The Futurama exhibit presented visitors with a car-centric future. Credit: Library of Congress

A new exhibit presents a vision of a fossil-fuel-free mobility system in a city not designed around cars.

As automobiles began taking over cities in the early 1900s, an exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s fair titled “Futurama”  gave visitors a glimpse of a city twenty years in the future where cars ruled the landscape.

The vision, sponsored by the General Motors Corporation, equated new with better included a superhighway system which connected small towns and a metropolis “replanned around a highly developed modern traffic system.”

A video documenting the exhibit declared “Over space man has begun to win victory, space for living, space for working, space for play, all available for more people than ever before.”

Credit: Smarter Than Car

That car-utopia vision never quite panned out leaving cities to deal with traffic congestion, pollution and freeways that separated — and in many cases destroyed — neighborhoods. Inspired by, yet a critique of, that car-centric vision is the exhibit Futurama Redux, opening today at the Center for Architecture & Design. Futurama Redux presents a best-case scenario thirty years in the future after a post-carbon transition which rejects car-centric city planning — instead designing streets around urban dwellers.

The exhibit “argues that a shift beyond fossil fuels is necessary and vital for maintaining resilient urban environments.”

Futurama Redux, which has been shown in Hong Kong, Ecuador and Croatia, was created by the future urban mobility think tank Smarter Than Car which believes bicycles are the key to sustainable urban environments in a future post-carbon world.

Smarter Than Car began in 2010 Beijing, China as the city’s first cycling advocacy group after the group’s founders saw a strong rise in car ownership in the city.

Florian Lorenzo, director of Smarter Than Car and curator of the exhibit, says the “car is a great invention, but in a dense city it is not human scale.” And cars have “made our cities less humane and created environmental problems.”

“Do we use the space in dense cities for parking cars or urban life?” Lorenzo questions.

At a time when climate change points to the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and transition to sustainable sources of energy, Futurama Redux challenges visitors to picture how a transition to a post-carbon world could shape transportation Seattle.

Credit: Smarter Than Car

Smarter Than Car says bicycle urbanism, defined as “a city where the bicycle is the common denominator for the success of our urban planning and management efforts,”  can help solve those problems. But to the think tank, bicycle urbanism goes beyond installing bike lanes, but retrofitting and redesigning cities using bicycles as “a benchmark for the functioning of a city.” (Watch Lorenzo discuss “Bicycle Urbanism” during his 2013 TED talk.)

The exhibit presents several strategies to achieve its goals, including designing roads that no longer give cars the center of the street, instead regulating them to the outer lanes.  It also posits the creation of superblocks, creating mini neighborhoods and freeing up space for people.

Lorenzo, who uses a bike as his main mode of transportation in Vienna, says while his hometown is not as hilly as Seattle, the rise of electric bikes will make cycling more accessible in Seattle.

The opening reception for the free exhibit is today between 6pm – 8pm and will run through February 17, 2018, at the Center for Architecture & Design located at 1010 Western Avenue.

18 Replies to “Imagining a Post-Carbon Transportation System”

  1. Some of the YouTube videos I’ve seen of driverless intersections are awful reminiscent of the old GM “city of the future” picture.

    Imagine a future where, in the name of vehicle efficiency, pedestrian traffic is banned, and the only way to cross a street (even in the middle of downtown) is to order a driverless vehicle to carry you.

    There are still people out there who believe that cars can become teleporters if only those pesky pedestrians could be shoved out of the way.

    1. Doubt things will play out as our driverless cartopians imagine, but if it does, I’m definitely going to go out like Will Smith in iRobot

    2. The scenario of waiting for a shuttle to cross a busy road reminds me of when I worked for a company in Silicon Valley about 10 years ago that expanded to another office park across a major road (one of the Santa Clara County “expressways”) from its main buildings. We were not allowed to walk between the two buildings, had to wait for a shuttle (or drive our own cars, if we had ’em around). It was legal to cross the road there but, even beyond the generally lousy pedestrian environment, it was one of those stupid intersections missing the one crosswalk we needed, so we woulda had to cross three road-faces and 22 (!) lanes of traffic. So the lawyers said, “Cars only!”

      It was all pretty embarrassing. But now that the generation (my generation!) that didn’t get to walk to school is starting to design stuff, there’s this automatic assumption that being driven around is the natural default way to get everywhere.

      1. I encountered that Santa Clara environment two years at a conference. The first year I was at a hotel across from the convention center so that was not bad, but the nearest non-hotel restaurant was an IHOP three blocks south. That doesn’t sound like much but each block is a half mile, with one six-story tower-in-the-park in the center and a sea of open space and parking around it. So it took thirty minutes to walk to the IHOP.

        The second year my company bullied me into getting a cheaper hotel, and I ended up on Montague Expressway. It was a 45-minute walk to the conference center, albeit with a creekside trail. Or I could take a half-hourly bus, which I discovered was hourly on Sunday. Nothing around the hotel but office parks and an old gravel business. The expressway has a sidewalk so I walked least along it toward the light rail station looking for some kind of supermarket or restaurant, and the road went up over a railroad track and on the other side was an upscale Safeway plaza with an excellent Thai restaurant and some video-game stores. A full mile from the hotel. And just north of the Safeway on Agnew Street is a row of new urbanist townhouses like the Issaquah Highlands, and a big fancy apartment complex (or condos?). But the apartment complex has such a large setback that it would be quite a way’s to walk just across the street to the Safeway. So thank you Santa Clara for discovering New Urbanism, but pity it’s in the middle of nowhere and seriously car-dependent around it.

        And those half-mile wide blocks! I’ve seen something similar in San Marcos north of San Diego. In the outsikrts of San Marcos the arterials are 55 mph! And the blocks again are around a half mile apart, some with just one building in the middle.

  2. What could really make this happen is fully-covered mopeds, basically electric cars that are the width of a bike and can fit anywhere bikes can go. For those not comfortable with the pedaling or the crappy weather, this will be necessary to make a bike-centered vision work. Such vehicles could have a speed limiting switch, where you can switch to highway mode for full speed and bikeway mode to limit speeds to what is safe along bike paths. With advances in GPS, this switch could be turned automatically.

    A version could then be made for the disabled which has a third switch, the indoors switch, where the vehicle could be used as a wheelchair.

    1. Design of bikes, mopeds, and motorcycles shows that there are significantly different constraints for high-speed travel and low-speed (i.e. close-quarters) travel. The sorts of motorcycles that can travel comfortably at highway speeds are out of place on bike routes and multi-use areas (from MUPs to public squares), just by virtue of their dimensions, mass, lack of maneuverability (many urban bike routes don’t work so well without being able to pick up and relocate the bike). With a fully-enclosed vehicle there’s also the problem of isolation: in close quarters, when walking and biking, people pick up a lot of information from body language; a fully-enclosed vehicle thwarts this completely and people have to give more space, the way they do in cars. The true virtues of bikes for urban transportation are that they’re cheap, simple, and light-weight. When these virtues come into conflict with speed and comfort, as concessions to them are made, they become less suited to crowded cities.

      This all is even more true indoors. No vehicle capable of carrying a disabled person at highway speeds will be a suitable wheelchair for indoor use.

      1. (I should point out e-bikes have mostly been incorporated into the cycling landscape with no problem because of the great extent to which e-bike users and manufacturers have chosen to emulate traditional bicycles and, in many cases, to fit in with established cycling practices. If a vehicle without human-power constraints holds the center of the cycling world it’s suddenly a different world altogether — more like the scooter culture of some Asian cities.)

  3. Bike usage indoors is pretty common in German Factories, or even at Frankfurt airport. It’s a very efficient way to get around for workers at big facilities.

    1. And American factories and airports have electric golf carts. Same concept but no chance to exercise.

  4. I’d love to hear these folks debate an autonomous vehicle enthusiast. I keep getting told that autonomous vehicles are inevitable, lie back and learn to like it.

    1. Wanderer, just in case you ever get trapped in an autonomous car with one of these advocates while the guidance system is in the bathroom purging surplus megabytes, run these things by him:

      1. Any chance main motivation is to shuck off both drivers’ wages and responsibility? Second one, even a robot DA will have no problem with. Last human to touch a robot rightly gets the blame for whoever it kills.

      2. A robot cannot know anything some human didn’t tell it. Humans in our present form have at least a million years of human senses and reflexes trained into us by natural selection. Meaning those who never developed them could have no more offspring after the leopard’ senses and reflexes got them. .

      3. Starting in kindergarten, an evil force called school brutalizes most of the five senses we know about down the drain. We probably exist at all because we can still smell a rabid leopard a mile away from the window and know how to react. Too bad the creature is less dangerous than a bad algebra score.

      4. Usual comparison tests are useless- because nobody can measure how many accidents every human driver subconsciously avoids, because his own internal reflexes don’t even let him know they exist, let alone how many times per mile they save his clueless life.,-122.9058401,672m/data=!3m1!1e3,-122.9054858,193a,35y,3.52h,51.29t/data=!3m1!1e3

      Morning rush northbound. Heavy rain. Dark except for blazing headlights. On-ramp from Deschutes Parkway- pedal-down from a standing start to sixty before you reach the bridge.

      Climbing through heavy traffic top legal speed swinging down like a hostile fighter squadron over your left shoulder, (you’d go down like Snoopy stitched with Vickers’ gun bullets from the Red Baron) across two fast approaching lane changes to your left, each requiring zipper merge. So, should be easy and definitive test:

      Since in four years I’ve never even had a “close one”, firm base level of zero. When you’ve got all their insurance agents chained to a motel radiator, requisition five hundred autonomous cars, each containing as many advocates and company presidents as they can hold.

      Oh yeah, and make the helicopter and all those fire engines automatic too. Send real-time viral to every Driverless show room on a busy business day, and industries’ executive successors will re-unionize every fire department in the nation before the first ambulance leaves the scene.

      Dare them, Wanderer, just dare them. And when you come to the ramp by the Crosby House Museum, stay on Deschutes ’til you’re out of blast range. The world owes you the Congressional and a 1952 Chevy.


    2. Autonomous vehicles will first start appearing in trucks. That is where the big money is. Once that is accepted by the public, it will spread to taxicabs and, of course buses. That is where things change dramatically.

      The biggest expense of any bus system are the drivers. Eliminate that, and you have a completely different dynamic. Buses are also expensive, but a smaller cost, and they don’t scale that well. It is still cheaper to buy one bus instead of five vans, but not that much cheaper. Eliminate driver cost, and the latter is a very reasonable and cheap alternative. It is quite likely that you actually come out ahead, because running buses (or vans) more often leads to higher ridership, which leads to better fare recovery. It is therefore fairly cheap to provide much better service.

      Once you do that, it changes the way you look at bus routes as well. When it comes to designing a system, there are conflicts between what is cost effective and what is popular. Servicing low population areas is expensive, but agencies often do that, just to provide some level of mobility for the area. A grid is more cost effective and provides better mobility for a lot of trips, but agencies often prefer a hub and spoke system, as it avoids transfer for the bulk of riders. But if you can cheaply provide a high frequency network (to everywhere) both of these issues go away. You can provide a nice grid while also servicing relatively remote areas, which again, makes for a much more efficient system while actually increasing ridership. Transit works well for just about every trip, which is a huge contrast from today.

      The political issues become a lot easier to solve at that point. The system itself is much cheaper to operate — much more cost effective — and can serve everyone a lot better. This makes it easier to provide improvements in speed, like more bus lanes, or transit malls downtown. As cars become viewed much more as luxury items, it then becomes a lot easier to tax them as such.

      Of course there will be counter forces as well. As cabs become cheaper, they get viewed less and less as a luxury item (even though they obviously are a premium service, and should be treated that way). But even then I’m optimistic. Cabs often violate the rules, but if they are programmed to follow the rules, they will. There might still be too much land given over for the cabs, but at least they will be regulated (unlike now, where cabs and trucks often block bike paths and bus stops).

      There will be counter forces from private vehicles as well, as those with private, automated vehicles will tend to drive them more. It would be crazy to drive to work, drive a few miles outside of town to park, then drive back to your neighborhood in the afternoon to pick up your kid and drop them off at soccer practice, then drive back to work so you can drive home. But that sort of thing would be common as vehicles automate. The conflict between private and public transportation will continue, but hopefully as public transportation becomes a lot more efficient (and effective), private transportation will be seen as more of a luxury.

    3. It’ll be a both-and. Autonomous vehicles will play a role, for example if you are trying to get between neighborhoods or particularly between cities. I don’t care how well designed the urban utopia is, people aren’t going to bike from White Center to UW – they’ll take a car, bus, or train.

  5. This isn’t a matter of mobility modes. Like with cities themselves, it’s about personal freedom, which is chiefly about your own ability go live as you choose. Which owes most to as wide a choice as possible for the income on which a life worth living mostly depends.

    From the end of World War II, which for this country had just ended the Great Depression, much more than country-driving and pre-congestion freeways, a car meant unprecedented ability to choose a workplace of your own, offering wages providing life-long choice of debt-free choice of swiftly-improving work.

    Now that car-count itself is our worst domestic threat to personal freedom, ever fewer of those just entering the working world carry any nostalgia. And with their parents… are now less love affairs than forced marriage. The movie sucked, but Seattle right now is Dunkirk. Look it up. But generational change is already creating an opportunity that’s transit’s to lose.

    What gave cars their seventy years of victory was how swiftly they gave our people the unparalleled freedom of a good life they earned, not borrowed. The direct opposite of Seattle’s direction now, for vast majority. But for decades a car meant a factory worker could raise a family they could send to college- without a lifetime in debt.

    The real meaning of the “Great Again” Worn not by resentful bigots, but by people who remember their working lives of forty years ago. And seen firsthand what their loss has done to their children and grand-kids. An ever increasing number of whom live in their cars. The Planet Parking Lot owed its birth not only to the generations that used it, but even more the ones who built it.

    Enabling legislation started with “National Defense”, and got funded accordingly. Seventy years later, every passing day creates a fortune’s worth of employment repairing the likes of deferentially structural damage no enemy shell or bomb ever hit us with. Now that cars are part of the damage rather than the cure, transit’s got a more than equal claim on that same budget.

    70 years of success for the cars. Our turn to impolitely mention.

    Mark Dublin

  6. Bad time for the dog to eat the editor’s [OT] stamp. True that available funding, or threats involving it, often makes rest of the discussion irrelevant. And all a terrorist has got to do now is read the papers and take credit for everything that falls apart.

    But my real problem with urban humanization is the horrible place Seattle has become over its most prosperous three years of growth. Money usually enlivens and refreshes a place. But maybe that’s money grown upward from roots in good soil.

    Like Boeing, and Kenworth trucks. Though like I did say, Boeing was never “instead of” the Defense Budget. Seattle’s present wealth looks like Galactic Sanitation deliberately dropped half a Sector of liquefied money from a dumpster the size of Pluto straight onto the City, and left it to drown in goo.

    Two pics fixed in my mind. One, the dilapidation of the whole UW business district in a month or two. And two, twilight scene of a glass building out of original Blade Runner, with dark, sealed off against the ragged figures on the sidewalk underneath.

    And so-called tent cities that would be condemned in Syria. Whose residents could earn their way to a decent neighborhood on the wages they earn building many more of them. Paid for by the change that falls out of the new business communities’ sofas and pockets.

    Not being snarky but honestly curious. Anyone who actually works in a giant square building clad in black glass, can you tell me what type of companies have their offices there, and what work’s like for their average employee?

    And a comparison from anybody who’s done both: what’s the difference in mind-set between precision machining for manufacture and general IT work? From my days quarrying, and bus-driving, over the years since college, became very comfortable among people in these lines of work.

    Really different people? Or is this just a matter of the ones I’ve met. Because I really wonder how much the “feel” of the city, which I’d say is both expensive an mediocre to crappy at the same time, has economic roots? Or a ruling class too cheap to either hire or train to competence.

    Because I think that far beyond use and location of car lanes and transit by number and passengers, the way people earn their living (or can’t) really creates the city.. Ballard’s days of small manufacturing, and a bay with a tugboat repair yard, were insulted to death by present economy. Which adds to the world…what?

    Used to really enjoy Seattle, to live and to visit. But this last year, I go to Seattle to visit two things- Nordic Heritage and the Seattle Art Museum. And three to five people in three cafe’s and two restaurants. And the part of the transit system I was so proud of?

    If I’d known in 1983 it would ever fine a tiny mistake same as for theft, the last 30 years, The Seattle Times would’ve had a savage columnist. That nobody could ever call anti-transit, or who thinks buses in GP lanes are better than light rail. Paper day-passes safe, but really humiliating.

    Still, as usual just to mess with people, good chance this is all just a temporary phase. Meantime, working on an Underground Railway- train or bus, only President Lincoln knows- to help the resistance escape to The Republic of Upper Southern Ballard in Olympia. With the Capitol dome making the 36th the only district in the State gerrymandered into a beer-bong.


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