- Sidewalk Labs, the smart cities arm of Google parent company Alphabet, has released a set of design principles to make streets safer and more efficient as new mobility technologies come online.
- The four principles are: tailor streets for different modes; separate streets by speed; incorporate flexibility into street space; and recapture street space for the public realm, transit, bikes, and pedestrians.
- In a blog post describing the new principles, Sidewalk Labs mobility lead Willa Ng said the principles would inform new street designs and the company would test them by installing prototypes “to gauge how drivers, pedestrians and cyclists react.” Those designs will include some dynamic elements to better adapt to new modes.
The mobility revolution means that roads that were once designed for cars are now having to serve bikes, scooters and pedestrians, forcing a new conversation about shared use and safety. As pedestrian deaths climb, cities have been looking to street design as a solution. Some, like Detroit, have been shaving lanes off major thoroughfares to reduce speeds and create more space for alternative transportation; earlier this month, Cambridge, MA became the first city to mandate protected bike lanes.
The Sidewalk Labs principles are meant to guide those efforts from the start, with a vision of different streets that prioritize different modes by separating speeds. In the blog post, Ng lays out four different types of streets that would serve different needs, starting with "laneways" that serve pedestrians. "Accessways," with a speed limit of 14 miles per hour, would be tailored for cyclists, while "Transitways" would include buses and trains and would serve all users except cars. Finally, "Boulevards" would allow for cars, although would include barriers to protect other users and would keep speed limits to 25 miles per hour.
The company is also pushing dynamic pavement that could inherently change the design of a street. Along with design firm Carlo Ratti Associati, Sidewalk Labs has proposed a modular pavement approach that would use lights to designate speed and traffic use. That would allow, for example, a street to be dedicated to transit during rush hour, then be converted to pedestrian space over the weekend.
Sidewalk Labs will get a chance to test its dynamic street design at its Quayside development in Toronto, which will be designed to prioritize biking and walking over driving. In the meantime, Ng writes that the company is hoping its principles inform other efforts to redesign streets. “Our hope,” she wrote, “is that, as cities enter the 2020s, that old question of whom streets are for will be resolved.”