Competing for Streets and Sidewalks

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Almost as soon as technologists invented robots to haul groceries or burritos to people’s doors, the arguments over sidewalks started.

Officials in San Francisco, which is a testing lab for many new technologies, worried that interactions with the robots could hurt older people, children or those with disabilities. About a year ago, Pennsylvania headed off city-by-city restrictions and gave sidewalk-roaming delivery robots, which look like beer coolers on wheels, the same rights as pedestrians. Officials in Kirkland, Wash., recently put on hold permits for Amazon’s experimental package delivery robots and are asking whether the company should pay fees for using sidewalk space.

It might seem ridiculous to devote brain space and government attention to robot couriers, which may never be feasible outside of limited settings like college campuses or city centers. And go ahead and roll your eyes at left-leaning cities like San Francisco that seem to be obsessed with rules.

But these robot battles are a microcosm of big questions about technology and modern life. How do we share public space like streets and sidewalks — and who is responsible for the inevitable harms that result from changing our communities, including threats to safety, wear and tear of roads and sidewalks, congestion and pollution?

Versions of these questions emerged when e-commerce deliveries boomed, and they appear whenever locales carve out room for outdoor dining, cycling, ride services such as Uber, walking, buses, driverless cars, electric scooters or flying taxis. These are all flavors of the same dispute over who belongs and who doesn’t in our shared spaces, and who deserves more or less of a limited resource.

“For 100 years, we’ve had all kinds of things on our roads, streets and sidewalks that we don’t quite know what to do with,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina law school who studies emerging transportation. There was a time, he pointed out, when cars were the new and contentious interlopers on the roads.

Smith acknowledged that there was no simple answer to who and what belong on our streets and sidewalks.

Not allowing public space to evolve is self-defeating. We might miss out on useful changes to our hometowns or better ways of moving people and goods around. But it’s also potentially destructive to allow a free-for-all, like delivery trucks that navigate neighborhoods, golf carts on freeways, or seas of cars and scooters clogging every road.

Smith said it was appropriate for different communities to make their own choices about sidewalk robots, cycling lanes or ride services, even if it can be ungainly to have no one-size-fits-all blueprint for how to handle these things. He said that universities, which so far have been the hotbed of robot couriers, had the authority to set rules like speed and weight limits and hold the courier companies to their promises.

Officials and all of us need to ask what we want for our communities, he said, then imagine how we want public space to serve those goals. That means thinking comprehensively about uses of roads and sidewalks, not treating robot couriers, electric scooters, private cars or UPS trucks as discrete modes of transportation.

Most of all, Smith said, people and policymakers should not only contemplate what to do about new forms of transportation, but also be willing to reimagine the status quo of cars and trucks as the dominant users of public space, with everything and everyone else competing for the margins of streets and sidewalks.

Because of the high costs vehicles impose on communities, like traffic congestion, road deaths, climate change and demands on physical space, Smith said that we might need to be more imaginative about making room for everything other than cars. “Let’s encourage the diversity and see what happens,” he said.

This is going to be messy and contentious, but as Smith said, that is how change works.

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