Gabe Klein: In the 1950s, we lost track of quality of life in many countries, including most of Europe and here in the US, by instituting sprawling land-
use policies around the automobile. This new piece of technology really tore apart our cities and made them places that many people didn’t want to live in anymore. With this incredible influx of technology that we’re going to see over the next decade, we can’t let it dictate the organization of our cities in the same way. Do we want drones flying around our cities and bringing packages, or do we want overnight package delivery with autonomous vehicles? These things need to be examined, which I hope will happen. People today understand that we have choice when it comes to how our cities evolve.
Angela Sasse: Exactly. Drones were initially developed for military environments, for battlefields, and now you’re bringing them into the urban environment. It creates a lot of risks. People need to feel enfranchised, rather than just like passive subjects. It’s the same with surveillance: if they think they’re just being passive actors in that system, and don’t really have any say, and they’re not actually able to exert a certain amount of control, it’s very clear people will work against the system.
GK: Here in Washington DC we probably have the most expansive automated enforcement system per capita in the United States, in terms of speed cameras, stop sign cameras, spotters for guns, you name it. I tend to think that it contributes to a safer city. I’m personally not as worried by the issues this creates, such as those to do with privacy, because for decades we’ve had satellites that can detect a coin on the ground. I think other people feel similarly. They’re intelligent and would rather have the security that these and other types of surveillance provide, particularly with the new threats – such as terrorism – that cities are encountering.
AS: You’re absolutely right, but there are ways of doing it well and there are ways of not doing it so well. We could have a bit of a boast-off here, whether London or Washington has more cameras. London has a lot. It’s actually taken quite a long time, but studies have been conducted to examine how effective surveillance is for different purposes in a city. In the study, people pointed out that surveillance is often used only to prove something after the fact, rather than preventing something happening.
GK: It’s easy to focus on technology as a potential solution, but it’s only one part of a healthy urban framework. There are cities, such as Chicago, with areas where there is a lack of respect between citizens and police, private and public. It’s in these instances that technology doesn’t necessarily create a safer environment.
AS: Actually there is some really interesting work by the sociologist Harvey Molotch, who looked at the New York public transport system and security measures introduced there. He pointed this out exactly: if you don’t invest in making the system work well for people who use it – you know, investing in things like ventilation, lighting, PA systems, things that people can actually understand – security measures don’t work. It’s really important that these systems are run in a way that people see as collaborative, rather than adversarial.
GK: Exactly. What interests me is the connection between low-level crime, like running stop signs, drunk driving, etc., and more serious crimes, such as assault and murder. Through the Department of Transportation, the US government has shown a high correlation between entropy on the streets and its ability to evolve into more serious crime. Technology can be used to help prevent this, but it’s only one component. It needs a basic framework, which includes respect between public and private, as well as a collaborative one, like you said. Intelligent, solution-based approaches need to involve the public, as well as design experts, engineers, urban planners.
AS: In Belfast there’s a system being developed where they put cameras on public transport and they don’t identify people – they only identify age and gender. They’ve worked quite well with criminologists to basically make links between certain constellations of people on a bus at a certain times. Women attracting unwanted attention, muggings, or vandalism, for instance, tend to occur when particular constellations are present. The cameras are basically counting, processing and then alerting the people who are managing the traffic system to the fact that you have these potentially dangerous and unsafe situations building up and then communicating to the people on the bus that there is somebody watching them. It can be used as a way of de-escalating a situation.
GK: Sensor technology is fascinating. It lets you know the kind of movements people are making, when they are making them, which allows you to literally plan in real time versus the sort of manual data capture that we’ve done historically. I also think the opportunity to not just plan but to also incentivize people to move in different ways in real time is very exciting.
AS: Data can act as a layer that allows you to learn how individuals typically move, and then dispense advice to said individuals without identifying them to the transport provider. Here in London, TFL uses the Oyster card travel data to monitor where the pressure is, and then feeds back to the cardholder that there might be a better route. This ‘just in time’ information that people can increasingly get on their smartphones is really important. It alerts you when the usual route you use isn’t actually the best route because there is a particular problem or particular incident, and then provides you with the information for what is now, under the current circumstances, the best way to get somewhere.
GK: It’s no different than when Google tells me I need to leave the house to get somewhere on time by calculating the traffic at that time. But wouldn’t it be great if it was telling me, ‘OK, if you take transit it’s going to take you this long and, by the way, if you’re willing to take it 15 minutes later we’ll cut your fare in half or we’ll buy you a coffee’? There are a lot of soft things we can do using technology to just push people to make changes to the way they move. If we can move 10 per cent of the population to make slightly different choices, at slightly different times, it can have a big impact on the overall system and alleviate the immediate need for big capital investments and added capacity.
AS: It’s true. These small changes make a huge difference. One of the things that’s absolutely amazing about the MTA, Hong Kong’s underground train system, is that the managers have regular coffee afternoons, like once a month, where they are available in the station and people can just drop in and talk to them about things. I also find the whole idea of autonomous transport really exciting, because it’s not just about getting from A to B – it could have a real impact. I live at the end of a tube line, so when I commute into central London I always get a seat, but two stops down people are already fighting over the last few. And this is only going to get worse as the city’s network becomes more congested and more and more people get pushed out to the periphery of the city. With urbanization comes the need for hypermobility. You have people commuting greater distances, from the countryside even. It’s creating increasingly diverse cities, which can lead to friction.
GK: In that kind of environment, autonomous vehicles could be utilized as part of the network. I have a 2015 Volvo and it’s not fully autonomous, but it’s got collision avoidance; it detects pedestrians and cyclists. And when we think of autonomous vehicles, we tend to only think of cars, but there are also buses and trains – people are even designing autonomous, multi-seat bicycles. Los Angeles actually has a technology transportation fellowship that is looking at how connected, autonomous vehicles and other technologies can be utilized, as well as how to coordinate the different aspects of government, to make the city a better, more connected place. And it’s the right time for LA too. They really went all-in on the automobile for many, many years and are now building up their transport system by investing in bus rapid transport, and so forth. They’re trying to build a transit backbone, but it’s such a massive place, right? There are so many smaller jurisdictions within LA County, and in the city itself there’s a separate mayor for West Hollywood or Beverly Hills, for instance.
AS: That fragmentation existed to a certain extent in London, but things have been improving partly because the transport system has become much more integrated. Transport for London now runs the whole infrastructure, and, in trying to deliver a system that works in many different ways, they’re bringing together everything under one umbrella rather than having provisions managed by different train companies and different bus companies. But to create a truly integrated transport system that incorporates new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, you also need to have a conversation with the traveling public about what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, and give people a chance to actually raise questions and concerns.
GK: I agree completely. Technology is arriving so quickly, and cities need to start planning for the arrival of that technology. There will always be a need for high-quality, high-capacity fixed-guideway transit systems and high-quality bus rapid transport systems, but we need to speak with those who use them and set appropriate policies in place. Do we implement policies around taxation of individually owned automobiles, elimination of parking spaces, or facilitation of business models that push people to grab an automated taxi, for instance, to encourage a more shared-use mobility society? If we start to act now, new technology can act as a connective tissue to leapfrog some of the issues that cities currently face, rather than a reason to sell everybody an autonomous vehicle