Cities from Amsterdam to Adelaide, from Boston to Bangalore, and San Francisco to Seoul are teaming up with big businesses like IBM, Siemens, Cisco, GE, and Google in a frenzied dash to become “smart.” They’re rolling out sensors for everything from street lights to trash cans. Homes are being wired up with smart meters and smart appliances that feed real-time data back to public utilities. Buses, cars, and bike-shares have GPS or radio-frequency identification that helps to alert users of when the next bus will arrive, as well as matching car and bike-share users to a the nearest Zipcar or Hubway bike.
But our current smart-city techno fetish rides roughshod across the public realm. It encourages the belief that there’s always “an app for that” — that we can address deep-seated, structural urban problems through business-led technological innovation and somehow sidestep the messiness of inclusive politics.
Take Boston’s perpetual traffic problems. It was a crisis, the snowbound 2015 Super Bowl parade, that forced the city to partner with the Google-owned traffic app Waze. The popular app, which has nearly a half-million Boston-based users, provides real-time traffic conditions. The city began its formal relationship by providing Waze with the details of the Patriots’ parade route. Now the city pipes traffic information not only directly to the app but also to the municipal Traffic Management Center, where hundreds of signalized intersections are controlled and programmed in response to changing traffic conditions.
This may seem like a great idea, and it makes people feel good about a public-private partnership based on information technology. But as with much crisis-driven policymaking, it merely represents a Band Aid slapped over a problem that still requires brave new political thinking and much-needed infrastructure investment. Rather than using the latest app to help manage traffic flow within an overburdened system, Boston — perhaps more than any other US city — needs a wider, well-resourced, truly integrated package of measures designed to actually decrease the volume of cars in the city. Failing to do this will ultimately undermine quality of life and regional character.
Smart technology can indeed help cities provide integrated public transport ticketing, with seamless transitions across train, bus, bicycle or car share. It can enable smart payments for people receiving public benefits, more effective management of parking spaces, and more efficient bike-share schemes. We could learn from Copenhagen and Amsterdam, cities that have reconfigured traffic patterns to allow for unfettered flow of bikes along streets and through intersections.
Other good-for-Boston approaches can be seen in Stockholm, Singapore, and London, where so-called congestion pricing confronts traffic density by levying a direct charge to discourage the use of private vehicles in the downtown core, especially during times of peak demand.