the fuel that can spark the enterprises, the organization, and the specialization required to advance their industry - creating the springboard for each individual’s options for betterment and self-actualization in the process. 

Talk about creating an effective startup team strategy... You would be creating, more than a startup, a startup ecology with this sort of work plan. Until a better term is availed, for now it is a development strategy that I will call the “Tactical Commons”. 

Besides the catalytic value of the Tactical Commons, however, the important feature I want to stress is how it functions in the Savannah economy to maintain a kind of dynamic equilibrium between individual and collective interests in the colony, and this it does as an ambient and unsupervised quality of the Oglethorpe Plan - namely, with the egalitarian layout of private lots and the formalized (also egalitarian) frame for association and governance with the Trust properties. 

Like the body’s vestibular system in the inner ear, to use an analogy, the plan guides forward motion unobtrusively, helping provide the sense of balance and motion with the processing of all external input received. In the body’s case, separate input streams are received from the eyes and the kinesthetic input received from the entire skeletal frame of the body. Both latter input streams are distinct and independent sensorial processes, while the vestibulary input, which is structurally aligned with them, is a mediating stream that helps the mind to synchronize the differentials between them. Savannah’s setting of one group effort for every ten contributors is literally baked into the structure, and people can’t help but to do the things they are hardwired to love, share and run with. It’s stunning that we haven’t learnt to plan this way 287 years later.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sancta Memoria of a Blog

This blog was begun almost nine years ago as a light-hearted quick take on the state of urbanism of the last decade. But in quick time, it became my outlet to ruminate on foundations of urban design theory. Most of that attention looked not at present events and trajectories in urban design but at the past, sometimes the ancient one.

When I was at the cusp of theoretical transitions and using the blog as a forum of sorts with other bloggers I regularly interacted with, I was regularly churning out material that would take me weeks to frame and research and days to draft and re-draft. I would say that writing heyday on this blog was during those shaky years from 2009 to 2011, following the housing collapse and recession that rocked the architectural and planning professions. The crisis forced much invention in the planning and urban design world, and it was a kind of crucible that made my thought take a sober turn to questions of organized city building. (This happened not just to me, for that crisis generated the best thinking after Jane Jacobs on urbanism out there. The humility of the Strong Towns organization's thinking and, closely aligned, the "Lean" and "Tactical" approaches of urbanism are among the best creations of what that new alacrity in thought produced.)

My wedding in Chippewa Square
In 2012, my attention to the blog largely vaporized as I became very engaged in the event asset planning for Obama's 2012 Democratic National Convention, an experience that carried me more deeply into community work, which commanded not just my personal endeavors but my intellectual paths of discovery. Blogging about those things was untenable, even though the medium is in some ways more appropriate. I thought about blogging about that work of course, yet, somehow, blogging about that stuff seemed a disconnect from the nature of trust-building and situated work. Also, I just could not justify the extra cost to my personal time and relationships. To which point, I should add not incidentally, I finally got married last year. Note not a single post on Proper Scale since November 2014, the month I began courting my wife, Megan, in earnest. I got wed to this wonderful woman in, where else?... Savannah's Chippewa Square. Yes, at the heart of the Historic District and at the foot of James Oglethorpe's statue, a place meaningful to me partly because of my work for this very blog.

But since 2012, the blog has had a second life for me.

I can probably recount many of my blog posts from 2010 to 2011 to you from memory. That is partly the consequence of the nature of writing something that has become so meaningful to my personal and professional life. The blog posting drove me to realizations about the city that are irreplaceable in value, to which I keep returning in my thought and practice. Indeed, I find myself often linking to my posts in explaining things to others, and so the posts have become an inventive armature for my work and thinking. I often reread my posts to think anew about the topics that composed them.

This second life of Proper Scale has been very interesting to watch in hindsight. This is a courtyard filled with relics of my mind's wanderings and encounters. In a way I could not have foreseen then, it has become what I yearned for in an early post from 2009: a cathedral for sancta memoria - a story-filled dwelling for generating cross-thought and happenstance discovery often leading to spiritual awe.

So... to dust off the old blog after a two year hiatus, and to begin readdressing some of those new realizations from my journeys of late, I re-post that post below.

Here I celebrate the sancta memoria this blog has truly gifted me with.

What Medieval Pictorial Narrative Has To Teach Us
(first posted on Proper Scale on February 8, 2009)
Place is something the soul itself makes for storing images.
- Albertus Magnus, Dominican Friar in Cologne, 13th Century

In the Middle Ages, the role of architecture was to shelter body and edify soul. I say “architecture”, but I mean to include “visual narrative”, for art in that period was seen as an embellishment of architecture. The greater population in those days was, for the most part, illiterate, and so, for quite pragmatic reasons, churches had to convey the sacred stories of the Bible pictorially. 

But the role of transmitting sacred history in medieval architecture (and art) tends to be overemphasized. In fact, if you were able to ask an ancient learned person in Trecento Florence, particularly a skilled rhetorician, what role “Architecture” represented to him, you would probably have been surprised by the answer. He would have winked at you and said, “To remember”…or, “To prepare a lesson”, or, “To revisit topics that have long puzzled me,”…or, even, “To discover insights that I have long overlooked among the subjects of my learning”. Architecture, you see, was a physical embodiment of human knowledge. It served a rhetorical purpose. Not only was architecture used as a vessel to transmit knowledge, but it even provided the springboard to new insight.

How could a 14th century philosopher be provided with such a conception about architecture? 

Simple. You need to first know that ancient thinkers did not have readily disposable pieces of scratch paper lying around to jot down their brilliant flashes of insight. Nor were some of them even trained to write well. Paper came only into common usage at the end of the fifteenth century. Previously, if they did have access to scores of papyri or vellum parchments, they would probably not have composed on them random notes of scattered thoughts, brainstorming exercises (yes…I know DaVinci was a quirky exception), annotative outlines or what you and I call “rough drafts”. Most thinkers certainly would not have recorded anything on them without first deliberating what was to be said to painstaking perfection, and that they would only write down slowly. That was not a process conducive to unbridled thinking through writing. One gained the temerity to pick up the quill pen only after first deliberating long and thoughtfully where one was going with a given thought. The medium was too precious.

They did have wax tablets and sand, of course. Unfortunately, if you used these, you would soon find yourself, after a flurry of thoughts, suddenly running out of space. You would have to go back and erase what you wrote, defeating the purpose…Or, worse, someone just as eager to record a thought would inevitably erase your precious scraps of unformed discourses, mistaking your storage for later as a sign of neglect (or, someone would mindlessly step on your sand writing). So what these folks had to resort to, as strange as it sounds to us today, was to sit down and memorize the elaborate thoughts they wanted to recollect and rework later.

Fortunately, they had incredible memory tricks at their disposal. One of the most important skills they cultivated was to use buildings and images as tools for recollection. First, they would carefully memorize the spaces of memorable buildings, noting not only their rooms and structural elements, but also the various decorative reliefs and murals on the walls. They analyzed every square inch of an illustrative work or painting, noting what the subjects were doing, what they were carrying in their hands, and so on. They would then use these symbol-laden elements as associative hooks for thoughts they wanted to store. Literally, the architecture/artwork became a “place” for them to hang their thoughts.

The role of art from antiquity through the early Renaissance, particularly in ecclesial art, was not only to embody human knowledge but to aid the practice most important to intellectual prowess in those days: rhetoric. Moral and philosophical thought, including prayer and spiritual meditation, were pursued using the techniques of rhetoric. St. Augustine’s writings, for example, are merely recorded works of rhetoric—“speeches”, really. The memory technique described here, called “architectural mnemonics”, was perfected by the early Greek philosophers, who were all skilled rhetoricians.

Architecture served as a tool to aid the speech-maker. To understand how this worked, say you were composing a sermon. As you reflected and came upon a statement to make, you would look to attach it by association to an element or artwork of the building you knew well, typically an image-laden church. For example, if you wanted to make a point about the capricious actions of a certain Medici boss (who shall remain unnamed) you would try to imagine him as King Herod in the nativity panel series. You did a similar thing with all the other parts of the sermon. As you composed the discourse in your head and strung your various points to artwork by associative links, the composition would literally start to take shape on the church walls. When it was time for you to deliver your speech, all you had to do was to retrace your prepared discourse through your mental image of the church, from element to element, art panel to art panel. As soon as you came upon the Herod image in your mind, you would think “Medici boss” and immediately recall the moral point you had stored for that portion of the speech.

Imagine being able to recall an entire discourse spontaneously and without great difficulty! But there was a second advantage produced by this technique that was in some ways more significant than mere recall. Obviously, the image-laden church would force you to work with a pre-existing tableau for your own arrangements of meaning. This was not such a great a straightjacket as you might suppose. You just had to be pretty creative about your associative linkages. Maybe, instead of using the Herod painting, for example, you imagine the Medici boss with head of one of pigs in the Gerasene Demoniac painting. This would help you to better transition to one of your other related points regarding the abuse of ferrymen and farm laborers. In such a way, the church would invariably order your prayers, sermons or scholastic/philosophic discourses. Not only would the church hold your orations sequentially together—like a pastor’s notes on the lectern—but it would also prod you to reconsider and rework your thoughts as you extemporized new insights from the networks of pre-existing associative links you had already built up on the walls. This often led to surprising insights that one would not have found otherwise. The church would thus marvelously become a vessel for private revelation. What would inevitably happen is that an orator would deliver a better speech than he had prepared. He would have plenty of moments of unanticipated, inspired insight.

Sometimes, among learned monks, the vessel of deriving “Holy Ghost insight” from associatively preserved memories was not a church or a panel of art but passages of scripture that they were thoroughly familiar with (which they typically were since some of them spent most of their time copying the same passages of scripture). For example, if they had the first chapter of Genesis memorized, they would use the seven day account of the creation story as a “place-holder” for their thoughts. By making associative links to the elements of each day, they could compose a seven-part prayer or sermon that could be recalled later to share with others or to reflect upon further. This insight to the latent creative function of Biblical narrative, the art of recollecting and composing ideas by using a narrative or poetic substructure, was called sancta memoria. Art panels in churches served a dual purpose, to provide communal narratives and to provide visual props for sancta memoria.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Will Google's self-driving cars turn your city into Charleston?

Perhaps! But your vision for the city will determine that. While the patterns of sprawl can not be transformed easily, I think self-driving cars have incredible potential to change what we will build in the future.

Reducing parking spaces per capita is one of the most promising ways, but by no means is it the only way. Planners need to be aware that the potential of self-driving technology goes much further than that. If Google's venture with self-driving technology proves implementable, how we practice urban design will change in dramatic ways. The consequences on urban form are not insignificant, and the ways we move about the city could receive vast gains in energy and cost efficiencies. How we plan and code for cities will certainly change, and so it behooves us city planning folk to begin thinking about this now.

If self-driving cars become ubiquitous, this Whole Foods on Magazine Street in New Orleans demonstrates how I believe all big box stores will relate to the street in the future. This store provides no off-street parking.   (corrected per anonymous comment).

Until very recently, I was openly skeptical about the potential for autonomous cars ("robocars" for short) to do much good for urbanism. In a previous post, for instance, I reflected on the potential of robocar traffic synchronization technology to promote freeway construction. Yes, I strongly suspect that robocar platooning might encourage expansions of freeways and engineering of roads to maximize free-flow conditions for high speeds, thus keeping freeways slicing through city centers. At the very least, they will encourage the proliferation of high speed interchanges. But will North American cities therefore stay fragmented and sprawly?

In that post, I was quick to suspect that they would for a number of reasons. This was because I was highly pessimistic at the time about the potential of automated driving to significantly alter the sprawl-loving lifestyles of most Americans. I also questioned whether autonomous taxis (ATs or "aTaxis") could do this even if they have a real potential to change American consumer habits for personal vehicle ownership.

I still have some doubts about ATs reaching high market share levels, but the growing clout of Lyft and Uber, coupled with urban lifestyle changes, are developments that make me pause to reconsider. I realize that the business case for robocar carsharing (be it ATs or peer-to-peer) is currently being forged and, indeed, is proving disruptively significant. Except for sport, some are already theorizing that it could become the only way we use automobiles. Carsharing and ridesharing, as performed by companies like Uber (including their UberPool service) and Car2go, are currently paving the way to carsharing with robocar fleets. They are already building that market, only with human drivers.

So from the moment Google's self-driving cars start entering the marketplace, I suspect Robin Chase is right to believe that much of the driving population will forgo vehicle ownership in short order. That day could arrive with a speed that may surprise us. The main reasons I suspect this are the advantages robocars can provide in sheer convenience coupled with the many raw benefits of the sharing economy. Moreover, any kind of carsharing that is able to reach efficiencies of scale with wide adoption could literally blow out of the water any rival form of automobile use, and robocars, for good reasons, stand a chance of capturing that kind of level of adoption - even if it is only a partial level of adoption by most individuals using them.

For one, automated driving helps us exploit much better the lost resource represented in keeping cars empty and parked all the time. It means the vehicle doesn't always have to be parked (at least not at the place where you actually disembark from it). No coveted spots to circle around. No repetitive circuits downtown trolling for an open parking spot. A robocar has an inbuilt valet service, and while it could continue circulating without you to go park itself, that situation lends itself immediately to the cost and energy benefits of sharing. The vehicle can now go on to serve another individual if not pick up someone else at the very spot you dismounted. Parked vehicles without occupants represent wasted space and rusting metal, not to mention human time and expense. Driverless technology puts the pressure on us to capture this latent resource, and I suspect Google and entrepreneurs will quickly move to exploit it. Many have realized that this simple move will drive down the number of vehicles we will need per capita (and if coupled with empowered transit services, I suspect significantly so).

But the convenience granted in the user's experience of robocars is the overlooked game-changer.  That is the salient factor that I completely missed before!

First of all, everybody can enjoy the equivalent of "Doris Day Parking" with robocars. Like Doris Day dismounting from her vehicle at the curb in front of her covered apartment entry, you will nearly always hop off from your robocar directly at the curbside before your destination. That kind of convenience is why even really well-off people heavily use taxis in places like Manhattan in the first place: the relative inconvenience involved in storing and retrieving personal automobiles most anywhere you want to go in Manhattan is simply too much to bear.

Since the advantages of not actually having to drive a car or park it is something taxis or Uber can provide us, the extra benefit granted to you by a robocar is the fact that you never have to worry again about maintaining your driving eligibility or insurability. Think about that! If you have a driver's license, you probably take this benefit for granted, but I will call this a great advantage, since it is actually not insignificant.

But when a robocar is shared, instead of personally owned, the convenience advantages continue to pile on. As a competitive advantage to vehicle ownership, carsharing reaching the scale of ubiquitous adoption is extremely compelling and disruptive, since, think about it, you as the user no longer have to worry about owning the car, maintaining it, nor housing it. Nor do you need to stay near its parked location. Your mobility becomes completely unlinked from the automobile. What's more, you no longer have to put up with the long-term necessities of ownership, such as worrying about accommodating the near constant mismatch between the vehicle you buy and your full array of vehicle needs.

So we have the following clear advantages with carshared googlecars:

(1) The advantage of foregoing driving eligibility
(2) The advantage of foregoing vehicle ownership
(3) The advantage of tailored and atomized automobility
(4) The advantage of freeing your rents and real estate from providing automobile storage

By "tailored and atomized automobility" I mean many things which we don't typically account for as  as car owners. These include being freed from personal investment in the long-term maintenance of a vehicle. A big one we don't think about is being freed from our invested choice in one or two vehicles we can own at a time. Being locked into one or two vehicles to serve all your typical trip needs is a large burden that locks us out of a full array of automobiles to suit a particular trip need very specifically - that could include adding a utility, making some trips more luxurious, or making others more efficient and cheaper.

All four of those benefits are actually one advantage: the advantage of having your mobility completely delinked from automobile ownership.

If you own a vehicle, take a pause here to think deliberately about your life without that advantage for a few minutes. Think about all the obligations in your life to address each of its burdens, and all the particular steps they involve, not only the scheduling and the payments, but their indirect repercussions on your life choices. For example, if you commute to your office job in an SUV or pickup, think of the outright waste and inefficiency that represents. What would happen should you suddenly be liberated from each of those deficits and demands, and you discover that, hey, you have just about the same mobility with a carshared service as you would with a personally owned car? In fact, your mobility may go up, if for no other reason than you can afford your mobility better and scale it to your actual needs. Carsharing with robocars may be able to afford you this kind of liberty even in the outlying scrublands of suburbia!

Are you sensing how radically your life could be reconfigured?

Now... Lets just begin to think about the land use and urban design changes that may be in our horizon...


If we share them collectively or use them as ATs, the potential of robocars to transform our sprawl pattern is quite significant because they would dramatically lessen the need for parking spaces. That has radical implications I don't have to explain.

But there is another important consequence we should anticipate and that is the fact that the needs of retailers to capture customers will probably change greatly - in fact, I speculate this need could catalyze the most dramatic consequence of automated driving on urban form and real estate markets. What matters here is not just that the parking can go away (or at least the provision of parking near most destinations), it is how uses are suddenly reoriented to serve their customers arriving via carshared robocars. What happens when you discover that the greater portion of your customers or users is now arriving via ancy robocars, which can park themselves or be traded off between entering and departing customers as if they were a public commodity?

I think businesses are suddenly going to sense a great need to immediately front the parcel with their entries in order to receive their customer competitively at the curbside drop-off point. At last, the new urbanist street section has a compelling advantage over the strip center in terms of the one factor that really matters in sprawl: the convenience to the customer!

This Walgreens on Magazine Street in New Orleans needs no exterior signage for the "Walgreens" brand. Instead, its cosmetics section is prominently situated at the storefront. Both this Walgreens and the Whole Foods in Uptown New Orleans (above top) have realized that linear feet of frontage near the curb is the resource that is vital. When you don't need to provide parking and signs to attract customers, as in the days before the car, all that matters is what you offer as an attractive experience. No more decorated shed nor duck. There is just "a shed with delights".

In terms of the way we value property with robocar carsharing in denser areas, particularly retail and commercial property, what this means is that we will probably return to the prewar era of primarily valuing property in terms of a lot's curbside frontage. Believe it or not, the shorthand way our predecessors evaluated relative commercial property values formerly was in terms linear feet of frontage (not building price per square foot). Indeed, that's the reason we repeatedly built urbanism before the world wars. It was simply the most important factor impacting commercial property value. It was the comparatively high value we placed on street frontage that compelled people to build right to the property line without setbacks, because that was where you met all your customers and where you competed with your neighbors for them. Building to the property line maximized building value.

As carsharing grows to allow stores and restaurants to cut down and even eliminate the need to provide off-street parking, expect linear feet of frontage to commensurably become more expensive in real estate terms. Exact dimensions of storefront length, actually, will more than likely be tied to customer turnover rates at peak shopping hours. A sufficient expanse of window space to catch the passersby's attention will be valued.  I suspect stores will start to become tall and multistory as a rule, like the urban department stores of the past. The Fifth Avenue effect. Many of these anticipated effects, in terms of real estate economy, strikingly resemble the forms of the pre-automobile era of urban development!


What the carsharing that is propelled by autonomous cars will enable us to capture at significant scales is the lost usable service potential of automobiles. Presently, only taxi cab and Uber/Lyft fleets currently capture this efficiency. Carsharing increases the number of trips an individual car can serve over its usable life. With carsharing, you are, in effect, capturing more trips per net pound of manufactured goods. In gross, the efficiencies gained from carshared vehicles really will add a net total benefit to the environment, enabling the same mobility to consumers for less impact, representing less wasted energy, less material life-costs (embodied energy) and less raw material intake for the same number of vehicle miles traveled. A lot of these gains are simply plugging in to the latent capacity that our present ownership-based transport system simply locks us out of. These are thus gains that can help us offset rising energy costs if we address latent demand for cheaper mobility effectively, using, of course, transit...


Does transit go away with robocars, by the way? Not at all! I believe transit will in fact become stronger if for the simple reason that divorced from vehicle-ownership, the economic advantage of using transit as part of your daily trip routines pencils out financially.

Where one can, one will save money sharing trips with strangers. That math could be easily compared with AT/carsharing apps that will more than likely be tailored to showing you your best route and trip options (Google-style) in terms of the bottom line: the actual dollar cost of a trip. Moreover, transit will be vitally important to reducing congestion in the peak times. To prevent hordes of robocars suddenly causing gridlock in the streets (since they won't necessarily be stored near their users any longer, remember), municipalities will probably build up their transit lines to move more people in and out of the downtowns and office centers. AT fleets will correspondingly charge higher rates to prevent gridlock and to encourage modal shifts (gridlock hurts them too - especially if it is gridlock produced by empty vehicles). In that situation, AT users entering the transit market will realize that the longer they manage to stay on transit for their commutes the cheaper and more reliable life gets. I think transit will suddenly be valued politically more evenly in a toe-to-toe contest with its main subsidized rival, the freeway.

Because of the dynamic of transit mixing, I think carshared fleets will operate in home "sectors" that circulate people locally, expecting people to plug into to high capacity transit lines for the longer/cross-town/peak trips. AT companies may prefer this situation because their fleets become more manageable when most of their vehicles are circulating near one another and they can store and service their vehicles more readily in the down times (otherwise they could be eating the costs of retrieving their empty vehicles from other home sectors and far away places). So, in the future, I strongly suspect carsharing and transit will work hand in hand. They will be thought about together as one greater system, rather than our present tendency to think of them as mutually exclusive "options". This gets to the core of what I mean by the benefit of "atomized" mobility. Yes, wealthier folks could use their shared or personally owned robocars for all trips, regardless of time or distance, but even they will benefit, because they will no longer be stuck in traffic with hordes of other people with a 9-to-5 job who have a latent demand for convenient transit, but are locked into needing to store and look after their own vehicles. This is important to realize. Folks that commute with singly occupied automobiles are commuting as much to take care of their car (because it must ultimately be stored where they sleep) as they are to get from point A to point B. Robocars free them of this. It cuts an invisible umbilical that many of us don't realize is suppressing our freedom. And when it does, transit will reap the benefits.

Urban Form

Without transit in the mix to limit congestion, self-driving cars will punish uses that centralize too much in the city, meaning similar uses will have to scatter geographically. Cities like Houston and LA and North Carolina's Research Triangle, with their scattered metropolitan centers, will likely be in a good situation to ease their way quickly into wide-scale robocar adoption. Both transit and robocar carsharing are more efficient in multicenter metros. In more centralized metros, like Charlotte, robocar carsharing will actually compel municipalities to devote more resources and attention to transit network improvements lest they will mire their cores in robocar gridlock at the peak times. I anticipate robocar commuting will be possible, of course, but quite expensive in these cities since AT companies will likely use dynamic pricing structures like Uber's to mediate supply and demand. Expect to see most people commuting into and out of job centers using high capacity transit.

Since self-driving vehicles will tend to be always circulating with or sans occupants, instead of spending their time parked somewhere off the street, they will always be in the street grid swarming to the serve their clients at their destination points.  People will sense the activity of an area by noting the rates of vehicle level changes on the streets and discerning where the swarm of vehicles are gravitating to, thus sending signals to everyone about the hives of activity in the city. They will make viscerally clear the exchange of human meetings and transactions geographically. The traveling "swarms" will give us an interesting new and dynamic "psychogeography" of our cities because traffic will no longer just represent humans moving through but the thickening of human activity, corresponding to the numbers of people entering and leaving specific areas. During business hours in the middle of the day, for example, vehicles will move out of the city center to disperse into the city and then start congregating downtown again at afternoon peak time. What will be the new behaviors, land use distributions and urban pathologies that will emerge? What words will need to be invented to describe these? Urban designers should try to anticipate what they might be, and what all of this entails, sooner rather than later!

Mapping for Traffic Control

One problem limiting Google's ability to introduce its autonomous vehicles is the mapping infrastructure that is needed. But I think Google can largely crowdsource the mapping from the early adopters who will have every incentive to do so. After early adopters, cyclists will chip in, eager to create de facto "bikeways" by cartographically indicating street zones where cars better bugger off, thank you very much.  We will see an amazingly innovative period in street design using signalling and feedback from Google Maps and the manual input of robocar users. This feedback will eventually allow every street to "teach itself" how the traffic should best navigate and flow through it. Urban Design is going to get much more organic and decentralized. Google's robocar mapping could empower local constituencies, or, on the other hand, it could empower the mandates of dictatorial DOTs. It depends on who first uses the tool effectively early on. As urban designers, we need to move in quickly to ensure that we implement inventively to empower locals in the Wild West period of robocar introduction and to make sure that we demonstrate the raw of potential of allowing self-adapting, organic paradigms of traffic control to emerge. 

There's still lot's more to say on all that and more, but it will have to wait till another good evening...

To wrap up, while the new tool of autonomous driving will have many upsides, it can serve sprawl and conventional ways of doing things every bit as much as its latent ability to do great things for walkable, more congenial and humane fabrics like the Charleston peninsula. The potential to sprawlify or to make Charleston with this tool is equally there. Planners and urban designers can't be lazy. We must be ready to spring to action when robocar fleets arrive to do what can make us prosperous in a new day. So, let's start thinking harder about these potentials!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Forays into an "Incremental Urbanism": Mashing Lean Urbanism + Strong Towns Resilience + Frequent Transit Grids

"Lean Urbanism" in Charlotte. My team's Park(ing) Day parklet, a shipping container "homestead unit" + microfarm.

It has been quite an active past week and half!  This event-filled September has granted me experiences that pique my interests with new possibilities. For the first time, I think, I sense that I have a story arc and trajectory that can tie together my hopes for my career in city planning. How exactly I can contribute to that arc is still unformed, but I know I'm at the cusp of new beginnings in my practice. What's more, I am finding a "home" of sorts, finally, in the streams of planning and design schools of thought out there. At times, I've felt adrift, without a fraternal abode I could call my own. At various times I've leaned late-modern Dutch and ecological and at others more infrastructure based and "new urbanist light". My intellectual grounding is still in what I call the "Kevin Lynch school", for lack of a better name. What I got from Lynch was an appreciation of the need for signposts and settings to check our conventional hubris, to recalibrate and think about how we think about the city, and to craft more nuanced design processes that enable designers to utilize feedback and, even, reversal.

I find this ethic at work in three young currents emerging in planning thought. These are Andres Duany's solidifying thoughts on "Lean Urbanism", the Strong Towns "math" of Chuck Marohn and Joe Minicozzi, and Jarrett Walker's goal setting approach to transit network planning.  Each leading front, obviously, focuses on the professional lens of these experts, so the first is not accidentally honed primarily on architectural processes, the second on the interphase of civil engineering and productive growth, and the last, obviously, on transit effectiveness.  While these are each most effective, I think, keeping their primary focus on the interests of their leading thinkers, they each complement each other quite nicely with the nascent tools they are developing and the goals and ledgers they are progressively clarifying. An urban designer should appropriate the language they are working out, if simply to test it.  What each incorporate into their lessons and techniques for planning practice is an appreciation for making effective strides incrementally, removing, or at least circumventing, the hubris and the waste of processes based on failed paradigms and the irresponsible chasing of growth with big projects. Andres is right: the need for PPPs has pole-vaulted to the apex of planning expertise today because we have regulated and expertified away fiscal clarity, bottom up pipelines for nimble-footed, resilient, incremental growth.

I'm alert to how all three movements will inform and complement urban design practice and take it to a new place. Despite their independent trajectories, these three vanguards are to a great degree pragmatic and rational, discursive in their clarification of the problems they face, and revelatory in their way to think about the goals (Jarrett Walker's post "abundant access: a map of a community's transit choices, and a possible goal for transit" is one of those rare language-shifting works of cut-to-the-chase rhetoric for distilled understanding that one only comes across a few times in one's professional life).  But they are not unconventional and revolutionary movements in their respective scopes. Indeed, Andres, Chuck, Joe and Jarrett are instead highly conscious about how to rejigger conventional processes in a thoughtful, successive and thoroughly professional way.

My excitement is that I'm beginning to see how the three movements can each independently contribute to a practice honed to synergize with their insights... call that convergence of the triad maybe "Incremental Urbanism".  I'm going to call the convergence L-M-N-O-P Planning: "be Lean when you can", "do the Math", "try the Network", "be Open" (to change my thinking), and "be a Planner, silly" - focus on planning for successive stages and don't do the opposite thing and create plans and ordinances that actually outlaw change. Incremental change is what cities often do and should be allowed to do, hence, why we actually need planners. (Zoning for "no change" is what creates sprawl, stupid.) Admittedly, the last two "O" and "P" points are my personal commentary.

Just be alert.  In their ways, these three will each succeed, and that path will look very differently for each.  But, quietly, beginning with precedent setting, they will begin fraying the edges of conventional and Ponzi-like approaches to city growth.  Those of us bouncing deep in the bowels of the heavy armored artillery will begin to notice the pockmarks with the daylight of the three movements shining through.  To the extent I'm allowed, I'm eager to bring in their methods into my activities, if not into my paid work in this early moment, then into my civic attentions.

By the way, if you are scratching your head and wondering how Jarrett's work of late appreciates an "incremental" approach to urbanism, I invite you to carefully read Chapter 15 "On the Boulevard" of his book. Jarrett's strategy actually addresses the "stroad" retrofit for incremental urbanism. We're quite fortunate to be witnessing the paradigm shifts that appear to be emerging in planning today. What an incredible time to be doing urban design.

We love Nicollet Av. in Minneapolis!
THIS new light-footed trajectory in my thought has been percolating to the surface of my reflections since last weekend, when I felt the refreshing embrace of brother/sisterhood with planing activists and transportation people (who actually think like me!) at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis.  Yes, I actually attended a conference-like convergence on my own dime for the first time. It was an easy sell, not only because I'm a Strong Towns "Advocate" but, well, because this registration cost was in the low, low three figure range.  It was thus cheap because Jim Kumon, the organizer, has, shall we say, a "lean" approach to event planning. Which means that at the cost of the holiday I planned to have with my brother anyway, I could actually attend without having to beg someone for money. How refreshing. How bottom up. I actually did spend some money, of course, but I got to spend it pumping it into all the delightful restaurants and local businesses I could on Nicollet Avenue and its diverse environs.  As luck would have it, that Sunday at the conclusion to the Gathering, Open Streets Minneapolis closed off Nicollet Ave. to traffic, and my brother and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in the midst of what is surely one of the great neighborhood streets in the nation.

Jane and Jezebel provided modeling services.
On the heels of the Gathering, this weekend saw my first foray into "lean urbanism" in Charlotte during Park(ing) Day 2014. Along with Klint Mullis of Center City Partners, two of my Neighboring Concepts coworkers, Sandra Grzemski and Maria Floren, and the Lawrence Group's power duo ladies Aleksandra Borisenko and Keihly Moore (who both organized the entire event), we erected a homesteading greenhouse/"living room" and container microfarm.  It was more symbol and tactical than "lean", true, but at least we put the meme out for homesteading with a shipping container provided by Boxman Studios (last year's fastest growing business in Charlotte) and a microfarm kit, chicken coop and all, courtesy local outfitter/supplier Microfarm Organic Gardens. As Andres Duany likes to say, every parking surface is a ready-made footing for light-imprint settlement, and I hope we made that argument at least visually. You want to homestead on your local vacant mall parking lot?  No worries, we can get 'er DONE right here in Charlotte (Eastland Mall, we're looking at you).

During both weekends, I got to make new friends and meet very exciting people from whom I hope to learn more from.  At the National Gathering, I got my introduction to Sara Joy Proppe, Edward Erfurt and Hans Noeldner, and had crazy good discussions, the kind I rarely have, with many others. This weekend was also my chance to work with the Lawrence Group girls to erect four new Little Free Libraries in Charlotte, contributed by the participants of the Park(ing) Day parklets plus a few others (every parklet came with at least one LFL - so a more permanent tribute to our creativity lives on). This included the one in Keihly Moore's and my neighborhood, Wesley Heights.  We still have five more to put up.  I look forward to working more with Keihly (pronounced "Kee-ly") and Aleksandra.  They blog at Complete Blocks and contribute to

Keihly (right), along with Wesley Heights Neighborhood Association President Shannon Hughes, inaugurates our Wesley Heights Neighborhood Little Free Library. This sharp design was the work of UNC-Charlotte students.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Savannah Dream

Recently, I awoke from a dream realizing that I had spent the entire dream wandering through a city with a grid patterned after Savannah's. Even in the densest areas of this city, where the structures of a Manhattan-like downtown had taken over the areas of entire wards, here the signature square layout of Savannah was architecturally integrated into the interior spatial layouts of high-rise megablocks. In the dream, the distinction between building space and open space seemed to have thoroughly blended, so that what carried through was the cohesion of the pattern rather than the clear-cut delineation of space. The squares of the city had taken extreme forms and qualities... a grotesque Savannah.

This Savannah was perhaps real Savannah's alter ego, in carnival drag. In real life, Savannah can't repress her natural stabilization: a mixed use, genteel and low-rise format which diversifies uses through the characteristics of streets and the countervailing pulls of its fabric dynamics (an interesting and measurable quality for situating diversity resiliently, urbanists).

But in the dream, distortions and extremities were the norm. Not just in terms of density. Some squares were pristine clearings still, filled with dewy light and new faux-Victorian homes just being erected, smelling like freshly cut timber.  Another square, littered and abandoned, was domed over by a cavernous Hagia Sophia-like structure, with large facades of glass through which blue-ish, silvery light poured through. Another square was similarly domed but filled with chandeliers, mirrors and gilded furniture, and packed with revelers. There was even a spooky area where the city had collapsed in on itself and had reverted into a live oak wilderness. The sulking presence of swamp creatures could be felt as they coiled into crevices in the shadowy brick piles.

As usual, nothing that was occupying my attention in the dream made much sense upon recollection. One doesn’t apprehend the comedic logic of dream events while one is experiencing them usually. My city dreams, in particular, have the quality of tragic-epic pilgrimages, for, as in most dreams, the quest always seems curiously tottering and perpetually side-tracked. In this dream, it involved crossing the variegated city with a band of acquaintances, like a poorly planned, shoe-string expedition of urban explorers recruited on Craigslist.

My first realization in my bedside review of the dream was that the only mode of travel that was allowed in the city was walking, perhaps my internalized credit to the walkable superiority of Savannah's form. However, striking to me here was the fact that in the dream the walking excursion was curiously obstacle filled. Movement was frustrated primarily by carnivalesque throngs of people and the animated skeletons of, well, what must be classified as former pets. There was, however, a singular interlude through a bottomless hall-like section where passage was afforded with the help of trapeze acrobatics. (Is that a mode? Call it "catenary enabled pedestrianism"... except without streetcars, ha.)

What does this dream tell me about Savannah? Is Savannah now an urbanist folly lodged deeply in my subconscious?

I don’t know. All I can say is that dreams spent roving about through strange cities in festival time recur frequently for me. This, however, is the first time Savannah's grid featured tenaciously from the point where I could recollect the dream to awakening. Perhaps it is my subconscious guilt, a gamely kick in the pants from my Id, to revisit my glacially paced study of Savannah's grid? This kind of format, on a blog, is perhaps wrong for it. But I might revisit the thought.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Our future with robocars: our future with guaranteed sprawl?

Planners and technophiles have begun to think a lot about autonomous vehicles or “robocars”. Some are even creatively deliberating the possible upsides to this technology for green urbanism and land use. (There are some upsides, supposedly.  See here.)  Most of these visions even entertain a vision of a future where no one owns a vehicle anymore or even knows how to drive one manually.  So great things in store for vehicle share, apparently.  Folks will simply hop on “automated taxis” (ATs) and zip around town purposefully to meetings on dew-drop shaped permutations of MIT podcars. Their attentions no longer demanded at the wheel, the imaginary occupants of these curiously slender cars (even traveling two or three to a lane we hear!) will now spend their time caressing their electronic devices, if not attending teleconferences in their capsule, at least writing a good bit of code, blogging about new products, or dreaming up their next start-ups. The fact that “productivity” benefits for robocars crop up while paying scant heed to their cultural underpinnings and land use implications is, well, interesting.

Whatever the inevitability of automated driving might be, the belief that autonomous vehicles will lead to a future of pervasive carshare is not all that convincing to me.  Yes, I am aware that the percentage of kiddos these days who are eschewing vehicle ownership apparently is on a steady trajectory to reach Edwardian era levels. Should the driving boom be over indeed, however, it is too early to confidently predict the widespread disappearance of vehicle ownership just because people stop “driving”. Nor will robocars helpfully mobilize our efforts to convert infrastructure and development pattern to a car2go utopia, even if they are used predominantly as ATs. I suspect, in fact, the opposite. While carsharing in itself can remove vehicles from the road in per capita terms, we need to better factor here what automated driving represents in two aspects: in the cultural one, especially in how people and machine transition together toward full automation (if indeed they ever manage to), and, secondly, in consideration of the potential commuting dynamics of automated driving.

First the latter aspect.  Possibly the most distracting transport models to talk about in discussing robocars are carshare systems and personal rapid transit (PRT). Distracting because both carsharing and PRT favor compact, walkable urbanism to support them and (at least in their early versions) outright confine their use to certain home areas. They have thus the problem of range. That is exactly the aspect which makes them favor urban and walkable environments. You need to walk to access them. But this is not a geographic limitation facing automated driving at all! In fact, it is a limitation automated driving, or a hybrid version of it, is perfectly suited to overcome. A more strongly correlating transport model to compare with are the mixed-mode carriage systems once proposed in the 60s.  These transport models, now seemingly forgotten, were proposed in the heyday of the PRT-visioning years to serve low density development patterns.  Basically these are like dual-mode PRT systems but adding the de-linkability of the vehicle so that the vehicles can be the conventional gas-guzzling, owner-operated kind.

At their heart, mixed-mode carriage systems were intended to resolve the “modal dilemma”, the impossibility of having an efficient mass transit system that can service far-flung suburbs extensively, flexibly, and cheaply. And so the transit visionaries of the 60s and 70s proposed to create carriage guideways to link cars to belts or put them on trains, thereby lending automobile use some of the virtues of mass transit by escorting linked vehicles rapidly through densely traveled areas. But, as Kevin Lynch pointed out, “this not only requires a very expensive carriage and control on the main routes, but also that individual vehicles be made compatible with that device” (in K. Lynch, Good City Form; Camridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981, p. 423).

One can see the enormous physical barriers to overcome in implementing such a carriage system, and easily deduce good reasons why automobile manufacturers would be averse to adopt it to begin with. Autonomous driving systems, however, not only can potentially virtualize the entire carriage and control system, they remove the need to standardize vehicles for physical linkage. They also can, crucially, decentralize the control system and make it much less computationally complex.  Robocars have the sensory controls needed to “platoon” them together safely at relatively constant high speeds, all you have to add is the vehicle to vehicle communication system to lend platooned traffic a super-human synchronization that prevents it from backing up. Information, in effect, then replaces the “carriage”.  The carriage problem thus is 100% solvable. What’s more, the decentralized aspect of the system means that it can also be modular - adjustable locally so that if one link slows or breaks down (as vehicles are wont to do), the system can more easily handle mishaps safely and insulate a local disturbance from the performance of the whole.

Because the robocar “carriage” is virtual, furthermore, it has an inbuilt flexibility unavailable to any physical system. Thus, for example, access to a high-speed guideway is a much more fluid and safe dual mode transitioning process than its physical counterpart ever could be. So long as spacing is not too tight, vehicles can simply merge into and exit the guideway at any point.  Platooned vehicles merely need to preserve a local “springiness” to receive and dispel individual vehicles in their group so that they will not hurt the overall speed of traffic traveling in the system. If and when local capacity is reached at any point, further merging into the guideway is simply disallowed.  

While it appears complex, the mechanics of carriage-like synchronization become a matter of programming, probably a matter no more complex than can be handled by the programming capacity that is already inherent in automating vehicular driving, I imagine. (I’m no expert of system dynamics and control systems, of course, but reading E.O. Wilson’s descriptions of ant colony communication, I’m quite positive the coding solutions to such complex system-wide control dilemmas will surprise us both in their simplicity and in their elegant results.)

The big hang-up, of course, is convincing humans to yield control of their vehicles, to, well, other vehicles.  It kind of screws with our sense of ownership, control, and even privacy. Yet, I would never underestimate the capacity of early adopters to sacrifice much in their personal sense of self to demonstrate the merit of technological innovations.  Why Google and carmakers are not already testing autonomous freeway platooning is puzzling to me, because it seems to be the low-hanging fruit within the scope of robocar technologies. But, possibly, they may have already realized the immense cultural jump it requires in terms of user adoption. They may have deduced that you need full automation at the outset before people are eventually acculturated to use it on highways. Besides, a dual-mode stage of operation has unique dangers. Google may just not be wanting to waste its time.

Which brings us to the cultural questions surrounding automated vehicle use. Cultural adoption with the robocar guideways described above is easy to imagine incrementally.  If reserved lanes for robocars can be deployed cautiously for early adopters in limited areas as a way to address the most hopelessly congested urban freeways, perhaps by using existing HOV lanes, progressive success with these will no doubt encourage further reservation of travel lanes for the system.  The matter may be a deceptive fix, however, because all it does is displace the congestion to the entry and exit points of the system where guideway traffic will inevitably have to return to surface streets. It will thus drive the need to take even more space for ramps and merging lanes and even creating larger interchange loops to make them robocars keep their speeds going.  In other words, we will be doing (and even adding to!) this kind of scary stuff...

Maybe we can, like, spin robocars right into the streets? A "turbine" interchange improvement project. Source.

I hope I’m wrong.  I do hope robocar control systems somehow prove smart enough to reduce congestion while not adding lanes and speed-fixated freeway infrastructure.  But if so, what’s to stop sprawl at the ends if increased capacity induces demand, as the iron law of freeway capacity improvement dictates? The need to continue improving and adding to limited-access roadway capacity within the city center will certainly not go away once it is clear that the mitigation of highway congestion using the superhuman and decentralized control systems of robocars is feasible. Horrifying as the thought is to me, cities whose current planning trajectory is to improve the speed and capacity of downtown freeways, such as my hometown of Charlotte, N.C., will be vindicated for poo-pooing the freeway-removal, “Ringstrasse” dreams of urbanists such as myself.

The capacity of robocars to extend the geographic range of work commuting and serve the expansion of sprawl should give every land conservationist pause (by the way, land/water resource and wildlife conservation is a primary reason I am an "urbanist").  Sprawl serves travel patterns that are already no longer confined to a metropolitan catchment area but are, increasingly, operating in a regional one. The interurban pulls of the Megalopolis are very real. As a private sector consultant, I’m not only attuned to the scale of far-flung development, I’m also constantly amazed by how much my own industry of urban development continues to transform - even in its operating bases - from a city-centric one into a regionally dispersed one. One of my projects here in Charlotte, for example, is managed by a developer who lives in the Raleigh area, who manages projects both in Charlotte and in Richmond, VA. The general contractor is based (and wisely so) in Greensboro, N.C., and its management team thinks it is nothing to expect its Triad based subs to mobilize teams to Charlotte.  Two hour daily commutes are nothing to all these folks.  You can forget slender pod vehicles. Most of them are the type of individuals who are served only by beefy looking pick-up trucks, as you might expect. And they are operating regionally, like, right now. Because of LEED, the materials that arrive to the job site often have a net transport life cost that is less than that exerted by the workers banging them together on any given day. What do you suppose automated driving represents for these folks? What do you think it means for other industries, however local their attentions?

The potential of another cultural transformation needed to support robocar use is important to note. It has more to do with how we relate to our vehicles. Driver attention and the communication between machine and driver is actually a subtle technical horizon to overcome in the progressive evolution toward full automation.  Innovation in this area is critical because the more dangerous mode of driving is not the human-operated kind and certainly not the fully automated kind but the hybrid in-between form of it where some capacities are automated and not others. (Humans also need to change the way they relate to smart objects, here-to-fore notoriously untrustworthy. But what if we improve the driver-vehicle communication too much?  Will we, in fact, ever get to fully hands-off automation if that happens? What happens if we find a hybrid middle, or even semi-automated “enhanced driving”, more important to human emotion, especially to our notions of safety and comfort? What infrastructure, for example, will we need to build to handle what happens when a car system “crashes” digitally? Will we be caught in a perpetual adolescent lurch toward full automation?)

I don’t think the auto industry will also ignore the latent capacity of enhanced communication to feed our endless ability to personalize our vehicles.  With enhanced communicative traits, won’t vehicles, in time, become more pet-like? Remember KITT? Enhanced to discern your mood and to chat cheerily with you, they may become rather compellingly ownable extensions of personal and family identity, it seems to me.

Perhaps robocars can be enhanced for share-ability by lending them the communicative qualities of Jane Jacobs’s “public characters” - quirky, talkative but not nosy, and precariously self-maintained.  People may come in time to recognize some of their favorite AT personalities and create public nicknames for them (especially if some units are known to be moody).  Preserving and caring collectively for them then better becomes a kind of public trust. They might even help with our sense of community. But if this be a tactic to get buy-in for ATs, not only is it strange to think it can replace vehicle ownership, we’d still have to ask toward what end if we succeed. The green merits of ATs, while lessening the need to own and park cars, are actually quite dubious compared to car2go enabled urbanism since ATs also remove the need to walk to parkspots. Like I said, that is the barrier automated driving is good at removing. Think of an AT fleet not only as carshare with valet service but carshare for the cul-de-sac.

For all those reasons, I don’t think the green advantages of carshare will lend themselves necessarily to our future with robocars. Neither in curtailing vehicle ownership and storage needs much and especially not in changing our infrastructural promotion of sprawl. In fact, I fear dedicating lanes to high-speed robocar commuting may endanger reserved BRT lanes, due to political pressure to convert them to an automotive use that is perceptually “equivalent” to rapid transit. As Jarrett Walker points out, exclusive lanes of successful BRT systems appear often as “empty” (and thus implicitly inefficient and share-able) to vehicle owners.   

The only thing robocars could possibly guarantee to conserve our environment is allow us to park more efficiently in space-saving ways, but how in the world could that possibly offset the exurban sprawl they will no doubt induce?  Let me know if I’m missing something here.