Competing for Streets and Sidewalks

Almost immediately after technologists invented robots to bring groceries or burritos to people’s doors, arguments began on the sidewalk.

Officials in San Francisco, which is a testing laboratory for many new technologies, are concerned that interactions with robots could harm the elderly, children or the disabled. About a year ago, Pennsylvania lifted city-by-city controls and provided sidewalk-roaming delivery robots that looked like beer coolers on wheels, with the same rights as pedestrians. Officials in Kirkland, Wash., Recently put on hold permits for Amazon’s experimental package delivery robots and asked if the company should pay a fee to use the sidewalk space.

It seems ridiculous to give brain space and government attention to robot couriers, which would never be possible outside of a limited setting like college campuses or city centers. And go ahead and take a look at left-leaning cities like San Francisco that seem to be plagued by rules.

But these robot battles are a subtle form of big questions about technology and modern life. How can we divide public spaces such as streets and sidewalks – and who is responsible for the inevitable harm caused by changing our communities, including safety hazards, roads and sidewalks, congestion and pollution?

Versions of these questions emerged when the e-commerce delivery boom, and whenever they make room for local outdoor dining, cycling, ride services such as Uber, walking, buses, driverless cars, electric scooters, or flying taxis. These are all flavors of the same controversy over who is and who is not in our shared spaces and who deserves more or less limited resources.

“For 100 years, we’ve had all sorts of things on our roads, streets and sidewalks that we don’t know exactly what to do with,” said Professor Bryant Walker Smith, who studied at the University of South Carolina Law School. Emerging transport. There was a time, he pointed out, when cars had new and controversial interlopers on the roads.

Smith admits there is no simple answer to who and what is on our streets and sidewalks.

Not allowing public space to develop is self-defeating. We may lose useful changes in our homeland or better ways to move people and goods around. But it is also potentially disastrous to allow free-all for all, such as delivery trucks that navigate the neighborhood, golf carts on the freeway, or a sea of ​​cars and scooters flooding every road.

Smith said it is appropriate for different communities to make their own choices about sidewalk robots, cycling lanes or ride services, even though it may not be appropriate to have a one-size-fits-all blueprint for how to handle these items. He said universities, which have so far been the hub of robot couriers, have the right to set rules such as speed and weight limits and hold courier companies to their promises.

Officials and we all need to ask what we need for our communities, he said, then imagine how we need public space to accomplish those goals. This means thinking broadly about the use of roads and sidewalks, not considering robot couriers, electric scooters, private cars or UPS trucks as separate modes of transport.

Most importantly, Smith said, people and policymakers should not only think about what to do about new forms of transportation, but also be prepared to re-imagine the status quo of cars and trucks as influential users of public space, in which everything and everyone competes. doing. For margins of streets and sidewalks.

Due to the high cost of vehicles on communities, such as traffic congestion, road deaths, climate change and the demand for physical space, Smith said we may need to be more imaginative about creating space for everything except cars. “Let’s encourage diversity and see what happens,” he said.

This would be awkward and controversial, but as Smith said, this is how change works.

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