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Sidewalks of the Future

Will sidewalks one day become green areas for socialization and relaxation?

As we await the promised rise of self-driving vehicles, our cities and roads are beginning to teem with new forms of artificial intelligence enabled by legions of sensors and telematics systems. Assisted driving helps us to avoid a wide range of dangers and keep safe in our vehicles. State-of-the-art navigators collect information from city and road infrastructure in real-time to recommend the best, quickest and least congested routes, also aided by smart traffic light networks that help redirect “traditional” drivers along the best routes. Parking lots are increasingly automated and can now inform us ahead of time if there are any places available, just as we have always done with hotels and other services. Indeed, telematics-based car sharing systems promise a day in which cars will be “always on” and never need to park or, if necessary, park themselves.

In 2011, the University of California-Berkeley published an interesting report on Parking Infrastructure and the Environment revealing that although there are about 253 million private cars and light trucks on its roads, America has nearly one billion parking spaces. This means that there are four parking spaces for every vehicle. That adds up to 170,000 square kilometres reserved solely for parking vehicles! This is the result – and not only in the United States – of regulations that require urban developers to create parking spaces for every house and office that is erected. Nonetheless, there never seem to be enough parking spaces anyway.

Traffic congestion, along with the high cost of parking and the negative environmental impact of driving has led to myriad solutions, including car sharing and car share services such as Uber, besides the many technological innovations that are rapidly advancing.  At the same time, our idea of office work is changing. The very concept of “place of work” is becoming less concrete. Offices and personal desks are slowly becoming a thing of the past and are rapidly being substituted by open spaces and co-working stations. Portable computers, tablets and smartphones can be used from virtually anywhere and everything that we need is in the Cloud.

As this new model takes root, we will find ourselves in need of less office space, fewer parking lots and indeed fewer sidewalks. As the need for office space and parking lots decreases, and as automated driving services that can pick us up right at our doorstep increase, will this lead to a demise of the sidewalk as we know it? What will happen to all this space?

The solution that comes to mind is to create greener, more environmentally friendly and sustainable cities. Sidewalks could be transformed into park-like paths and welcome more trees that help to cool down the environment and improve the air quality. Moreover, if there eventually are far fewer – and safer – vehicles on the roads, this would not only reduce air and noise pollution, but make these areas securer and more inviting. These green areas – what we formerly referred to as “sidewalks” – could become new environments expressly conceived and designed for socialization, work, sports and leisure, just like parks.

This exercise can be extended further. Once we have more green areas surrounding our buildings and fewer vehicles on our roads, we could even reconsider the materials that we employ to construct these areas. In fact, in addition to adding trees, bushes and lawns, we could reduce the use of industrial materials, such as steel and concrete, and return to wood, a natural material which unquestionably reduces stress and enhances our “feel good” factor.

It is yet another example of how technological innovation can promote environmental sustainability by decreasing our footprint, making our cities and roads, safer, cleaner and greener areas for everyone.

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