Autonomous Vehicles Reimagined

Imagine if no one on your street owned a car. No one speeds through pedestrian zones, no one runs over your garbage cans. And in fact, your cobbled street just grew by two lanes, because the 90% of time that your car remains parked has been eliminated.

This is not a utopian environmental fantasy, nor a return to transport by beast of burden.  With the advent of autonomous vehicles, commuters may buzz between locations by a fleet of roving cars, owned and operated by a combination of public utilities and ride share companies. What does a city look like without parking garages, stoplights or multilane expressways?

Global engineering firm BuroHappold set out to answer this question precisely.  From London and Berlin to Riyadh, Kuala Lampur, and now Pittsburgh, a multidisciplinary group of thinkers has put forth an equally multifaceted set of realities in which cities are powered by self-powered cars. This series of design sprints took the model popularized by GV (formerly Google Ventures) and the Standford, where rapid prototyping and open ideation allow professionals to propose concrete solutions to complex situations. If Pittsburgh seems an unlikely member of this cohort, don’t forget that both Uber and Argo AI (started by former Google employees) have based their research operations in this high tech hub. So compelling is Pittsburgh’s leadership that Green Building Alliance convinced BuroHappold to host a design sprint in the former steel capital, the first to be held in the United States. In partnership with Envision Downtown, they convened 6 groups of architects, urban planners, roboticists, and sustainability experts, to reimagine Pittsburgh’s built environment post private car.

Does this conversation sound oddly familiar? Remove robotics from the picture and planners had similarly revolutionary ideas about cars in the 1930s. Cities across the U.S widened roads and replaced neighborhoods with highways, all in the march towards automobilization. This set of theories structures urban design until today, and its impacts on human health and the environment have been paved into history. In fact, the newest spate of complete streets policies are a direct reaction to prior developments, with municipalities fighting to reverse the damage from the vehicle-centric paradigm.  In 2017 cities stand at a similarly seminal moment, on the brink of systems-wide transformation that will undoubtedly reshape modern life. The question remains, how can we ensure that autonomous vehicles bring benefits to all, as opposed to reinforcing current challenges?

Pittsburgh took a decidedly holistic approach to its vision for the future, spurred by Green Building Alliance’s inclusion of sustainability experts across disciplines. Discussions followed the premise: if we are going to remake the city, it should have the greatest positive impact on the environment. Groups proposed greened pedestrian boulevards, a new Connected Autonomous Residential Experience (CARE) zoning overlay, Bus Rapid Transit lanes, and mobility hubs, all transforming streets into a new urban fabric.

Autonomous vehicles press pause on contemporary notions of urban design, and provide a moment for constraint-free creativity to flourish.  Learn more about Pittsburgh’s proposed designs, and take a lunch break stroll to get inspired. That Design-A-Country project in your social studies class might be more useful than you realized.

For more insights from Pittsburgh, check out the National Summit on Design and Mobility.

For more information about GBA’s work with autonomous vehicles, contact Kristen Osterwood at

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