Smart City Q&A pt. 2: Ray Tomalty, principal, Smart Cities research services; professor, University of Vancouver Island

How does the Smart City of digital technology fit into Smart Growth Cities?

The connections between the two is not something people have written a lot about as far as I am aware. I am more of a Smart Growth than a Smart City person; but, I keep track of what is going on in terms of the Smart Cities discussion. The first connection is the research potential of information technology and the information gathered that is necessary to understand the city and to help shape it. For example, peoples’ smart phones are like supper computers in their pockets as they move around all day and use them and send out signals about their locations. From these locations you can tell where people work and where they live so this provides a rich trove of information about their movement, their residential choices, their work choices and other the kinds of choices they take in terms of how they link trips together. This information can then be linked like where people live and their obesity and diabetes and other rates as well as activity related activity indicators. So you can do research on how people’s locations and movement affects their health. And that type if information can be used to make decisions about neighbourhoods and whether to build out or up or whether we should be putting sidewalks on both sides of the street instead of widening streets for more cars. Just having that type of information can be truly important for data that flows into the debate about how to build the successful city that meets peoples’ needs.

In a Smart City, everything is monitored including the infrastructure is monitored. Basically a Smart City is a monitored city and a monitored city has implications beyond research that feeds into the planning process. For example people in Montreal can sign up with the city for putting an app on their phone so that their bicycle use can be monitored. The city is using that information on the movement of cyclists to plan new biking infrastructure and to make the biking infrastructure more efficient. The last thing you want to do is pend $200K on a kilometre of bike path and then find out that it is not on the street that bicyclists are using. It is a lot cheaper to monitor that way than setting up sensors or having people do counts.  It’s a great way of gathering data and transferring it to policy decisions about building the city.

There are other connections between Smart Cities and Smart Growth. Monitoring water use and charging water by volume and by day can reduce the need to build new water infrastructure. With energy smart meters you can make the whole energy distribution more effective and make local generation more efficient. On roads, sensors can help manage traffic and reduce the need for wider roads. Reduce the need to produce highways and all kinds of traffic management solutions are available. By putting sensors in the intersections or in the roadway to detect when a vehicle passes overhead can dramatically improve the performance of the existing infrastructure by reducing its expansion, which means we can have more compact cities and more efficient cities.

Parking efficiencies is another aspect that has created a lot of excitement and innovation. Information technology for parking where we can actually use data on the use of existing parking to send people looking for parking to vacant spots increases the efficient use of existing parking. This means you don’t have to build as much new parking which in turn means you can reduce the footprint of the city. Studies have shown that 15-25% of the traffic in the certain parts of the city is made up of people cruising around looking for parking. Obviously, if you can increase the whole efficiency of the parking system with information about the availability of parking spaces you can reduce the traffic congestion in urban spaces and make denser urban places more livable by reducing air pollution, noise and the danger posed by the increased increment of traffic that is looking for a place to park.

The other thing you can do is look at parking trends so you can increase the cost of parking at high demand places and times thus sending signals to people that if they are not willing to meet that cost they should leave their cars at home and take transit.   So you are also increasing the demand for transit and decreasing the demand for cars and these results feed into the whole Smart Growth city. You have a more sustainable city that is based on transit, walking and biking rather than car use. Montreal is experimenting with smart parking and in California they are far ahead on monitoring parking and using that information to increase parking efficiency.

There is the whole issue of trucks that is also part of the Smart Cities puzzle because trucks are heavy on information technology to work efficiently. They require vehicle-to-vehicle communication and can sense where they are in real time and talk to each other in order to reduce the chances of collision. Sensors can jump over cars and see slowdowns; they can see that people are braking in advance and use that information to control the truck so it reduces congestion, reduces accidents and increases the overall efficiency of the road infrastructure. New sensor technologies in cars can help reduce accidents and accidents are the major cause of congestions on highways. These autonomous cars can drastically increase the efficiency of highways and decrease the need to expand highways. The last thing you want is huge highways running through your urban fabric.   Self-driving cars will have a huge impact on parking needs and drastically reduce the amount of parking because it can reduce ownership.

Self-driving cars lend themselves to car sharing. A fleet of cars is on demand when you use your app to call up a self-driving car. So you don’t need to have your own vehicle parked at the location where you are shopping or working. Self-driving cars will be one of the most important implications of smart driving vehicles. They have the potential to reduce the dire need to individually own cars and will reduce the overall fleet of vehicle thus making the whole footprint of the city smaller. There are three parking spaces for every vehicle in the United States and Canada and obviously that is taking up tremendous amounts of space in the city. Indeed, nearly 40% of cities are made up of roads and parking. So, if you are interested in Smart Growth and compact development then you are interested in reducing road sizes, numbers of lanes and the amount of parking.

Transit is the other piece of this emerging trend. Smart Growth means encouraging people to use transit and leave their cars at home or better yet, don’t buy a car. The way to do this is not by begging people through advertising to leave their car at home, although that is part of it, as this strategy has a minimal impact. It comes down to [the efficiency of] transportation choices, which influences whether people will take transit or the car or walk. It is really the convenience and cost of using transit. One connection with Smart Cities is the availability of real time buses information that is being introduced in cities across Canada. Information is sent to a central hub and people can pick up that information on their smart phones; and, it reduces their wait times. Real time bus information increases convenience of buses. In addition, monitoring bus use ridership can increase the overall efficiencies of the bus system by showing transit operators where new services are needed and where less service can be tolerated. If you increase efficiency, it reduces cost and you can translate that into better service and better service means more people will be attracted to using bus services and staying away from cars. That links Smart Growth Goals to Smart City technologies.

To get back to self-driving technology, a lot of people think the first application in the real urban environments will be on highways. Having autonomous vehicles operating in urban environments is a totally different challenge and that is the Holy Grail because that is where the most important application for Smart Growth will be. Many think the first application of self-driving technology in the urban environment will be in urban transit. It makes sense as buses run on a schedule and on fixed routes. You can set up sensors on the side of the roads, at intersections and on the buses that will increase the capacity of the self-driving vehicle to negotiate the busy urban street with its pedestrians, its red, yellow and green lights, its cars, etc., etc. That is going to boast the efficiency of transit because most of the cost of running a transit system is hiring drivers, about 75%, I believe.

What about the issue that the Smart City will be applied to make a bad exiting model, suburban sprawl, work just a bit better? How much is urban planning beginning to incorporate these ideas?

The puzzle I have been talking about is only one side of the coin. So far we have been talking about how smart technology can influence people’s transportation and location decisions and influence how existing systems can be made more efficient. But the other side of that is just as important: how do we build our cities so these potential gains can be fully realized. That means we build a city that makes the most use of the increase in information technology. I think that is where the other connection between Smart Growth and Smart Cities becomes apparent.

A lot of the things we have been talking about, like better transit, depends on having compact cities. Even if you increase the economic efficiency of transit by reducing the need to have drivers it is still costly to run transit through low density suburbs.   It will change the economics slightly with driverless buses but the better approach is to densify these suburbs to make the transit system super-efficient. To really benefit from that technology, it’s just not just about attaching new technology to an inefficient environment but about figuring out to how to reshape the urban environment using the new information technology. Helsinki, for example, has committed the city to being car free within 20 years.

In terms of the whole discussion about information technology and cities, however, I would like raise a red or maybe a yellow flag, to raise a word of caution. You go to conferences and they are filled with the big information technology companies like SISCO, Siemens and IBM offering their IT systems as if they are going to solve all the problems in cities. Put sensors on everything and monitor everything including our infrastructure and our behaviour and it will all come together in a more efficient city. I personally believe that there are lot of hard decisions to be made on the broader planning front to build more efficient cites that can take advantage of all these technologies. We have to make decisions about whether to put our limited tax dollars into expanding the road system or increasing the frequency and quality of transit services in the city. We still have to decide if we are going to build wider roads or wider sidewalks; to build district heating systems; to put in bike lanes; and to put in more compact, diverse neighbourhoods with commercial activities.

Or, are we going to keep building cookie cutter neighbourhoods that are totally homogenous in terms of social diversity and land use and that do not have any other services in them other than minimal retail. We have a lot of different decisions to make and having information technology does not negate the need to make these decisions. Smart Growth is about making these kind of decisions and Smart Cities is not Smart Growth. Those who say we don’t need Smart Growth because we have Smart Cities are wrong.

For example, the sharing economy has really exiting potential to reduce our consumption levels overall and increase sustainability through such things as sharing vehicles. Every shared vehicle removes the need for nine private vehicles in the city. So there is a fabulous opportunity to reduce the need for private vehicles and that reduces the need for parking and that can completely alter the shape of neighbourhoods. Conventional suburban neighbourhoods are all built around parking and when you walk down the street you see three parking garages at every house. It completely warps the look of our neighbourhoods, the footprint of our community. So the sharing economy has a tremendous capability to reshape our cities.

But such a sharing economy does rely on ITC decisions, does it not? Libraries, the original shared economy good, are making a comeback in part based on what they offer through the new technology. Sharing vehicles – knowing where they are located – is very much related to having the new technology.

You mentioned the library. Where are they located, in the neighbourhood, in the village centre, in the city centre and that is because they require a certain concentration of people around them to make them efficient. That is the overall point I am trying to make: it is not just that information technology effects the environment but the environment effects the information technology. Sharing services that are so information dependent through apps on our telephone only work efficiently in dense communities. Bike sharing systems are not set up in low density suburban settings; they set up in compact urban centres. That is just another argument for showing that Smart Growth is necessary for Smart Cities. You have to have compact defined centres for Smart City innovations to work properly. The same goes for all the sensors that are in the roads or buildings, they work best and they are more efficient in higher density mixed use places. Let’s face it, the whole Smart Cities thing is a capitalist innovation, driven by large corporations interested in profit maximization. They are working with municipalities to figure out the best places to put this technology so they can maximize the benefits to the public but also maximize the returns to their shareholders. Those places are in dense cores. So that is where the investment is going and the impact is greatest. That is where the opportunity of improving efficiency is greatest. So, we still need to keep building densities and make the difficult decisions about how we are going to build our cities. That is the only way this information technology is going to make sense and deliver the promise it has.

Is the content of our education, of our professional urban planning training reflective of this requirement or are we still teaching old ways?

That is such a good question and so difficult and prickly to answer. I teach a university graduate course on urban planning directed at students just before they head out into the field as practicing planners so I am in touch with a lot of my students as they go out into the field. What I notice is that there is a huge yawning gap between what students are taught and what they encounter when they go out to the filed. The answer to your question is “yes”, students are being taught about Smart Growth, Smart Cities, Sustainable Cities and the need to build more walkable neighbourhoods, reduce resource usage, have normative ideas about the good city and good city design. Sprawl is a curse word in planning education. But the problem is that when they go into the real world they get hired by municipalities and developers and basically they are asked to forget about all that stuff and start approving cookie cutter sub-divisions with large lots and no sidewalks or only sidewalks on one side of the street. There is nothing for walking but much built around vehicle use with transit as an expensive afterthought. I cannot think of another profession where there is such a gap between what students are taught and what they have to face when they take up their occupation.

That is not to say there is no innovation in the planning field in terms of what is happening on the ground. There are lots of conferences on sustainable cities, smart growth cities, walkable cities and healthy cities. Any conference on planning is going to have sessions on these issues.  But when the microphones are turned off and the planners go home to do the workaday world, much of what they then do supports the type of building we should not be doing.

Dr. Ray Tomalty, principal, Smart Cities Research Services professor in masters of community planning University of Vancouver Island
Dr. Ray Tomalty
Smart Cities Research Services
Professor in Masters of Community Planning
University of Vancouver Island


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