This morning, Jim Hackett, the president and CEO of Ford Motor Company, and I worked together to design a human-centric street using toy people, bicycles, markers, trees, and other miniature implements of street fare. When I suggested we erect a sculpture in a designated park area, Jim put together some Styrofoam bits with toothpicks and cut off pieces of tape for me to 'solder' the construction.
This was part of the City of Tomorrow Symposium at Fort Mason in San Francisco, hosted by Ford on August 19, 2017, to explore innovative approaches to urban mobility. The symposium started with a history of NYC’s bike share program by former head of that city’s transportation system, Janette Sadik-Khan, who said it took six years to transform the city’s streets to make them safe and convivial for bicyclists as well as pedestrians. The biggest obstacle, she said, was the culture of the city’s inhabitants, which was anti exercise, anti sharing, and anti environmental, and anti “French,” Paris being seen as the genesis of metropolitan bike share.
Today, Sadik-Khan said, bike sharing and commuting by bicycle is very popular, not only in NYC but also in Vancouver, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland. “Streets can be so much more than spaces. They can be places.”
Ford’s lab in Palo Alto -- Greenfield Labs -- works with IDEO and other designers to plan for the city of tomorrow. Facilitators from Greenfield led hands-on workshops where teams designed city streets themselves. Four long tables were covered with paper on which participants could draw, erect structures, such as cafes and overhead trains, and build parks. The only design imperative was to create a street that was human centered. The group I worked with ditched cars altogether, although we did have one woodie that we kept as a historical relic in the middle of a park area and decorated with a phone booth (also defunct) on top.
During lunch – all utensils compostable – I talked to the head of systems and technology and chief research scientist of artificial intelligence at Continental, a German company that is the world’s largest supplier of automobile parts and has a division in San Jose. He said the world is moving so fast, it’s hard to keep up with it. He says car mechanics will soon be a profession of the past – like taxi drivers and travel agents – because even now, all one needs is a software app to diagnose issues in a car. In fact, he diagnoses his own car – a 2009 Saab – using such an app.
He – and others at the symposium – mentioned the biggest barriers to adoption of new technologies, like self-driving cars -- are not engineering issues but regulatory ones, like integrating state, county, and city transportation policies, not to mention federal ones. But change can happen overnight, or almost overnight, as the U.S. went from horses and bicycles to cars in just over a decade, from 1900 to 1913.
Maybe all we need to do now, I sometimes think, is to reverse that process and return to horses and bicycles.