Mind the Gap: Improving Urban Mobility through Science and Design

How do people move through cities? Is technology helping or hindering their movement?

The answer may depend on whom you ask.

IAM Lab Executive Director Susan Magsamen joined a dynamic panel for “Mind the Gap: Improving Urban Mobility through Science and Design,” hosted by Van Alen Institute and moderated by Jonathan Hilburg, assistant editor at The Architect’s Newspaper. Van Alen Institute’s mission is to use design to catalyze positive change in cities. Its work is grounded in two key questions: How do cities impact our minds and bodies, and, in turn, how do we impact our environments?

At the event, panelists working on a range of urban mobility and design challenges presented the audience with provocations at the intersection of science, design and community.

What will driverless cars mean for cities?

Panelist Gerry Tierney from the Mobility Lab at architecture firm Perkins + Will worked with Lyft to reimagine Los Angeles’s busy Wilshire Boulevard, creating a design that would replace 10 chaotic lanes of traffic with a mix of green space and dedicated lanes for bikes, mass transit and driverless cars. While many tech enthusiasts and designers have been quick to portray a panacea of less congestion and fewer cars on the road with the introduction of autonomous vehicles, Tierney predicts that non-autonomous vehicles will share the road with driverless cars for quite some time. Making a comparison to the early 20th century when horses, carts, cable cars and cars shared the road for the first time, he cautioned that chaos is likely if cities don’t plan thoughtfully. Still, Tierney sees room for a bright future for urban mobility, as long as urban planners, designers and city leaders aren’t caught off guard by what’s to come. He also thinks driverless cars will be here sooner than we think.

Panelist Julia Day from architecture firm Gehl Studio shared a similar sense of optimism, noting that the pending driverless car revolution presents an opportunity to reimagine communities broadly. Much like the Smart Mobility Lab is designing streets for people, Gehl Studios is designing cities for people. Their projects in major U.S. cities and across the globe reimagine sidewalks, parking spaces, waterfronts and plazas based on the way people move and live. Gehl Studio is working with KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit dedicated to giving all kids safe spaces to play, on its Play Everywhere initiative. The project provides tools and ideas for community leaders and residents to reshape the public realm with kids and families in mind, inviting wonder and learning to everyday places like bus stops, sidewalks and grocery stores.

How do we know what people want and need in urban design?

Day discussed how Gehl Studio collects data to understand public life—counting the number of pedestrians over time in a study area, for example. Similarly, panelist Taylor Nakagawa from Multimer shared how that company is using geolocated biosensor data (transmitted by common wearables like smartwatches and a proprietary EEG headband) to improve human-centered spatial design. Biosensors enable Multimer to track how much time people spend in a location in a city, how they feel when they are there and what they are likely doing—based on measures of their heart rate, breathing and attention. With that data, Multimer creates “sentiment maps” that visually depict the average experience of people as they move through spaces, which can be as diverse as office spaces, bike paths or entire cities. Then, designers can use that data to create more of what people want and need and make the best use of public spaces.

Who ultimately holds the power in how cities are designed?

Panelists conceded that human-centered design, transportation and urban planning can be messy conversations that require the input of many different disciplines and stakeholders. Still, as one mayor in the audience noted, these are ultimately local issues, and communities have the power to stand up and make their voices heard.

Magsamen underscored the need for a consensus framework to formalize and standardize interdisciplinary research-to-practice efforts, especially those at the intersection of design and brain science. Such a framework, like Impact Thinking, ensures that complex questions are answered by bringing together the best minds from across architecture, design, neuroscience, public health and a variety of other relevant disciplines—working on the same questions at the same time with the same information. Involving practitioners and community members in research ensures that design is truly practical and applied and moving beyond closed professional associations and academic publishing puts critical data in the hands of community leaders who can make lasting change.

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