Creating Cars & Infrastructure for Improved Urban Mobility

Last summer I was involved with the most far-reaching mobility design project of my life. I was working with the College for Creative Studies’ new multi-disciplinary mobility lab on a bold new transportation system for Seoul, South Korea. While our proposal was a cutting-edge environmental solution, the real benefit it offers is the massive reduction of travel time for the residents of Seoul to move about their city.

The design proposal focused on rapidly installing a system of automated/autonomous vehicles citywide.

While unrealistic, the design sought ubiquity and a wholesale change-up of Seoul’s cars and trucks. The potential benefits for citizens would be world-changing. For example, a current trip across Seoul taking 50 minutes could be reduced to just only 10 minutes. Think of that, a city full of millions of people where intra-city travel becomes 5X faster!

Our concept for Seoul is called “DoubleStreet”. Seoul has generally just three types of streets. One is the very tight alley. The second is a normal-looking street, at most two lanes wide in any direction. But their “main” streets are incredibly wide, often 12 lanes across in total, yet still lacking any bike lane. Our proposal was to move the city vehicles over to autonomous control and to build a second “deck,” or level, on these wide main streets in the city’s core area. The new upper level would be urban parks, green spaces, pedestrian and bicycle paths. Initially, it would create 10-million square feet, a roughly $50-billion value.

One of the best parts is the robo-vehicles can travel much faster in the city center than we can today. It would be possible to see some vehicles going over 70 miles per hour in the city core without having any chance of hitting any person, because of the isolated travel corridors for automated vehicles.  

While there is considerable focus on the upcoming autonomous cars by Waymo and Uber, their ability to travel fast in a city will be based on their travel corridor. If their autonomous vehicle comes close to a pedestrian, it must travel slowly. Isolated corridors for movement change all that.

I have been interested in proposed Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems for years. I like that a traveler can go directly to the stop close to their destination directly without any other stops. But the requirement for PRT elevated tracks is unfortunate. So, the idea of a 2-level street became interesting. If we could design the vehicles to all have a lower height, the “visual disruption” of this new type of elevated dual street on the neighborhood would be minimal. (Note: new heavy trucks for center-city work would also need to be created).

Our team imagined the city’s vehicles operating like self-driving cars around the city and more like a PRT automated system of vehicles inside the DoubleStreets.

Our project came from the Seoul Design Foundation, a department of the city. It was a great effort to be involved with, as college design students and faculty worked together. 

The most important part for me was the collaboration of our vehicle design (and industrial design) team to be working with urban designers/architects from UCLA in Los Angeles. Our total team was 10 people. 

I do not feel we could have designed such a far-reaching proposal if the vehicle designers were not working directly with the city designers. Urban designers usually select existing vehicles and don’t consider creating all new ones for their city. But that is something we can now do. With 3D printing and custom manufacturing, it’s now possible to create vehicles for a major city.

I am sure our proposal looked outlandish to many. How would it even be possible to change all the city’s vehicles? But oddly, that is what Seoul and most world cities are trying to do already, that is move people into electric vehicles. But unfortunately, EVs are not a comprehensive answer to urban mobility.