Should New York Have Separated Lanes for Self Driving Cars?

Video screen capture. Loop NYC

One of the biggest worries about self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs) is how well they would play with others, how they would share the roads. Engineering and architecture firm Edg has looked at the problem and has come up with a solution they call LOOP NYC; they propose taking a lane from the West Side highway and FDR on the east side to dedicate to AVs, as well as putting dedicated lanes on the major east-west cross-streets. These would create "loops" for AVs all over Manhattan and cut travel times from Grand Central down to Battery Park to 11 minutes from the current 40 minutes.

Loop NYC by Edg from TC Laughlin PR Group, Inc. on Vimeo.

Edg also suggests that this would take so many cars off the road that they could convert other streets and avenues into lovely bucolic parks. Edg founder and managing partner John J Meyer is quoted in Dezeen:

By automating a portion of the traffic grid with driverless vehicles, we opened some really captivating opportunities to reimagine infrastructure, enabling us to reclaim both Broadway and Park Avenue to create parkland running the length of the island.

Loop NYC/Video screen capture

Also in Dezeen, "Edg says Loop NYC is "shockingly implementable" and would "provide an inexpensive, reliable, sustainable and infinitely expandable mode of transportation".

There is only one teensy problem buried in the video: the need to keep pesky pedestrians out of the way. To do this, they show light and airy pedestrian bridges:

pedestrian bridge

LOOP NYC/Video screen capture

Pedestrian overpasses and underpasses will be installed to physically separate pedestrians from driverless vehicles, allowing pedestrians to safely navigate the city, which reduces accidents involving cars and pedestrians and brings us one step closer to Vision Zero.
GM Futurama

© GM Futurama 1939 World's Fair

There is so much wrong with this paragraph that it is hard to know where to start. Let's pass over the total misunderstanding of what Vision Zero is, or why one shouldn't use the word accident, and go straight to the issue of grade separation of pedestrians. We have seen this movie before, when we asked Will self-driving cars lead to grade-separated cities? The idea goes back at least to 1939 in GM's Futurama proposal. If there are not separated lanes, there will be some serious pedestrian control; Researcher Adam Millard-Ball described what might happen:

Physical barriers in the form of fences between the sidewalk and roadway are erected to corral pedestrian traffic along busy streets, marking a return to the mid-20th century street designs that emphasize segregation of road users. Enforcement action against jaywalkers and similar violators is stepped up, and legislation specifies that an autonomous vehicle manufacturer is not liable for any collision where a pedestrian was unlawfully present in the roadway.
Pedestrian fences in London

Google Maps/ Pedestrian fences in London/via

And they will really need that regulation, because pedestrians hate schlepping up fifteen feet of stairs to get to those walkways and unless the entire sidewalk is fenced, they will ignore them. They will never, ever get New Yorkers to do this unless, as transportation planner Jacob Mason jokes in Citylab, they install "electric fences."

All of those crossings would have to be fully accessible too, meaning lots of expensive elevators. Given the American propensity for jerks to drop things off walkways, they will all be fenced right across the top (empty AVs will be a particularly juicy target) and not look so airy and open. This is just not the beautiful green bucolic future that Edg proposes.

space comparison uber and AV

© Jon Orcutt

There are so many other issues, like the fantasy that AVs might reduce the number of vehicles on the road to the degree that Broadway and Park Avenue could be turned into parks. While some people think that there will be fewer cars because they are shared, others are not so sure; one's own private moving living room sounds like a nice idea. But the biggest question of all is why we need this.

subway trip

Google /Screen capture

If you want to get from Grand Central down to Battery Park in less than 40 minutes, there is this thing called the Number 5 Train that will do it in 17 minutes plus a bit of walking. Perhaps it would be better use of resources to invest in fixing up the subway system, bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure at grade instead of this loopy idea.