Cities need common sense before they get smart
By Alex Fletcher – November 22, 2016
Most people have heard about “smart cities” by now, although it isn’t always clear what it means for a typical, medium-sized city. My home of Perth, Australia, has the same issues as most American cities.
Does “smart cities” mean waste bins giving pep talks to stop littering? Traffic lights swearing at reckless drivers? No, the smart cities movement involves harnessing technology to make cities work better and more efficiently. Sensors, communication, analytics, and extracting solutions from big data. This has obvious applications for areas like energy use and intelligent transport networks.
Smart cities are great, but first we need to explore being a “common sense city” – one that nails the fundamentals of an enjoyable lifestyle, where we get the time to do what we want (we can buy the gadgets later). To do that, we need to get smart in our thinking, not just our technologies.
Take a look at road congestion, the persistent beast. Driving to work and finding a car park is a daily chore for many commuters, resulting in a mean frown and a general desire to break things. But our cars are addictive: so convenient and shiny, so air conditioned.
On the other hand, cars are expensive pollution machines, causing urban sprawl and traffic jams and a population of people who just want to sit down. Why do something when you can sit, preferably in a man-made box of some kind – at home, at work, hell even between home and work?
Like many Americans, most Australians don’t get enough exercise and a majority are overweight or obese. We are chalking up a very impressive list of inactivity-related diseases.
These “choices” are not entirely our fault though, as they were never legitimate choices in the first place. It comes back to city design. If the private sector spends its resources advertising the brilliance of cars, and the public sector spends its money building roads and bridges and not much else, then the people will drive.
What we need is a revamp of land use and zoning laws. Suburbs are not serviced properly by public transport, and they can be a bit boring – the local shopping mall is the jewel in the crown. And they are often a long way from anywhere, especially work. The workers in the family spend their free time battling traffic between home and work.
This lifestyle is due to three factors that encourage urban sprawl:
An over-reliance on cars and roads – driving is the only realistic option. As the city gets bigger, the driving gets harder.
Low density development – the city footprint continually creeps outwards, forming a vast suburban-style metropolis, because we don’t build up.
Zoning – we separate commercial from residential uses, which means we have to travel significant distances to get what we need.
This urban sprawl also happens to be extremely expensive to maintain – we need a lot of infrastructure per person. And it has led to transport recently becoming the single largest source of carbon emissions in the United States.
The three factors also make our lives time poor, difficult and generally a bit rubbish. It doesn’t have to be this way, it’s just what we are used to doing.
The upshot is that cities are re-thinking how to combine homes, nature and business in close proximity, so communities function properly – safe, active, easy, neighborly. These land use strategies are intimately connected to our transport networks.
And when it comes to transport people want convenience, reliability and options.
Here in Western Australia, Perth has a good public transport network, and it is improving. The city recently debuted a new bus port and a system for real-time bus information. Our active transport network (walking and cycling infrastructure) is decent but not great. Our road network gets the lion’s share of attention and funding, as in many cities.
Across the broader area, the Western Australian Department of Transport is starting to push public and active transport up the priority chain. There’s more that can be done, but it needs Perth’s residents to want it. We need to flip the usual approach upside down and focus on people, rather than cars.
Downtown, the Perth CBD train station should be like an international airport – a sparkling hub enticing people to catch the train. Instead, it is in need of a wash and a revamp and its metal seats seem specifically designed to make sitting uncomfortable.
Our trains and buses could use more attention too. Efforts are already being made, but diverting road funding could achieve:
Extension of the public transport network
Trains and buses running regularly and on time
More security guards and safety measures
Installation of Wi-Fi and charging points
More comfortable and attractive train stations and bus stops
Public transport authorities are generally struggling due to lack of funding. If they had teeth to get things done, and we as individuals followed up by actually supporting our public transport system, this would trigger a funding cycle that will do great things for our cities.
In terms of active transport, Western Australia is making good progress with cycling. Continuous cycling paths are being built. Fremantle introduced a 30 kph (19 mph) limit down its “cappuccino strip” with road-sharing signage – there are far more riders now. “Bike boulevards” are planned for the nearby regions of Vincent, Bayswater, and Belmont, which will hopefully get the kids and their grandparents back on their bikes.
A more efficient transport network would give us realistic options. I now ride my bike to Fremantle train station, zone out for half an hour on the train, then walk to work. It takes an hour all up, but it’s an hour well spent – fun, healthy and relaxing.
While smart cities are the future, cities like Perth need to be careful about getting swept away by hype and investing in expensive technologies that seem cool, but may not achieve much. Let’s first work out how we want to design our cities, then make it happen.