A scenario for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive

“New Boulevard” 

Thursday, July 16th, 2048 9:27pm 

Chicago’s boulevards were conceived as a hybrid infrastructure – a blending of street and park space. Over the course of the 20th century, we drifted away from that dream, and now the boulevards are, much like any other streets, dominated by the presence and needs of automobiles.

At the beginning of the 21st century, concerns about stormwater reclamation, urban heat islands, and shortages of quality public space encouraged a movement to reclaim the boulevards as human infrastructure. Martin Luther King Drive on Chicago’s south side became one of the first testing grounds for the New Boulevard project that sought to leverage new driverless technologies toward civic improvements and landscape reclamation.

Ground cover plants and water-tolerant plants now comprise the majority of the boulevard, while parallel paved rails serve high vehicle traffic zones and permeable pavers designate territories for pickup and drop off. Maia, a recent transplant to Chicago, is taking her first visit to the Bud Billiken Parade in Washington Park. She hasn’t experienced the new boulevard before, where vehicles navigate the landscape like some new form of wildlife. Some stretches of the road have embedded solar units, illuminating the path wherever it is obscured by shade or darkness. Vehicles charge as they drive, so the gas stations of the 20th century have given way to neighborhood parks, planted specially to remediate the toxins left behind from their previous use. Looking into the distance, Maia sees a car slowing down just enough to allow a rabbit to safely hop by.

It’s mid-July, hot and humid. People stream onto the boulevard from Washington Park after the festival. Technological advances have made it possible for crosswalks to be eliminated. When people are sensed, vehicles slow and provide space allowing people to pass through the flow of cars. Instead, pedestrians are given priority in the boulevard. This new responsiveness has proved to be safer and more efficient for traffic that no longer has to stop as frequently.

“Smart Way” 

Monday, October 26th, 2048 7:15am 

Maia is in the second grade. Her ride arrives as she says goodbye to her mother. Her friends from down the street are already inside the vehicle. They greet each other warmly and talk about what they brought for lunch. Maia looks out at the other passengers in their own vehicles preparing for their day. Some are working, others are putting on makeup, or talking. No one but Maia, it seems, is really paying much attention to their surroundings. The street lanes of MLK Drive are currently guiding all traffic north, but as the day progresses, the lanes can reverse to allow flows to other parts of the city. The street communicates with the vehicles approaching in either direction and is prepared to redirect in order to prevent congestion.

Maia and her companions pass cyclists enjoying the warm late autumn air and meandering through the gently bending surfaces, weaving through the networked herds of vehicles. Without much pause or worry, cyclists do things that would have been dangerous before driverless technology. However, the vehicles and bicyclists now communicate with each other as well, providing greater safety for everyone on the road. A few pedestrians make their way from home directly into the fleets of public ride shares that cruise the edges of MLK Drive. Drive-in areas furnished with benches and coffee stands provide passengers with a comfortable place to gather and socialize as they wait momentarily for a vehicle to arrive.

Arriving at school, Maia and her friends are dropped off directly at their classrooms. Their vehicle has left and efficiently merged with others headed towards remote business centers scattered around the metropolitan area.

“Streetwalk” 

Sunday, May 17th, 2049 2:30pm 

The sun is shining and winter is ending. Maia and her parents are out walking MLK Drive with other families enjoying the beautiful afternoon, with no vehicles in sight. They arrive at the afternoon market with vendors selling fresh produce amidst crowds that weave through the stalls. Delivery vehicles glide very slowly along the outer edges of the throng, picking up good for later delivery. All non-commercial traffic has rerouted to adjacent streets for the weekly market.

Maia notices the clouds gathering overhead, and before they are done shopping, a thunderstorm has formed. Maia’s dad takes notice, and summons a ride. Before the first raindrops can fall on her new dress, the family is on their way. They are joined by an elderly couple also escaping the rain. While they decide to wait it out or go home, the rainwater is already draining away from market stalls and forming small rivulets within the boulevard’s bioswales.

As these spaces fill with water, the plants and wildlife along the boulevard are fed, and the boulevard changes form again. No longer just a street, the new boulevard is a living infrastructure, responding to the rhythms of urban and natural life.

Native plants and wildlife along the boulevard are fed, and the boulevard changes form again. No longer just a street, the new boulevard is a living infrastructure, responding to the rhythms of urban and natural life.