Electric cars

Competition for streets and sidewalks

Competition for streets and sidewalks

Almost as soon as technologists invented robots to carry groceries or burritos at people’s doorsteps, arguments on the sidewalks began.

Officials in San Francisco, which is a testing lab for many new technologies, worry that interactions with robots could harm the elderly, children or people with disabilities. About a year ago, Pennsylvania scrapped city-by-city restrictions and gave away roaming sidewalk delivery robots, which look like beer coolers on wheels, the same rights as pedestrians. Officials in Kirkland, Washington, license recently put on hold for Amazon’s experimental package delivery robots and asks if the company should pay a fee for using sidewalk space.

It may seem ridiculous to devote brain space and government attention to robot couriers, who may never be feasible outside of limited parameters to like university campuses or city centers. And go ahead and roll your eyes at leftist cities like San Francisco that seem obsessed with rules.

But these robot battles are a microcosm of big questions about technology and modern life. How do we share public space like streets and sidewalks – and who is responsible for the inevitable damage that results from the evolution of our communities, including security threats, wear and tear on roads and sidewalks, congestion and pollution?

Versions of these questions emerged when e-commerce deliveries have explodedand they appear whenever the locale makes room for outdoor dining area, cycling, transportation services such as Uber, while walking, the buses, driverless cars, electric scooters Where flying taxis. It’s all flavors of the same dispute over who belongs and who doesn’t belong in our shared spaces, and who more or less deserves a limited resource.

“For 100 years we’ve had all kinds of things on our roads, streets and sidewalks that we don’t quite know what to do with,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina Law School who studies emerging transportation. There was a time, he pointed out, when cars were the controversial new intruders on the roads.

Smith acknowledged that there is no simple answer to who and what our streets and sidewalks belong to.

Not allowing public space to evolve is counterproductive. We could be missing out on helpful changes to our hometowns or better ways to move people and goods. But it’s also potentially destructive to allow a free-for-all, like the delivery trucks that navigate the neighborhoodsgolf carts on the highways or seas of cars and scooters clogging all the roads.

Smith said it’s appropriate for different communities to make their own choices about sidewalk robots, bike lanes or transportation services, even though it may be unsightly of not having a single model for how to handle these things. He said universities, which have until now been home to courier bots, had the power to set rules such as speed and weight limits and hold courier companies to their promises.

Leaders and all of us need to ask ourselves what we want for our communities, he said, and then imagine how we want public space to serve those purposes. This means thinking holistically about the uses of roads and sidewalks, and not treating robot couriers, electric scooters, private cars, or UPS trucks as separate modes of transportation.

Above all, Smith said, people and policy makers should not only think about what to do about new forms of transportation, but also be prepared to reinvent the status quo of cars and trucks like the main users of public spacewith everything and everyone competing for street and sidewalk margins.

Due to the high costs that vehicles impose on communities, such as traffic congestion, dead on the road, climate change and demand for physical space, Smith said maybe we need to be more imaginative to make room for anything other than cars. “Let’s encourage diversity and see what happens,” he said.

It’s going to be messy and controversial, but as Smith said, that’s how change works.

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