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Fast Times for Slow Streets: How Self-Driving Vehicles Might Accelerate a Pandemic-Driven Trend in Cities

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Photo courtesy City of Miami Beach

Matthew Gultanoff, founder of the community advocacy group Better Streets Miami Beach, says that his neighbors have a saying to describe life in South Florida: The outdoors is our living room

“We’re a stone’s throw from the beach. We have beautiful weather and flat terrain. We’re a small island that’s seven square miles with 90,000 people,” Gultanoff says. “There’s practically no reason why one would need to drive around to do everyday activities.”

A resident of the city’s South Beach neighborhood for the past decade, Gultanoff and his wife were drawn there explicitly for its walkability. But their communal outdoor living room got uncomfortably cramped during COVID, as throngs of people, desperate to exercise and socialize, squeezed onto narrow sidewalks—all while the comparatively massive streetscape dedicated to cars remained mostly empty. (Car-based traffic in Miami Beach fell by about 70 percent in the first months of the pandemic, according to city officials.) 

So Gultanoff proposed an urgent solution to city commissioners. The software engineer and bicycle activist pushed for the nearby Flamingo Park neighborhood to hop on the fast-moving Slow Streets trend, in which streets are closed to through-traffic and only accessible to residents and special uses like deliveries and emergency vehicles. A few months after Gultanoff’s proposal, the city agreed to designate ten north-south avenues and another ten east-west cross streets as official Slow Streets. New signage indicates that only local traffic, at a maximum of 20 miles per hour, is allowed on these blocks. What was proposed as a 30-day pilot last October was extended in December indefinitely.

Jose Gonzalez, director of transportation and mobility for Miami Beach, says that the city’s 2016 transportation master plan proposed changes to make streets friendlier to pedestrians, bicycles, and public transit. “But the pandemic was a driving force behind getting something done quickly,” he says. 

Miami is one of many cities around the U.S. that have seen Slow Streets programs accelerate throughout the past year. Sandra Caballero, an autonomous and urban mobility specialist at the World Economic Forum, says that the Slow Streets movement grew out of another trend: Complete Streets. That’s the idea of streets being equipped with infrastructure— ample sidewalks, crosswalks, curb cuts, signage, bike lanes, and transit lanes for a wide range of civic uses and mobility modes—that can be a boon to local businesses. 

“A Slow Street is essentially a low-budget way of making a Complete Street,” said Caballero. When people are walking and biking—and when cars move slower—people linger to shop, socialize, or grab a bite. A Complete Street may require new construction, the dedication of new lanes, and cutting through mounds of red tape. Meanwhile, a Slow Street is mostly a matter of putting up a sign to establish the new rules.

Here Comes Self-Driving Vehicles

Slow Streets are beloved by the mobility-minded for a simple reason: They force drivers to be more conscious of the communities they’re motoring through. Private vehicles are often seen as using a street, but not really connected to it. Their drivers are just passing through, ideally as quickly as possible. Slow Streets require thoughtful driving, and help form connections between drivers and the communities they’re driving through.

A skateboarder rides down a Slow Street in the Flamingo Park neighborhood of Miami.
Photo courtesy Matthew Gultanoff/Better Streets Miami Beach

The same can be said of the self-driving vehicles operating in Miami by Argo AI, a self-driving technology company that purposefully designs its self-driving system to serve ride-hail and goods delivery functions. Autonomous vehicles are hyper-aware of local factors like lane geometry and speed limits. Equipped with high-definition 3D maps and sensors that constantly observe the environment around them, self-driving vehicles are tailored to specific locations and conditions (known as “operational design domains”). According to Caballero, having clearly prescribed street rules like the ones Slow Streets provides can help autonomous vehicles become more ingrained in the community, in part by programming them to behave like members of that neighborhood. 

The Slow Streets project in Flamingo Park is part of the service area in Miami Beach where Argo AI autonomous vehicles are tested. Argo worked closely with city officials to understand the Slow Streets rules at Flamingo Park, ensuring that its maps were accurate and up-to-date and that the Test Specialists conducting the autonomous vehicle operations were familiar with the neighborhoods. This approach aligned with the company’s street-by-street, block-by-block philosophy and supported ongoing work with city transportation departments to provide up-to-date (or even real-time) information about roadway conditions to service providers. Such information is crucial for companies engaged in ride-hailing or goods deliveries in order to avoid service disruptions for residents.

But continuing to test on Slow Streets was crucial for another reason as well: to support future autonomous vehicle businesses. “If a pizza chain uses an autonomous vehicle to deliver pizza to someone who lives on a Slow Street,” said Monica Laufer, public policy and government relations manager for Argo AI, “the self-driving system needs to be trained on the appropriate  use of the roadway to make the delivery.”

Laufer points out that, for regular drivers, it is tempting to sneak around Slow Streets signage which prohibits all but local traffic from using the roadway. If a Slow Street adds minutes and miles to a trip, drivers are liable to opt for the shortcut—ignoring the signage altogether. But a self-driving vehicle’s algorithm can’t be swayed by impatience, and it will never intentionally disregard the rules. “Autonomous vehicles driving down those same streets are going to drive the speed limit and maintain safety,” she said. “This makes street design a lot more impactful.” 

Gonzalez and his team are still collecting data and surveys to determine if the Slow Streets rules will permanently stay in place in Flamingo Park. The city will use the same data to respond to requests from other neighborhoods for Slow Streets. But some benefits can hardly be measured. On Ocean Drive, a hotbed of restaurants, bars, and Art Deco hotels, half the street was granted to restaurants that needed space for safe outdoor dining; the other half allows people to stroll and bike. Miami Beach also reduced four lanes of traffic on Washington Avenue to three—to make room for a dedicated bicycle lane. 

Gultanoff, the bicycle activist, sees the potential for not just for cyclists and walkers, but also for self-driving vehicles on a pedestrian-friendly street. “Autonomous vehicles are not a panacea for all the problems that cars bring into cities,” he said. “But these vehicles aren’t going to be texting while driving. They’re not going to be doing burnouts or donuts in neighborhoods.”

With overall familiarity with Slow Streets growing, Gultanoff is gratified by what he sees every day in his and other Miami neighborhoods. “There’s nothing more satisfying than when I see a mother or father and their kids riding safely to school on their bikes,” he said.

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