Smart Cities, Transportation, and New Urbanism

I live in the United States, and I’ve been observing the trend of making major cities smart. The City of San Diego has made a series of data regarding city services, parking, street maintenance, and water conservation available on their official website for residents to access. City council meetings are videotaped and available for anyone with an internet connection to view and download. We have the Get it Done app to report potholes, vandalism, and other problems city employees should act on.

Smart city improvements are also appearing elsewhere. The Google/Alphabet backed company Coord enlisted gig workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website to transcribe complicated parking signs from photographs. Surprisingly, some big cities have no record, map, or little data on the parking rules citywide. What Coord and Mechanical Turkers created are dynamic maps of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City displaying where drivers can park. Hosted now on Coord.co, the maps are somewhat difficult for the average user to interact with.

The real product is API access for developers who want the maps to be available in their smartphone apps. An example of an API you may be familiar with is seeing a Google Map inside of other apps, like Gasbuddy. Those app developers have to buy access to Google Maps to use its code. It’s usually worth it to save time.

Coord also announced that they would photograph and map San Diego’s parking. Additionally, they released a limited smartphone app called Surveyor for other companies and cities to join their new movement to “Code the Curb”. It’s a noble pursuit overall. Sidewalk Labs is a parent company to Coord. They have been developing Sidewalk Toronto as their solution to the city’s housing issues. It was revealed when the project was underway that Sidewalk hid glaring privacy violations in the legalese of the contract.

The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs recognized the power of urbanizing, criticized grandiose planning that’s disconnected from life in the streets, and offered great insight into what cities naturally do well. The book was published in 1961, yet many readers still find the lessons relevant today. A point Jacobs stresses is that a city must be diverse, in usage, development, and the cultural heritage of its people. She didn’t quite predict our recent issue of gentrification, which is a tough nut to crack. When apartment rent increases become unaffordable, the middle class will flock to the inner city and other lower class neighborhoods. The rents then increase in those neighborhoods, forcing people of color and the impoverished out. Some analysts claim that property taxes also push poor people out of gentrified neighborhoods. The Atlantic magazine’s website City Lab looked into it and found limited evidence of that.

Jane Jacobs fought New York bureaucrat Robert Moses’ freeway expansion proposals and housing projects in her time. The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro covered Robert Moses’ legacy in 1300 pages that most readers won’t finish. His project buildings were inspired by futuristic apartment complexes he noticed earlier in Europe. Once the projects were constructed in New York, the city’s poor moved in. However, the buildings became too hostile for them to comfortably live in. Many units remained empty, playgrounds weren’t utilized by children, and crime flourished in the area due to high vacancy. Most residents moved away, and the projects were later demolished. St. Louis also had housing projects that failed. Another point Jacobs made was in New York and Boston, poor neighborhoods were densely packed. Thus there were always more neighbors keeping their eyes on the street. Sidewalks are safe for children to play when adults can watch after them. Moving children into parks and playgrounds unfortunately led to more bullying and danger just from normal play.

The United States is commonly known for our obsession with cars. We have movies and TV shows that are centered on them. Ford dominated the automobile industry here in the 20th century. Henry Ford was responsible for creating thousands of jobs, cutting down the cost of early cars, and made Detroit into the Motor City. The city’s population exploded. Decades later, cheap labor in Mexico and China enticed car manufacturing plants to be built and used there instead. Automation of manufacturing cars increased as well. Domestic unemployment spiked. Detroit was hemorrhaging money. Many were moving away from Detroit proper to suburbs, bedroom communities, and other states. Modern Detroit has a reputation of poverty, crime, and dilapidation. After the 2008 recession, unemployed and desperate folks were stealing any copper they could find out of foreclosed homes and condemned buildings to sell to scrapyards for quick cash.

As millions of cars were being purchased by Americans in the 20th century, new roads were being paved all over, and highways were developed to carry the extra traffic. Interstates were growing and intersecting all over the country. The problem is these freeways also needed to reach and cut through the big cities. Apartments, houses, and small businesses in these cities were taken by the government through eminent domain to be demolished. Then the properties were replaced with multi-lane roads. Once the freeways were active, noise and smog drove more residents and businesses out. The highway system offered convenience for the work force and travelers, while also destroying historic urban communities in the process. Paradoxically, adding extra lanes means additional people will drive to replace their former methods of transportation, thus always adding more cars to traffic jams. Often times, more lanes don’t reduce heavy traffic.

Those who live in Southern California, Seattle, the Bay Area, Washington D.C., Baltimore, or New York are all too familiar with multiple rush hours per day. In the second edition of his book City of Quartz, Mike Davis quotes a 2006 statistic that LA residents lose 93 hours per year to traffic delays. That figure has doubled since 1982. Elon Musk’s solution to LA traffic, under his company the Boring Project, is digging tunnels under all of LA where cars will zip around to their various destinations. I’m personally skeptical that it will work.

Since I’ve examined our automobile and highway situation in depth, I can also say a little about truck driving. Semi-trucks are responsible for the transportation of much our consumer goods and industrial supplies. However, they also cause the most damage to freeways due to their sheer weight. I sometimes drive through Riverside, California to visit San Bernardino National Forest. The portion of I-215 that goes through Riverside is always bumpy, and in disrepair due to all the trucks that pass through the area. That Inland Empire area is an industrial linchpin to Amazon, as they invested $4.7 billion in the region from 2012 to 2016. Amazon relies on truckers and UPS to transport consumer goods from ports, to warehouses, sorting centers, and eventually to customers’ doors. Convenience has hidden costs and a lot of moving parts. There is a bit more to cover on trucking, which will happen later in the essay.

If you’ve joined the niche Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens, you know about this next part. Transit and trains were formerly the best method of travel in much of the United States. Electric streetcars were all over cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, then General Motors pushed to make their gasoline-fueled buses more common. Urbanism enthusiasts tend to be the only ones who remember the GM streetcar conspiracy, or maybe you can fuzzily recall it from the plot of the 1988 movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” As you’re likely expecting by now, the conspiracy is more complicated than I have space to adequately summarize here.

Later on, similar transit options to what the US had were adapted to Europe, China, and Japan. Those areas have high speed bullet and commuter trains that are reportedly more effective than railways in the US. A lot of the world pays a higher price to fill up a car tank than here. Low American gas prices wouldn’t be possible without oil subsidies. Most Americans are driving everywhere, or now taking advantage of Uber and Lyft. Europeans and the Japanese are taking trains that usually run on time. This equates to less automobile traffic than in the US. As an aside, London, Paris, and Beijing have dealt with the smog and pollution most folks associate with LA. The source in Europe is predominately diesel powered vehicles.

New York, Buffalo, Chicago, and LA are among the American cities that have subway systems. The subway system in New York has high ridership numbers, though the infrastructure and technology controlling it is very outdated. Renovations are now being planned and carried out. As Pedestrian Observations elaborated, American development costs drastically exceed overseas projects. Most LA residents I’ve heard from have never taken a subway ride, possibly out of fear or inconvenience. I don’t know enough to speak on Chicago or Buffalo’s transit system efficacy.

Returning to where I live, San Diego’s public transit options are buses, an electric trolley system, and the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains (we call it the coaster). Personally, I’ve taken the trolley to Padres and Chargers games, Comic Con, a Bernie Sanders rally, to visit friends, and concerts at House of Blues. It’s certainly easier than finding free parking in downtown. Donald Shoup says free parking is costly anyways. Currently, a trolley expansion is being constructed through my neighborhood. Many of my neighbors are against affordable housing appearing around trolley stations. They reject raising the building height limit as the property values of their houses would decline without the privilege of a direct bay view. They believe too many people will move in, which would cause extra traffic jams. The closest trolley station to me currently erected a multi-story apartment building, and new businesses opened around it years ago. It’s still easy enough to drive, walk, or ride a bicycle through the surrounding streets. NIMBYs (an acronym of the position named Not In My Backyard) are known to fight sensible improvements to neighborhoods.

I used to be a proponent of a high speed rail system in California. Silicon Valley wanted it the most so web developers and computer programmers could live in California’s Central Valley and commute to work from afar. Practically, you have to be wealthy to live in or near the Bay Area these days. Rents and home prices have skyrocketed, which made headlines nationwide a few times. When Californians voted to start the high speed rail project in 2008, the estimated costs were much lower than what they actually rose to. Buildings were claimed by eminent domain in Fresno. Central Valley farmers were fighting the rail project to keep their fields and livelihood. It also ran into some challenges from environmental impact reports. California’s new governor Gavin Newsom announced recently that the project would be scaled back as the costs were too high to justify. It looks like we will only receive the Central Valley leg of the route. We won’t be able to take a Bay Area vacation by high speed rail from San Diego, or travel from LA to Las Vegas on it to gamble.

Amtrak still has routes around much of the US. Unfortunately, traveling that way sometimes costs more than a flight. Amtrak’s arrivals and departures are frequently delayed. The Amish, older folks, and those who are up for an adventure are some of the common riders. It’s a definitely a slower way to get around than a car. Commercial locomotives aid trucks and airplanes in carrying the nation’s goods and materials. You may recall from high school history class that building cross-continental railroads boosted the US economy and sped up migration to the Western territories. Chinese immigrants were crucial to building the railroads, and often dealt with racism, discrimination, and lower pay than the white peers. I imagine heat exhaustion, dehydration, and uncompensated injuries were also common. During my time playing music in the punk scene, I met a few people who illegally hopped trains like the hobos did during The Great Depression. Riding in a train’s box car covertly is quite a dangerous mode of travel.

Easily available, reliable, and affordable public transit (and trains) is the solution I back for some of the problems I’ve described. It is true that building the systems is expensive. Keeping America’s cars running and fueled, and expanding highways has a higher price tag. Transit expansion is the best option I know of to decrease carbon emissions, improve the air quality in urban areas, and reduce governmental spending in the long term. When 100 riders are on the same train or 25 on the same bus, there is less fuel used per person, if any, than the car commuter who drives alone. Those who choose the bus, subway, or trains can save up to $5,000 a year compared to relying on a car.

Silicon Valley is investing into and programming self-driving cars and trucks to take human error out of the driving equation. The cars have caused a few fatal accidents in the current testing stage. The LIDAR (3D vision using lasers) and programming will reach a point where these autonomous cars are much safer drivers than humans. Americans have a 1 in 103 chance of dying in a car crash currently. We lead the world in that category, but I digress.

Further into our future, self-driving cars could be only the cars on the road, and humans wouldn’t even be able to effectively take control. That’s utopic or dystopic depending on who you ask. In the upcoming 2020 presidential election, Democrat Andrew Yang is running predominately on the issue of universal basic income for those whose jobs were automated away, or will be shortly. He researched the changes that are being made in the trucking industry, which is a significant employer for the middle of the country. His proposal to pay for a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 a month per person is a value added tax on products, materials, and sales of major companies.

Policy is one effort of many that could improve our country, and the modern world. I’m astounded by how far technology has come in the past 25 years. From the attention I pay to transportation and smart cities, new urbanism began making a lot of sense to me. Personally, I walk long distances for errands, exploring San Diego, and to observe the world around me. I hope I motivated you to take a bus, take a train, or reconsider how beneficial your car actually is. Rural areas are struggling and cities are booming. We should make big cities livable, sustainable, interconnected, and technologically smart. The former Luddites have iPhones now and can’t really destroy the web of machines all around us. Analogs have their value, but the case I’ve made here is that we need to work with budding technologies and expand public transit. Our future depends on us getting the complexities of cities right.

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