Smart City Opinion: Transport

A phrase that makes you think – such as ‘Smart City’ – is inherently ambiguous. When we hear a phrase we want to decide what it means, but if the meaning is elusive, we end up thinking about it more.

The ambiguity arises because the word ‘smart’ can be used to describe something which incorporates some form of intelligence, such as a ‘smart phone’, something that looks good – “such a smartly dressed man” – or something that has been developed with the application of intelligence: “what a smart idea!”.

Lets adopt the maximalist view, namely that the ‘smart’ in ‘Smart City’ refers to all three simultaneously. A “smart city” must therefore be in of itself intelligent, must look good, and must be designed with intelligence.

What about the word ‘City’? Is it a collection of streets and buildings, amenities, work spaces, living areas, etc? Or is it something else, a totality that is greater than the sum of its parts. Surely, a city is more like a forest, which is more than a collection of trees? A forest is better considered as an ecosystem, a whole in which each component is sustained and also contributes to the well-being of the whole system. An ecosystem, unlike a machine, can still exist even though some components may be physically independent (such as animals that can move around a forest) and even leave the system entirely. In a machine, the removal of a part prevents the machine from functioning.

And a city that has intelligence, one that is “smart”, surely has to be considered in the whole, and not purely as a set of elements. This way of looking at a City, an ecosystem of people and work places, has a variety of implications about how life in a City can be improved. For brevity, lets look only at one.

Take for instance transport. There are several categories of transport: long, medium, and short. Long-distance transport are the channels by which people and goods arrive at the city from distant parts, such as aeroplanes, trains, and ships. Medium distance transport carries people and goods across the city and from the City’s environs to its centre. Short distance transport is for small areas, just too far for a person to walk, or for someone to carry goods. It is the transportation channel a busy woman needs to get from one appointment to another.

Long distance transport has long been in the purview of government. Airports, railways, harbours are all constructed with reference to the whole city. Medium distance transport, though, is served by a mixture of public systems, such as (in Hong Kong) the MTR and buses, and private systems, such as taxis and privately owned automobiles. Even so, the infrastructure for these private vehicles – the City’s roads, traffic signals, bridges – are provided by government. (For brevity, let us agree that the concepts of public and private are in themselves controversial, deserving of a broader analysis, but secondary to the focus of this short analysis.)

Short distance transport is – we argue – almost completely missing in considerations of planning for a ‘traditional city’, but essential for a ‘Smart City’. In a traditional city, planners expect people to walk along miles of raised pathways or within vast pedestrian spaces, or for them to catch taxis, buses or trams (private cars are being excluded from pedestrian precincts). By their nature, buses or trams with fixed routes and stopping places are too inflexible for short distances.

Taxies follow the design patterns successful in selling to the general population, and this design optimises for families and medium distances. Families means the vehicle mush be large and tough, hence the vehicle must be heavy.

The consequence is that the majority of short distance journeys in traditional cities (one passenger only) are in vehicles that are too large and too heavy for their purposed. So the energy (and carbon footprint) of transporting people short distances in traditional cities is too high. If we consider the City an ecosystem, then traditional transport solutions are incredibly inefficient.

The weight and size of multi-person vehicles has a major effect on road infrastructure – wide roads to allow for passing, solid enough to take the weight of cars – and in a city like Hong Kong, there is just not enough room for big roads. This leads to congestion and slow moving traffic. What is worse is that vehicles with internal combustion engines are designed to work with maximum efficiency when moving quickly. Slow moving traffic increases pollution levels.

The domination of the road by petrol driven automobile has driven off the street traders, the small shops, and the variety of life that once thronged Hong Kong. Instead they are pushed into the tiny lanes and the steep slopes which cannot be adapted for the big petrol automobile. Looking at old pictures – for example – of Queens Road Central, and Queens Road now, are we better off? Where is the diversity, the shopping, the places where people can meet and talk? The whole of the street is taken by fast moving machines. People are herded onto narrow sidewalks. It is dangerous to walk at street level. The centres of modern cities have become bleak islands of offices surrounded by rivers of metal machines from which people are excluded because the machines could kill them. (Indeed terrorists are now using vehicles to kill!)

We seriously wonder whether the desertification of city streets, congestion, pollution, and the inefficient use of energy could be radically changed by re-considering short-distance transport.

Imagine a predominantly pedestrian area, containing offices, shops, cafes, street vendors, yet with transport units moving no more than the pace of a person walking. A space from which vehicles that can kill are banished.

Imagine short-distance transport solutions that can be used by anyone, such as elderly people and young people, transport that can be provided at the point of departure of a traveller, and left at the point of arrival. Using existing technologies, we can arrange for such units to be self-guided to points of departure, for payment of the journey to be only the time the vehicle is allocated to a passenger. Such a transport system would rely on the City’s infrastructure, so the City would ‘know’ where more vehicles are needed.

Safe streets would encourage more activity on them, diversity would increase, a variety of transport solutions and managed privately (in the same way taxis and small buses are private), and yet all relying on the IT infrastructure of the City. The down-town areas would become market places again, places to congregate, places to eat and enjoy the spectacle of life.

Now that would be a Smart City!