Imagine two photos, one beforeand one after. The before image shows New York City’s Times Square in 1900, its sidewalks bustling with pedestrians and roads congested with horse-drawn carriages, plus one early model of an internal combustion vehicle. The after shows the same block from the same angle 13 years later, with automobiles dominating the landscape and not a horse in sight.
“There are these tipping points where the things we accept as standard get flipped on their heads, because technology drives us to that critical mass,” explains Keoki Sears, global program director for the engineering firm Jacobs and one of four speakers at a Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce talk on the future of transportation. “I think we’re at that point today.”
That tipping point is an intersection between the digital technology that’s come to dominate our media landscape in the past several years and the urban infrastructure that’s defined our physical landscape for decades. Plans to apply smart phone-style connectivity to improve functionality and communications between public and private institutions are already well under way, thanks in part to an Obama-era “Smart Cities” initiative that invested $160 million in research on tech collaborations to tackle pressing issues.
A More Perfect Union
A Smart City is one that leverages new advances in data sharing and machine learning to efficiently manage resources and otherwise solve pressing multidisciplinary problems. For most cities, these include traffic congestion, climate change, crime and the distribution of economic resources.
To achieve such ambitious ends, Smart Cities operate on an “Internet of Things” to which everything is connected. In these cities, autonomous vehicles, waste receptacles, power plants, freight trains, water supply reservoirs, public transit systems and other urban variables can all upload and share relevant information with each other in real-time to keep things running smoothly.
You won’t need to check your phone for accidents on the freeway—your car will take that into account while planning your route. Public employees won’t be needed to monitor waste levels in dumpsters—the dumpsters will upload that data on the Internet of Things themselves. Modern cities are complex systems, so processing and drawing conclusions from such massive stores of data will depend on artificial rather than human intelligence.
The most integral component of the Smart City ecosystem—and the one we have yet to crack—will be its means of communication. A Smart City’s communications system must be made to analyze streams of data from a city’s many heterogeneous communications networks and protocols already in place—a new system that can be superimposed over the old. The Smart City must be engineered to serve its institutions, just as the institutions will have to be reshaped to serve the Smart City.
“Technology is not the biggest challenge with this,” argues Dan Lukasik, Vice President of the digital solutions firm Parsons Corporation and another speaker at the event. “Institutional issues are ten times more difficult to resolve than tech ones.”
Establishing greater connectivity and communication between services that have traditionally operated independently will lead to myriad priority clashes and conflicts of interest, but also to more integrated solutions, as we can better grasp how seemingly disparate problems feed into one another.
“It is really the partnerships that make this work,” notes Loreana Marciante, Vulcan, Inc.’s climate strategy manager, another speaker at the Chamber of Commerce event. “There’s not one institution that can solve all the problems anymore. You have to have different disciplines and perspectives to bring about the best and most robust solutions.”
To date, the most publicized aspect of all this has been the advent of self-driving cars, electric-powered prototypes of which are already being street-tested. Theoretically, not only will autonomous vehicles reduce traffic fatalities, greenhouse gas emissions and gridlock—they may eliminate the need for private car ownership altogether.
Rideshare companies like Lyft are already partnering with event companies and public transit authorities to reduce fares, integrate payment systems, incentivize carpooling and let users plan complete trips across different platforms. These partnerships are transforming the previously clear-cut divide between private and public transportation into more of a spectrum.
An admittedly optimistic report from the independent think tank RethinkX forecasts that by 2030, 95 percent of U.S. passenger miles will be served by on-demand autonomous vehicles in a new business model called “transport-as-a-service” (TaaS). Car ownership is already in decline and interest in driving waning among younger generations. Economic factors, they predict, will drive consumers to go with the option that’s fast becoming more efficient and affordable, costing 15 cents a mile versus 38 for a private vehicle.
Conversely, there are also fears that autonomous cars may actually end up contributing to the inequality, traffic congestion and urban sprawl they’re supposed to alleviate by becoming a luxury for the rich alone, allowing them to live farther from work and flooding streets with zero-occupancy vehicles. This could be prevented with Smart City protocols on ridesharing to improve efficiency, as well as new measures to regulate the equitable use and deployment of self-driving vehicles and other technological advances, which the U.S. government has so far shied away from.
“We have a significant amount of regulatory structures in place to protect us in the built environment, where we actually reside,” explains Marciante. “That’s not something the tech industry has really yet had to grapple with.”
The shift to TaaS will also cause enormous job loss in the transportation and oil industries, which RethinkX believes will be mitigated by these new business opportunities and surpluses. By spending less on maintenance for a private vehicle, consumers can spend more on other services, while the reduced number of vehicles on the road will enable greater accessibility to businesses and open vast tracts of land to new uses.
Marciante warns that we can’t wait on autonomous vehicles to solve the issue of climate change. Cities can take more immediate actions to curb emissions, like transitioning to electric power without self-driving cars or incentivizing ridesharing and transit use through congestion pricing—meaning charging cars an extra toll to drive at certain times or within certain heavily-trafficked areas.
Such measures—already in effect in London, Singapore and elsewhere—illustrate how Smart Cities are designed to manage the flow of people as well as resources, matching the incentives in our urban environment to achieve desired outcomes. Every speaker at the talk agreed that technology mustn’t be deployed just for the sake of deploying it, but used intentionally to address specific public needs, which will be easier to identify as our data collection methods continue to improve.
But isn’t there something vaguely dystopian to all this? If everything’s connected, won’t we be even more vulnerable than we already are to data abuses by vast tech corporations or independent hackers? Won’t the city’s entire infrastructure grind to a halt when one part fails?
When privately-owned internal combustion vehicles first took over America’s streets, they led to supercharged sprawl, more isolated low-income communities, a proliferation of smog and other negative impacts we’re still coping with today.What will be the unintended consequences that reverberate through the decades this time?
Planning for such consequences before we reach that tipping point may be the best way to prevent them in the first place—to make sure we’re making our way towards utopia, rather than dystopia. The critical moment may seem a long way off with the “Internet of Things,” and with autonomous vehicles still relegated mostly to news headlines rather than real life, but it probably seemed just the same to the horse-drawn carriage operators of Times Square circa 1900.