Street Cars in New York From Around 1900 – Do They Suggest a Good Use For Autonomous Vehicles? An Urban Designer Seems To Thinks So

In the last hour or so before I retire, while Stephanie takes her lengthy bath, I often surf YouTube. One of my favorite subjects are very old films. This one, of New York City cable cars from around 1900 caught my attention a few months ago. There’s essentially only two modes of transport to be seen: walking and an endless line of closely spaced cable cars in the middle of the street.

It occurred to that this is a very efficient transportation system. Either walk or step into what is almost a rolling walk-way of continuous street cars. Could something like this be adapted to help solve today’s congested streets? But something more efficient, and less labor-intensive than so many human-operated trollies? How about autonomous ones?

Then a few weeks later, I ran into this article at the New York Times. Bingo. The well-known urban planner Peter Calthorpe, one of the key founders of New Urbanism back in the 1980s—which seeks to create walkable neighborhoods—has proposed a complete redevelopment of the 45 mile-long El Camino Real, a boulevard that runs from San Francisco to San Jose. The development along this key artery is almost universally of the low-rise suburban kind, reflecting the ethos of the times (1920s – 1970s).  As such, it’s very space inefficient, and almost totally dependent on automobile transportation.

Calthorpe’s proposal is a response to the crushing housing shortage in this area. It seeks to create a continuous urban corridor, with a mix of retail and residential housing in buildings that would vary in height, but inevitably taller and with denser housing than is the case now.

And down the center of it there would be two dedicated lanes devoted to a continuous line of autonomous vans/small buses. Calthorpe, along with others, is very concerned that the rise of typical automobile mobility services like Uber and Lyft will only exacerbate traffic issues. It’s going to be essential to have shared services to avoid that, and his proposal would address that, at least for mobility up and down this urban corridor.

His proposal for El Cammino real would add no less than a quarter million new housing units, without impacting the low-density residential neighborhoods just a block or two away. It seems quite promising to me, although I can’t help wonder why not put the “streetcars” on the outside lanes (in each direction); that way pedestrians wouldn’t have to cross traffic to get to them.

Speaking of, you may have noticed the utter lack of any restrictions on where pedestrians walked in that old film. That’s because the streets fully belonged to them, there was no such thing as “jaywalking”.  Pedestrian controls and jaywalking laws were the result of heavy lobbying by the automobile industry, who feared that cars would never be allowed to drive faster than horse buggies and a fast walker if pedestrians weren’t forced off the streets.

This second film is quite remarkable, as its quality is so high (sound effects were added). It’s from 1911 and shows many aspects of New York at the time, but there are a lot of good street scenes with early automobiles. And one can see how slow they were.