Auto-autos, Serendipity Apps, and Social Hubs

We often hear that autonomically-controlled vehicles will eliminate parking lots, reduce congestion, make streets safer, and make streets into places we love.[i] The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) hopes so too.[ii] Yet, this vision also requires new ways of choosing itineraries and new social hub.

Traffic will get worse rather than better if auto-autos roam around empty or if riders just want to nap in solitude. We must change two more things besides transportation: the people we travel with and meet and the physical places we pass through.

TL:DR: If we want self-driving vehicles to work as advertised, we need social hubs and apps to encourage us to share the ride.

New Ways to Travel

The OECD’s study, “Urban Mobility System Upgrade” study[iii] suggests that we need to share self-driving cars and high-capacity transit. Otherwise, congestion may choke our cities. If riding becomes even more convenient, it may induce demand the same way that additional lanes do today.[iv] More, businesses may require curbside drop-off areas where there are driving lanes today.

We should examine what we mean by self-driving vehicles, because engineers’ thinking about levels of automation has changed.[v] At first, engineers assumed that we would want to build vehicles to rely on split-second human decisions if the software fails.[vi] Unfortunately, people are often too distractible.[vii] It is probably best to think of the automated driving function as autonomic, meaning that the vehicle is fully competent, but people can override it to a point.


Picture a car that can drive itself, at least in well-mapped places with low-speed limits. A human driver can have full control on a country road, for instance. As she drives into the city, she is still in control, unless she wants to do something dangerous. She would only have to cede full supervision in the trafficked places. Driving would be like breathing, it would be under her conscious control – to a point. We can call these autonomically-controlled vehicles auto-vehicles. The list of types of auto-vehicles below ranges from the anti-social to the social.


The most stereotypical prototype for an autonomous version of a conventional private car is the Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept car (an auto-auto).[viii] It cocoons owners in luxury, hidden from view by silvered windows: reading, working, or watching a screen. The car could drive empty to park itself, adding to congestion. Their impatient owners probably wouldn’t want to wait long, so they would have to park close.


The auto-taxis rolling out in Singapore[ix] and Pittsburgh[x] will go on to the next rider instead of parking. Google is the only company running these without human drivers – for now.[xi] Auto-taxis might save vehicle miles but still clog the streets. They will offer less solitude than a private car. (They will probably have cameras.) However, they will probably have more privacy than if riders were to share the ride with each other.


Sion Switzerland[xii] and Singapore[xiii] are piloting small shared vehicles we will call auto-jitneys. Riders face each other Inside little cabins on electric wheels. Auto-jitneys have a high bar to overcome. They lack both the privacy of a private ride and the anonymity of a bus or train.

Outside, auto-jitneys are meant to share space with pedestrians and bicyclists. They share space with people easily, and one pilot program is testing them in pedestrian areas.[xiv] They would function a bit like rideshare.[xv]

Inside, auto-jitneys today look like conversation pits. They are intimate in the same way that elevators are. They could instead be spacious enough for riders to bring on strollers, wheelchairs, bicycles, and a comfortable bubble of personal space. Seats could line the side of the vehicle facing the curb, so riders wouldn’t have to face each other involuntarily. Auto-jitneys are usually electric, which could make it feasible for them to go indoors and underground.

Auto-buses and Auto-rapids

Automation probably would not change buses and rapid transit much physically. We can call these auto-buses and auto-rapids (short for auto-rapid-transit). Jarrett Walker, the author of Human Transit,[xvi] believes that large vehicles carry so many people so compactly that we can’t shift to smaller vehicles on the most congested routes.[xvii] Nevertheless, automation and improved sensors for rail could allow the vehicles to travel with short headways – absorbing a greater share of riders.

Kinds of Trips

What would the individual legs of daily trips be? There are four main types of trips’ legs:

  • Door to door: a leg from one random front door to another random front door,
  • Door to hub: a leg from a front door to a social hub (or vice versa),
  • Hub to hub: a leg from one social hub to another, and
  • Hub to core: a leg from a social hub to an urban core (such as a downtown).

Those trips could correspond to four different kinds of auto-vehicles:

  • Auto-taxi: Door to door, for a private ride,
  • Auto-jitney: Door to social hub, for a shared ride,
  • Auto-bus: social hub to social hub, for (mostly) fixed-route service, and
  • Auto-rapid: social hub to center, for heavy transit.

Each kind of auto-vehicle offers different social opportunities. Auto-taxis offer privacy. Roomy and carefully designed auto-jitneys could provide community or anonymity, depending on who rides. Auto-buses and auto-rapids could provide urban anonymity – unless community spirit breaks out, on the way to a game or fireworks.

Auto-jitneys, feet, and bikes’ best role would be to serve the “last mile” to transit. Transit, then, could stop only every 2-3 miles. A 2-3-mile spacing would correspond to a reasonable commercial trade area for local shops, restaurants, and bars. It would also let buses and trains operate very efficiently, with about 5-7 minutes between stops. Such an uninterrupted ride would probably help people settle in for a good read or a good talk, so there might be separate social and quiet areas on-board.

Auto-taxis and auto-jitneys, though, would stop frequently, and should be more open to street life. While buses and rail have distinct stops, auto-jitneys should be free to stop anywhere. They will need some form of ramp or bridge to the curb, and low-floor entry. They are designed to circulate for short distances, and they could well take on their neighborhoods’ character. Their styling could vary with the neighborhood: colorful in one place, sedate in the next, high-tech, or high touch.


People and auto-vehicles must understand each other. A raised hand could hail an auto-taxi, and an outstretched hand could mean “I want to cross the street.” The vehicles need to tell people whether, for instance, it is safe to cross.[xviii],[xix] Machine learning could draw human monitors’ attention only when something unusual happens – keeping security alert and more private.[xx]


While biking and walking would not be affected by auto-vehicle technology, we might do it in different ways. Google Maps gives us directions for biking and walking as well as transit and driving. That may be just the beginning.


Biking should probably fit into daily routines as it does now. However, some people may prefer bikeshare. Bikeshare lets cyclists take a bike in the morning, say, without being forced to ride it home at night.


Most people sharing rides would start and end their trips on foot (or in a wheelchair). In walkable areas, a walk of one or two furlongs (200m or 660 feet) is usually the most attractive mode. Instead of walking out of a door and walking to the parking lot to be alone in a car, we would walk to the sidewalk to share a ride. The sidewalk would become the center of daily life.

New Itineraries

We may decide to change more than the way we travel. We may change the way we take a trip as well.

What is on the Way

When we are out, we chain our trips together to do each thing on the way to the next. If we want to do this trip chaining efficiently, our stops have to be lined up conveniently, not dotted randomly. In newly-built areas, we have to take twisting routes because we have too few through streets. [xxi] If we were to connect through, perhaps only for quiet auto-jitneys and auto-taxis, we could shorten our trips without inundating neighborhoods with traffic.

An urban grid of through routes on a quarter-mile (400m) grid could be a traditional and workable compromise.[xxii] A quarter-mile grid offers four times as much lot frontage as a one-mile grid does, and it can diffuse all the traffic generated by that square mile four ways. It can also help us to concentrate the most convenient uses in the most convenient places so that we don’t have to make as many small trips: more of them can be at social hubs.

Mobility Services

Helsinki has decided to use software to help shift its population away from the private automobile using Mobility as a Service (MaaS).[see xxxii] A new kind of company, a mobility service, would contract with various mobility providers, such as bikeshare, transit, rideshare, and even teleconferencing. The user would select an origin and destination, and the mobility service would present alternative modes and itineraries from which to choose.[xxiii]

Whatever the transportation modes, though, few people would want to have their movements tracked by their mobility service. A serendipity app should only share necessary information.

Serendipity Apps

A serendipity app, as we might call it, would go a step further. It would search for opportunities to make transportation socially “sticky.” Helsinki’s proposed mobility services start with how someone gets from A to B, and offer different routes and modes from A to B. A serendipity app would go upstream a step. It would start with the problem of why someone is travelling in the first place. If someone wanted to visit a public market, it could arrange a time when people s/he knows want to shop there too. (It could also avoid someone.)

Several apps for location-based social networking have failed.[xxiv] They try to do too much or create privacy problems. However, the goals of a basic serendipity app would be more modest: to increase our chances of running into “familiar strangers” and to let us know what is happening near a social hub.[xxv] For example, given the choice of two otherwise equal routes, it might route us through more familiar places and share our rides with people we know. (It might also avoid people we don’t like.)

Social Hubs

If we merge shared auto-vehicles with serendipity, we get social hubs: places that draw together both transportation and social life. A social hub could look like a public square, wintergarden, or main street, but it would also function as a transit center.[xxvi]

Each social hub might draw together a catchment area of around four to nine square miles – much like a neighborhood main street or square. Like such traditional places, a hub would be where peoples’ travels, interests, meeting places, and daily activities overlap. Businesses and institutions with individual focuses might attach themselves to hubs. One hub might lean toward Maker Spaces, and another might cater to families with children. Another might focus on an ethnic group, much like a “Chinatown” or Orthodox Jewish area around its synagogue.

Shaping a Social Hub

Social hubs need all the activity and amenities that 4-9 square miles of rooftops can support. They need shops, services (e.g. daycare), and entrances to important institutions around them, so people will want to go there. They also need places to sit alone or together, and they need free things to do. If more of our destinations are in the same social hub, then we don’t have to travel as much.

One of the things we may notice on a trip to New York City is that a neighborhood’s flavor can change within the space of a block or two. Urban fabric with a grid of through streets 1/4th of a mile (400m) apart could spin off smaller hubs, each tending toward its own flavor – especially if they are supported by serendipity apps.

Curb Rights

Auto-jitneys and auto-buses should have priority for curb rights, followed by auto-taxis and auto-autos. Riders should be able to check in before boarding, so that the vehicle stops for only a short time. Various forms of indicators and sensors such as lights and near field communication (NFC) could help to smooth the boarding process, which otherwise could be confusing.


A pedestrian may walk a short block in just over a minute. That might correspond to 20 shops or 15 houses. Up to several dozen pedestrians might pass each other on that one-block walk. In five minutes, hundreds of peoples’ itineraries could intersect, all on a sidewalk. Even if the sidewalks are generous and well-connected, though, they cannot function as well socially if people come and go through a parking lot. They must be wide-comfortable, and well-connected, and they must pass front doors that everyone uses.

Shared Space

Shared space refers to the idea of letting pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists mix on the same level, without curbs or complicated regulations. Some people are concerned about their safety, and many people feel unsafe in them.[xxvii] Auto-vehicles could help allay these concerns if they proceed slowly and stop automatically. The NACTO policy on automated vehicles calls for a maximum operating speed on a city street of 25 miles per hour, as in New York.[xxviii] This may be too fast.[xxix] A maximum speed of 20 miles per hour might be more appropriate for neighborhood streets.[xxx]

Making the Transition

New ways to travel, new itineraries, and social hubs can develop independently. Several cities and universities are already trying auto-vehicles, especially auto-jitneys in pedestrian-friendly environments. Social media is already beginning to employ the sort of artificial intelligence necessary to make location-based social networks compelling.[xxxi] MaaS Global Ltd., the first MaaS company, combines all the existing transport services into a single app, Whim.[xxxii] The real-estate element, though, is slower moving. 

Walkable places are attractive to investment.[xxxiii] Convenient social places could be profitable as “WalkUPs.”[xxxiv] Since social hubs would also obviate most parking, social hubs could replace parking lots at critical intersections profitably. This could happen before most people shift over to auto-vehicles. Payphones started disappearing from streets when cell phones made them unprofitable – years before cell phones were ubiquitous. Once land near significant intersections is more valuable for buildings than for parking, it could fill with buildings that engage sidewalks quickly. Social hubs might be the best seeds from which to grow sprawl retrofit.[xxxv]

Before that, though, universities may be an even better proving ground. Students are usually both open to new ideas and highly critical of technological failure. They also share classes and courses, dorms, social needs, and campus amenities. Driving is already constrained on campuses, and sometimes universities even have researchers who might want to try the idea. A university's pilot program could combine the necessary ingredients of auto-vehicles, social networking, and social hubs.


[i] “Vision Zero.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, August 4, 2016.

[ii] National Association of City Transportation Officials. “NACTO Policy Statement on Automated Vehicles.” National Association of City Transportation Officials, June 22, 2016.

[iii] OECD/ITF. “Urban Mobility System Upgrade: How Shared Self-Driving Cars Could Change City Traffic,” International Transport Forum Policy Papers, no. 6 (n.d.).

[iv] Litman, Todd. “Generated Traffic and Induced Travel,” 2012.

[v] “Why Self-Driving Cars Should Never Have Steering Wheels.” Accessed August 29, 2016.

[vi] “Autonomous Driving Levels 0 to 5: Understanding the Differences - TechRepublic.” Accessed August 17, 2016.

[vii] “Google’s Gargantuan Push For Cars With No Steering Wheel By 2020 - Forbes.” Accessed August 22, 2016.

[viii] “The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion.”, January 6, 2015.

[ix] “Self-Drive Taxis to Be Tested in Singapore - BBC News.” Accessed August 22, 2016.

[x] Chafkin, Max. “Uber Debuts Its First Fleet of Driverless Cars in Pittsburgh.” Accessed August 22, 2016.

[xi] “Google’s Gargantuan Push For Cars With No Steering Wheel By 2020 - Forbes.” Accessed August 22, 2016.

[xii] “Switzerland’s New Self-Driving Buses Will Probably Run Like Clockwork.” Co.Exist, November 12, 2015.

[xiii] Fern, Ong Sor. “Driverless vehicles take to the tarmac: 4 examples in Singapore and overseas.” Text. The Straits Times, October 13, 2015.

[xiv] “Europe’s CityMobil2 Tests Driverless Public Transit.” Driverless Transportation, February 5, 2015.

[xv] “The Future of Mobility |” Accessed September 3, 2016.

[xvi] Walker, J. Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives. SpringerLink : Bücher. Island Press, 2012.

[xvii] Walker, Jarrett. “Abundant Access: Public Transit as an Instrument of Freedom.” presented at the 8th Annual Lenten Leadership Series: Hope for the City: Mobility Matters, Old Stone Church, Cleveland OH, USA, March 2, 2016.

[xviii] “Car Talk.” MIT News. Accessed August 27, 2016.

[xix] LocalMotors. Olli - Local Motors’ First Self-Driving Vehicle. Accessed August 30, 2016.

[xx] “Giant Gray.” Accessed August 27, 2016.

[xxi] Steuteville, Robert. “Sprawl madness.” Text. CNU, February 26, 2016.

[xxii] Mehaffy, Michael, Sergio Porta, Nikos Salingaros, and Yodan Rofe. “Optimizing Urban Structure: Toward an Integrated New Urbanist Model -….” presented at the Optimizing Urban Structure: Toward an Integrated New Urbanist Model, Denver, CO, December 6, 2009.

[xxiii] Heikkilä, Sonja, and others. “Mobility as a Service-A Proposal for Action for the Public Administration, Case Helsinki,” 2014.

[xxiv] “Why Are Foursquare and Swarm Separate Apps?” Help Center. Accessed September 4, 2016.

[xxv] “Transit App - Montreal’s Familiar Strangers.” Accessed September 4, 2016.

[xxvi] Project for Public Spaces. “Streets as Places: How Transportation Can Create a Sense of Community.” Project for Public Spaces. Accessed August 25, 2016.

[xxvii] Lord Holmes of Richmond, MBE, Chris. “Accidents by Design: The Holmes Report on ‘shared Space’ in the United Kingdom.” Lord Holmes of Richmond, MBE, 2015.

[xxviii] “25 M.P.H. Speed Limit Takes Effect in New York - The New York Times.” Accessed August 30, 2016.

[xxix] “Commercial Shared Street.” National Association of City Transportation Officials. Accessed August 18, 2016.

[xxx] “20’s Plenty for Us.” 20’s Plenty for Us. Accessed September 2, 2016.

[xxxi] Hootsuite. “Artificial Intelligence in Social Media: What AI Knows About You, and What You Need to Know.” Hootsuite Social Media Management, March 13, 2015.

[xxxii] Pöllänen, Jonna. E-mail. “Mobility as a Service,” September 8, 1016. MaaS Global Ltd.'s CEO, Sampo Hietanen, inspired Sonja Heikkilä's thesis. See

[xxxiii] Robert Steuteville. “‘Walkable urban’ dominates US commercial development.” Text. CNU, June 15, 2016.

[xxxiv] “WalkUps | Smart Growth America.” Accessed July 20, 2016.

[xxxv] Congress for the New Urbanism. “Sprawl Retrofit.” Text. CNU, June 4, 2015.