Lyft’s guide to the transportation revolution

The musician using AI to redesign every street in the world

Carl Franzen - Mar 13, 2023
Zach Katz Profile Image Header
Illustration by Natalie Foss

Twenty-eight-year-old Brooklyn musician Zach Katz is intent on destroying the street — well, sort of. In the summer of 2022, he launched Better Streets AI, a project in which he uses Open AI’s DALL-E 2 image generator to redesign photos of roadways around the globe, visualizing how they’d look if they were pedestrian-friendly and car-free. His aim: get them revamped for real.

Katz began posting his imagery on a Twitter account, @betterstreetsai, and quickly made waves among transportation writers, activists, and politicians. In the intervening months, he’s received requests to redesign city streets from mayors and officials in some of America’s largest cities and received attention from major outlets such as Bloomberg, Vice, Axios, and the Los Angeles Times. What was a side project has grown to the point where he’s had to hire an artist to help create the renderings.

Rev recently interviewed Katz about how the Better Streets AI project is going, his goals, and what impact it’s having on the streets of the real world. The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why did you start Better Streets AI?

I used to live in Portland, Oregon, and in 2020, I led a massive campaign for protected bike lanes there. One of the first things I did was commission a rendering of what one of the most popular and heavily trafficked streets would look like with protected bike lanes. Most activist groups don’t do that, but I think it’s so important [for people to see how a few simple changes can make their streets safer and more pleasant to use]. The render worked really well, but it cost me like $1,000. It was 100% worth it, but as an activist and an artist, I knew it wouldn’t be sustainable to do that over and over again for other streets.

Then in April 2022, I heard about this tool called DALL-E 2. I was interested and started playing around with it, initially just asking it to make pictures of things like a dog eating pizza. But after that, I thought, Wait, what if I used this to do the street rendering in Portland? So I went outside, and I took some photos of my street and tried it out. I was like, “Damn, this is really good.”

Zach Katz's initial photograph transformation used for Better Streets AI.
Zach Katz's initial street transformation imagery used to launch the Better Streets AI project and Twitter account.

You’re now charging people to make renders of their streets. What does that pay for?

Yeah, the dilemma is that I don’t want to charge anyone. I want to make renderings for free and change the world. I want everyone to have a rendering of their own street. I believe that by making an image of every street in every city — that’s actually how we change the world. That’s how we market the idea of Better Streets to the general public and create a movement. 

DALL-E 2 charges a fee for us to use, but it’s fairly cheap. What we charge for is really the time of the artist or engineer who is going back and forth, uploading the images and writing the prompts to make the new street renderings. It takes at least 30 minutes to an hour to make one good image. 

And who is ordering these renderings? I saw one official, the mayor of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Have there been others?

There’s been a lot … almost too many to name. We’ve gotten three or four mayors, including the mayor of Houston, Texas.

Other than mayors, who else is contacting you and requesting renderings of streets?

Everyone: elected officials, advocacy organizations, climate foundations like the European Climate Foundation, individual activists, people who aren’t activists but are just curious what their street looks like, planning firms. 

We have a backlog of thousands of requests. When I first started the account, I was making them for free and just taking donations. But I couldn’t keep up with all the demand, which is why I’ve brought on another artist to help. Depending on how we grow, we may add more.

A lot of your pictures feature car-free streets — is that your goal, making them all car-free? What other guiding principles do you apply when redesigning?

In most pictures, we’re just making the streets entirely car-free and emulate the style of good Dutch street design. It’s international best practice — why wouldn’t you use that for your platonic ideal?

A lot of people, even urban planners in the U.S., don’t know how advanced Dutch street design is and how long they’ve been working on it. The Dutch developed a very deliberate set of street-planning guidelines over the last 50 years to get more people biking safely. They’re called the CROW guidelines, and they’re published online for anyone to follow. 

It’s not just about adding new markings or lanes but also about what to remove — traffic lights that slow bicycles down, for instance. If U.S. cities would simply, like, take a fucking quarter of this information, it would work, and more people would bike. 

My project looks at streets one at a time, but the key principle from the CROW guidelines is for urban planners and officials to think about the transportation network holistically. If you just put protected bike lanes on one street and not the next, you’ve failed. A cyclist still has to navigate that unprotected space to get around your city. You need to think about how people can move safely throughout the entire city.  

Do you feel like that change is occurring? Do you have any inkling that some of your renderings are being used to actually change the roads?

We’ve heard from activists and elected officials all around the world who have been using our images to start a conversation. Some of those conversations are leading to actual change. I can give you actual examples like Thayer Street in Providence, Rhode Island, and Main Street in Cincinnati, Ohio, where our renderings are being debated online by members of those communities. 

Where does Better Streets go from here?

We’re working with other devs outside of Open AI to offer a new subscription service for professionals who wish to transform streets — urban planners and officials and related jobs. We believe it’s more powerful and easier to use than Dall-E. You can sign up to receive more information and a demo at TransformYourCity.AI.

We want to keep doing renderings. We would love for someone to sponsor the project so we can remove the fees and let everyone try to redesign their own street. Either way, I hope we can help as many people as possible change their streets for real.

This content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Lyft makes no representations as to the accuracy and completeness of this information. Unless otherwise stated, Lyft is not affiliated with any businesses or organizations mentioned in the article.