Street Smarts: Common Sense and the Smart City

Across Canada, we’re seeing municipalities putting their best foot forward with some great ideas for the federal government‘s Smart Cities Challenge. It’s quite exciting. I have long advocated for data-driven city building, especially as it pertains to active transportation. It’s hard to argue with numbers. Which is why I’ve chosen to do the research I do, where I employ neuroscientific methods to examine the psychological impacts of urban living. It’s extremely important that we equip our decision makers with the data and research they require to build healthy and safe cities. In the age of fake news, we’re in desperate need of evidence-based decision making.

However, in the midst of all of this Smart City excitement, I feel conflicted. It’s difficult for me to completely jump on board with this movement when I consider the hypocrisy I see in the cities vying for this $50 million prize. I’ve watched the campaigns roll out and I’ve listened to the well-branded messaging. But, it’s challenging to take these efforts seriously when I look at how these cities don’t embody what I see as basic principles of a “smart” city.

 

“It seems ridiculous to me that we are talking about being a smart city when our built environment isn’t particularly intelligent. No app will ever be able to do what a separated bike lane can.”

 

They’ve been given the research on how cycling is good for our health and beneficial to our environment, and yet most of our cities are terribly lacking when it comes to active transportation infrastructure. In my own city, we’ve yet to see any good quality separated bike lanes, but we’re moving full steam ahead with a smart cities proposal. It seems ridiculous to me that we are talking about being a smart city when our built environment isn’t particularly intelligent. No app will ever be able to do what a separated bike lane can. And, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to listen to discussions on smart sensors and the internet of things, when traffic lights don’t even acknowledge I’m waiting at an intersection on my bicycle. The sensors exist! But my city barely implements them. Even more ludicrous is the fact that we still require pedestrians to press “beg buttons” and then when the lights finally change,¬†barely give them enough time to cross the street. It’s maddening.

I am all for the move towards Smart Cities. I think our futures depend on it. We have access to amazing technology and data, and it would be a loss to not use these tools for better city building. I’ve even recently been part of a successful research grant application that aims to further this conversation. But, I think it is equally, if not more important, for cities to focus on getting the basics down. They need to use a common sense approach to city building and establish adequate cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

In my opinion, a Smart City is one where a resident can feel safe and dignified walking on their streets. Where a child can ride their bike to school in a separated bike lane. Where transit is accessible and more appealing than driving. While we move ahead with these smart city initiatives, it’s imperative that we bring our urban design up to speed. Anything else would be stupid.

 

Interested in bringing me to your city to give a talk about the ideas discussed in this blog post? Get in touch by clicking here.

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