Decoding Design

BMW Guggenheim Lab panel explores Mobility in Cities

BMW Guggenheim Lab panel explores Mobility in Cities

Posting in Cities

Thursday night's discussion with Benoit Jacob and Margaret Newman focused on urban mobility and the role of design in creating sustainable transit systems.

NEW YORK- As technology improves our modes of transportation as well as their impact on the planet, and as cities take on "greener" planning schemes, how can designers and urban planners collaborate to make movement through cities as efficient as possible?

This was the topic at the BMW Guggenheim Lab's panel in Lower Manhattan held on Thursday. Located in an unused space between two buildings, the lab was designed as "part urban think tank, part community center and public gathering space." A pop-up cafe and many community programs have been open to the public since August 3, and will close on October 16.

Speaking on the subject of urban mobility were Benoit Jacob and Mararget Newman. Jacob is the head of BMW i Design, BMW's sustainable mobility division, and Newman is the New York City Department of Transportation Chief of Staff-- both spoke briefly on how their organizations were contributing to the future of sustainable urban transportation, after which the discussion was opened to audience questions.

MOBILITY IN THE CITY

Newman spoke extensively on what New York City has implemented in the past four years, but she also looked into the future. She projected that by 2030, there will be over one million more people in the city. "What are our options?" she said. "What about congestion and the physical condition of the city as it gets older?"

The DOT is is dealing with this questions by expanding public space in underutilized roadways. The first example given was the re-design of iconic Times Square. The city embarked on a big experiment when it closed part of Broadway to traffic and added public seating, but it has been such a successful project that it will become a permanent feature of midtown Manhattan.

New York City is big, old and not conducive to rapid change, so according to Newman, the best way to fix things is to "take what exists and re-allocate space." The city has introduced new bus and bicycle lanes, as well as pedestrian islands and crosswalks.

For example, the bicycle-only lane on 9th Avenue has reduced crashes by 56% and increased bike commuter volume by 50%.

She was also pleased to announce that New York City will soon be following cities like London and Paris by adopting a bicycle share program. Coming next summer, the city plans to put ten thousand bikes in six hundred locations city-wide. This is very big news.

In the future, the DOT will look to outer boroughs, like Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx, and ask questions like "how can we increase the value of this property to that community?'

"Then there is the issue of climate change," Newman said. The city, in the wake of Hurricane Irene scares one can assume, is planning for potential flooding. They are also looking into green infrastructure solutions to combat excess storm water, such as parking strip gardens, that are both useful and "nice to look at!"

COMFORT IN THE CITY: HOW CAN THE CAR INDUSTRY CONTRIBUTE?

In this discussion Benoit Jacob represents the other side of the project. At BMW i Design, Jacob and company ask: "can we design a more effective, responsible, sustainable city?" But as a trained car designer, Jacob believes that it's easier to change a car than a whole city.

Jacob presented some daunting facts: by 2025 there are projected to be eight billion people on this earth, and over half of those people will be in urban areas. By the same year, there will be over 1.3 billion cars.

"So if we are not giving up comfort or convenience, how do we re-design?"

There must be what Jacob called "a paradigm shift." For decades, a person's car has been inextricably linked to their pride. Though with the green movement, this idea is perhaps slipping in importance, car designers must take the "emotional" aspect of a car into account.

Introducing the iSeries concept cars. Beauties, really. The i3 is designed for the city, a zero emission clean vehicle, with a sleek design.The i8 is a modeled after a sports car, made for the purpose that Jacob had previously touched upon. "We can only make big moves," he said, "if cars remain ascetic and emotional."

The cars' bodies are made from carbon, light but strong, and feature a new technology Jacob called the "personal assistant." This addition can plan your day, connect with your smart phone and optimize your trip, make a commute more efficient.

The cars were also designed with a second life in mind. When the car is no longer useable, it will be able to be dismantled and recycle, and its impact on the environment as small as hospital.

The concept vehicles have behind them a clean manufacturing process that reduced energy used by 50% and water used by 70%.

He took some time to describe what BMW i Design is conjuring up, ideas-wise, in collaboration with universities world wide. Most of these projects are a long way away, he admitted, but was excited to present the audience with new, creative thinking.

The questions i Design asked the students were: "Can a car make your commuting time more valuable and can it benefit to a community?"

A few of the ideas include fully automated driving, using parked cars as a means of displaying information (like directions or hazard signs) or using cars as a way to store natural energy.

According to Jacob, BMW i Design considers it their obligation to develop these new technologies and offer new perspectives on car design. He ended his presentation with a slide that read: "Be curious and optimistic about the future."

WORKING TOGETHER

The floor was then opened to the audience. A New Yorker asked Newman regarding the small ways in which we can change the city, such as finding new ways to pave roads. Newman began to talk about the inflexibility of infrastructure that is in place to change. But, she said, design is flexible.

In an aging city, it could take 15 years to implement changes, but in the car industry a new car is introduced every year. Given that we know this, how can the two sides of mobility design communicate to make progress?

Jacob took the mic. He said that with all of the technology available (what about sensors in the streets or loading tech into cars that could make them recognize each other?) in the car industry they are able to make a lot. However, he emphasized a kind of "symbiosis between car and environment. We must do it together."

Newman agreed. "We need to build a partnership between the bricks and mortar and a cutting edge policy," she said.

To conclude, an audience member asked Jacob if he would use a car in New York. "Having a car is trouble," said the BMW designer. But that is just New York. If we could first find a way to stop commuting, we could stop many problems. But it doesn't look that that will happen any time soon. In the meantime, the priority is maximizing efficiency for those bound to their vehicles. Both designers and cities can help.

For more on BMW Guggenheim Lab programs, click here.
Photo: Beth Carter

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure