Leimert Park Envisions Infusing Culture into Autonomous Micro Shuttles

A visitor alights from an autonomous micro shuttle in front of the Vision Theater. Screenshot from video produced by Karl Baumann and Ben Caldwell.
A visitor alights from an autonomous micro shuttle in front of the Vision Theater. Screenshot from video produced by Karl Baumann and Ben Caldwell.

I’ll admit that when people talk to me about self-driving cars, I tend to tune out.

I know all the arguments about safety, efficiency, and the potential transformation of parking. And they certainly have merit.

Some cases more than others.

With apologies to original photographer Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.
Do we really want this guy behind the wheel? With many apologies to photographer Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

I know autonomous vehicles will also be a boon to folks with illnesses or disabilities that limit their mobility. And there are also justice arguments to be made – if the vehicles control speed and maneuvering, it could help limit profiling, meaning there would be fewer opportunities for traffic stops to turn deadly (assuming wide access to this technology, of course).

Still, I can’t reconcile the positive potential of the tech with the fact that we’re talking about private vehicles as a potential livability solution for smoggy gridlocked cities. Especially when making driving less stressful and more convenient works against arguments planners have made for years that it has to be less convenient and less enjoyable if we are ever going to succeed in pushing people to adopt other modes of travel.

But the bigger reason I have tuned out is rooted in something even deeper.

Private vehicles already play a role in isolating, insulating, and disconnecting people from their surroundings. Converting those vehicles into the equivalent of private buses would do little to bridge that divide and would likely further the disconnect between the now more passive occupants – especially those of privilege – and the people around them and the places they pass through.

At least, that’s what I thought until I saw a presentation by the innovators behind Sankofa City – a community design project forging concepts and prototypes for the future of urban technology – at the  Leimert Park Village 20/20 Initiative‘s annual charrette this past January.

The above video, produced in collaboration with Ben Caldwell (artist, filmmaker, and founder of the KAOS Network), Karl Baumann and Professor Francois Bar of the USC division of Media Arts Practice and the Annenberg Innovation Lab, and area artists and stakeholders, Caldwell told stakeholders gathered for the charrette, was only one of myriad ways in which autonomous vehicles could be adapted to enhance residents’ and visitors’ engagement with the historically black community of Leimert Park.

As a test case, it is meant to be part of an ongoing conversation among residents about how they might interpret the technology and put it to use to better their community.

In the vision the video presents, a woman visiting the area boards a shuttle (designed by Raul “Retro” Poblano) and uses interactive displays to learn about historic figures in the area, listen to local artists, and request a stop in front of an important landmark.

The shuttle then glides off on its own to loop around the village, looking for residents or other visitors who might need its services.

A passenger in an autonomous micro shuttle watches performances of local artists and learns about local landmarks. Screenshot from video produced by Karl Baumann and Ben Caldwell.
A passenger in an autonomous micro shuttle watches performances of local artists and learns about local landmarks. Screenshot from video produced by Karl Baumann and Ben Caldwell.

A scaled-down version of the vehicle was passed around to the stakeholders to illustrate how easily the low-speed vehicles might be produced in the community via 3-D printing while presenters made the case for the importance of infusing the technology with community culture.

During the 1992 unrest, artist and presenter Rahsan Cummings said, a gathering of drummers in the park fortified and lifted the heavy hearts of those seeking refuge in Leimert Park. The powerful drumming also created a kind of peaceful, protective shield around them that many believe kept the National Guard at bay during those tense days.

It was, for those that lived through it, yet one more example of how communities of color have deployed culture as a form of resistance. Histories painted on walls, painful truths spoken in stories and songs, the open celebration of culture in public spaces – these are all ways in which communities of color have retained their integrity, asserted their power, and engaged in community healing.

Within such a context, autonomous vehicles and other emerging technologies are just one more landscape into which community stories can and should be woven.

And rather than wait to have to adapt their complex realities to technology that was not made for them or with their needs in mind, Caldwell tells me in a recent conversation, there is a unique opportunity for communities of color to leave a significant mark.

The tech industry hasn’t done much work with cultural communities in ways that a) re-frame the vehicles as opportunities for connection, communication, and cross-cultural community-building or b) will produce a product that can be easily integrated into the fabric of or act as a catalyst for economic development within those communities. The Sankofa City innovators appear to be doing both.

In doing so and “disrupting” the tech before it has been made available to the mass market, Caldwell says, Leimert Park could become a point source for the tech itself as well as a source of support for other cultural communities that are also experiencing encroachment by gentrification.

The potential contributions the autonomous shuttles could make to Leimert Park Village’s efforts to enhance the visibility of the local culture and nurture economic development would be more than welcome.

As we’ve documented here, area stakeholders have spent the past few years trying to get out ahead of the 2020 arrival of the Crenshaw/LAX Line and the opening of the station in the heart of the village. Cognizant that new transit hubs tend to fuel gentrification and having already seen turnover pick up speed around the historically black community, stakeholders have worked diligently to establish a hub for black creatives grounded in the cultures and traditions of the African diaspora before it is too late. Plans in that regard include the building of a new cultural center on a parking lot behind the Vision Theater and the creation of versatile community-serving work spaces that can be used for retail, performance, and film and music production.

For the last few years, the collective of KAOS, USC, and community members have supported these efforts with an ongoing series of urban experiments. They repurposed street furniture – including a payphone dubbed Sankofa Red and a bench that can be used to create beats – and imbued their prototypes with more culturally relevant, community-serving, and story-gathering capacities.

The collective also helped design and bring to fruition the People St plaza – a section of 43rd Place in front of the historic Vision Theater that was transformed into a pedestrian plaza in 2015 (below).

The Sankofa bird is a symbol of the art walk and has come to be central to the image of Leimert Park Village in that it embodies the notion of remembering to bring the past with you as you move forward. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The Sankofa bird is a symbol of the art walk and has come to be central to the image of Leimert Park Village in that it embodies the notion of remembering to bring the past with you as you move forward. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Co-opting self-driving shuttles to serve as cultural portals, Caldwell suggests, is a way to use the tech to ensure the local community is strengthened and retains its integrity even as the community invites outsiders to visit.

Local artists and businesses would be the ones to reap the benefits from interactive videos informing shuttle passengers about landmarks and cultural symbols, the area’s history, heritage, and notable figures, art and music produced in the area, and upcoming cultural events. Elders could be connected to younger generations via storytelling portals (while also benefiting from the greater independence the shuttles would afford them), tightening community bonds. Culture and ways to engage and enrich it would be kept at the forefront of community conversations among the locals that boarded the shuttles. And the demand for content and the production of the vehicles themselves could help drive innovation and the creative economy within Leimert Park.

But again, this is just one of many ways forward. While the Sankofa City innovators will continue to run more community workshops, produce more test videos, and tweak their designs, they appear to be clear that the actual steps the community takes depend on the future stakeholders envision for themselves.

“Help us build this together. Because it takes togetherness in order for a community to work,” says Caldwell in the Sankofa City fundraiser video (above). “Help us build this together.”

For more information, check out the Sankofa City Facebook page. For more on the Leimert Park Village 20/20 Initiative, visit their webpage here.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Good intentions applied to the wrong vehicle. I wish they focused on the trains instead.

  • sahra

    this comment doesn’t make a lot of sense…? the train is coming. they’re very focused on the train and who it will bring to the community and how they will use the trains to nurture their growth and development. this is just one outgrowth of that.

  • Asher Of LA

    Self-driving buses have more promise for cities than self-driving cars – they’re far more likely to cure congestion, they’re much easier to get right because they only have to work on the route they’re on, and the finances are much more compelling than a manned bus, which tends to have a paid driver rather than unpaid owner as with cars. Minibuses would deliver higher frequency, while being more in-scale with small streets. They’d be quieter and easier on pavement than current city buses.

    The chief prerequisite for their success is that cities give them uncongested lanes.

    Look for self-driving hype to crest soon while these buses get deployed little by little.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Sorry for being snippy. I just have very little trust in automobiles, self guided or otherwise, being able to make our lives better; so why bother decorating them? If I was to celebrate anything, it would be the fact that there will be a train; and that because of that, our communities can improve.

  • sahra

    right. but a train isn’t really going to help much with intra-neighborhood circulation…the stuff for which people claim they must have cars and for which they are less likely to board a train. something like this actually can complement the train, both for visitors and for the aging population in the community that has mobility needs. it fills in the gap between what private cars and longer-distance transit can do and can connect folks to trains who would have otherwise eschewed the train because it was that first/last mile away or more. And, for the folks that came up with this, it’s a way to inject culture into conversations around self-driving cars and planning in ways that I have yet to hear in mainstream conversations around livability.

  • Gonzalo Estévez

    It’s a neat concept and very much worth discussing as it seems inevitable that ridesharing and autonomous vehicles will be key to solving the first- and last-mile trip problem but I can’t imagine any vehicle would contain enough content to avoid becoming repetitive and being tuned out by users. Also, this looks like it would be co-opted for advertisements right away especially if the autonomous vehicles are privately-owned and managed by firms like Uber who have a huge leg up (i.e., cash) in the autonomous vehicle race.

  • Miles Bader

    It isn’t inevitable at all, and they almost certainly will not be “key”….

    Ridesharing and autonomous vehicles have almost all the same problems that SOV have.

    In the dysfunctional landscape of the U.S., it probably is inevitable that people will try to do this, but odds are good it will simply end up being a very expensive shitshow that will delay better solutions for another generation…

  • Miles Bader

    The proportion of people who are unable to use other means of transport, but are still able enough to deal with an unmanned vehicle by themselves, in a reasonably constructed city is very small.

    For such people, then yeah, maybe there’s a place for autonomous vehicles. But because they are a very small minority, the effect on transportation and urban design as a whole will be minimal.

  • sahra

    Not necessarily. Black, brown, and Asian communities tend to be multi-generational and more economically diverse than white communities. There are a lot of folks living with disabilities, are elderly, or have some other issue that puts driving out of reach. So there are concentrations of people in some communities who this sort of thing might serve. With the push to come back to the cities, the AARP has jumped into urban planning and supports efforts and design that will allow for all to “age in place.”

  • sahra

    I myself am not a huge fan of these sorts of vehicles, as I mentioned. But part of the effort here is also to signal to tech companies that those companies, in not having diverse staff and not having incorporated different cultural approaches to waying/being, are limiting the potential of the tech and leaving cultural communities out of the conversation. This group has been active in hacking and re-purposing other stuff, like semi-obsolete street furniture. It’s not always because they think a repurposed newspaper box can be vital to street life, but because they’re interested in knowing what planning looks like when it is seen through the lens of a cultural community.



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