Perhaps you’ve been stuck behind the wheel on a city street, cursing your fellow drivers and feeling tempted to abandon your ride and hoof it the rest of the way. As you pound the horn and pump out toxins, you dream of a carless future, when cities have banned all private vehicles and turned the open pavement over to walkers, bikers, and streetcars that hover silently above the ground. But maybe you suspect there’s something missing from this scene: some open-air form of transportation that will speed you from home to office, without the need to check a schedule or wait at a stop. You don’t hold out much hope for jet packs.
Now, a team of traffic engineers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (one of Switzerland’s two MITs), has fleshed out that fantasy by augmenting the street of the future with an old, prosaic technology: the moving walkway. One day, these scientists suggest, we’ll be striding through Times Square on the same kind of people-moving conveyor belts that now help you (maybe) make a tight connection at O’Hare. What they propose is not a new technology, but a fresh use for an old one.
Automated walkways rolled into the popular imagination at the Paris Exposition Universelle world’s fair in 1900, along with diesel engines and talking pictures. The latest models — at the Toronto airport, for instance —can pick up passengers at a mellow trudge, speed them up to nearly 10 mph (plus whatever pace you’re walking) and slow to a smooth landing at the other end. In a paper that will eventually appear in the European Journal of Transport and Infrastructure Research, the three researchers — Riccardo Scarinci, Iliya Markov, and Michel Bierlaire — calculate that while these accelerating moving walkways are expensive to install, they quickly become an efficient street-level way of transporting hordes briskly enough to beat a taxi at rush hour. Using today’s technology, a moving sidewalk can carry up to 7,500 pedestrians per hour each way on a lane no more than three feet wide. Buses have lower start-up costs, but they need much wider lanes and can pack in fewer passengers, and nobody really likes a crosstown bus ride.
With New York well on the way to a population of 9 million people and pedestrians already spilling out into midtown streets, the idea of equipping the densest blocks with treadmills has a certain futuristic appeal. The Swiss study envisions extra-long express walkways that would somehow vault over intersections and whoosh three or four blocks at a time — an imagined network of automated High Lines. Scarinci insists that people-movers would blend naturally into the familiar streetscape, stealing turf only from soon-to-be-obsolete passenger cars. “The sidewalk remains the sidewalk; the bicycle path remains the bike path,” he says. “But we can use the parking lane to install moving walkways in both directions, and leave the remaining lanes for trucks that deliver goods.” (There’s something touchingly old-fashioned about that last bit: Doesn’t he know that stores will soon be getting their inventory delivered by drone?)
Still, if engineers can figure out how to make them work in the rain and keep from breaking down, urban people-movers would change the pedestrian experience. Imagine catching the smell of bread as you waft helplessly past the bakery, or wishing you could stop to chat with the colleague who just whizzed by in the opposite direction. Missed connections are an urban fact of life, but the Lausanne vision would cause them to multiply.