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The 7 wonders of the world have long been defined, but what might be the eighth? Marvels abound in our world and we certainly do not lack for candidates. The Eighth Wonder explores the natural and artificial phenomena around us and brings you their stories every week.

 

Special: Flex Streets 5 Year Anniversary

A New Policy, for the People

On November 26th, 2031 New York City’s innovative FlexStreets program went live on a few “pilot streets,” such as Broadway and 5th Avenue. In the past few years, the program has expanded out to include every roadway in Manhattan. Based on a robust data set describing current and historic traffic patterns, current conditions, the status of all public transportation modes, and projected needs, FlexStreet’s algorithm optimizes movement on New York City’s roads for all stakeholders. This was a new paradigm in traffic management: rather than thinking of the streets as inflexible infrastructure elements with fixed rules - where the proportion of the roadway given to certain types of traffic is a constant - with the new system, traffic guidelines for a given roadway were made able to adapt and change over the course of a day, a month, even a year, based on actual realtime needs. 

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 For many years, traffic designers followed a “shared-use” model, which led to a situation in which they were trying to squeeze an ever growing number of vehicle types into the same space. The outdated infrastructure simply could not bear this weight, and a novel solution was proposed. In order to create the conditions necessary to develop and run such an initiative, the city created a new governing body out of a merger between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. This new Department of Movement’s mandate is to “support, faciliate, and oversee the transmission of people, goods, services, and information.”

A Taxonomy of Traffic

One of the first steps in developing this new program was creating a new language for describing traffic. In one of their first acts as a newly formed entity, The Department of Movement defined new vehicle categorizations that would form the backbone of the system. The team settled on defining vehicles based on their weight. 

These categories were broad enough to accommodate future developments, but specific enough to guide the structure and development of the FlexStreets engine database. Furthermore, these categories were designed to be meaningful to the people using the system, and be simple enough to be universally understood.

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• Bicycles
• Electric Scooters
• Autonomous Quadricycles

• Uniboards

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• Private automobiles
• Autonomous car services
• Police Cruisers

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• Delivery Vans
• Autonomous Shuttles
• Public Buses

• Autonomous Buses

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• Semi-Trailer Trucks
• Autonomous Delivery Trucks
• Sanitation Trucks

The Night Shift

The FlexStreets engine uses these categories and assigns a certain percentage of each roadway to each vehicle type, based on a set of variables. Key variables include time of day, realtime traffic patterns, consumer demand, current weather, and day of the year. Late at night, the majority of the roadway is given to Heavy and Medium vehicles such as sanitation trucks, delivery vehicles, and passenger buses, while very little is set aside for Ultralight vehicles. In a typical weekday, the road use is shifted during the first few hours of the day to be more focused towards commuting, so the proportions favor vehicles that serve that purpose. 

This includes Medium, Light, and Ultralight vehicles -  such as self-driving shuttles and buses, and light personal transportation devices like scooters.  In the middle of the day the majority of the roadways are dedicated to Self-Powered modes to allow for peaceful recreation, farmer’s markets, reduced pollution, etc. Then in the evening the use shifts back to favor commuting but with a continued emphasis on Ultralight vehicles to give space to people jogging, exercising, and socializing. Then, later at night, the cycle starts all over again. 

This animated diagram shows how the traffic percentages shift over the course of a typical day.

Navigating a New System

One of the more complex questions around this new program was how the people using these streets and moving around the city would experience the system. The act of making the streets flexible and dynamic necessitated a new wayfinding experience for inhabitants - a new generation of traffic signs and navigation systems. 

Without this, understanding the traffic rules and how to get around would be confusing at best, and life-threatening at worst. Many solutions were proposed, tested, and thrown out in the course of this phase.

Everything Changes, Nothing Changes

The beauty of building this system on OpenData’s robust backbone is that patterns began to emerge, creating a certain synergy between the citizens and the infrastructure. Some streets became even more residential due to a lack of Heavy Vehicle demand, allowing co-op owners to lease road space to put in playgrounds, open-air markets, and other facilities. Other roadways became commuter highways, seeing a plethora of vehicles over the course of a day and bearing witness to the incredible diversity in transportation methods used by New Yorkers. 

Although certain patterns began to develop, the system's flexibility allowed it to accommodate unforeseen circumstances such as emergencies. Autonomous vehicles are guided by an operating system integrated into the FlexStreets engine, and automatically adjust their routes. The city was able to gain major efficiencies in traffic control, and, through this innovative new approach, contribute to the health and happiness of the citizens of the city.

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