Tag: cities

Form is the possibility of structure

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein with today’s quotation-as-title. I’m using it as a way in to discuss some things around city planning, and in particular an article I’ve been meaning to discuss for what seems like ages.

In an article for The LA Times, Jessica Roy highlights a phenomenon I wish I could take back and show my 12 year-old self:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014.

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

Jessica Roy

Some games are just awesome. SimCity is still popular now on touchscreen devices, and my kids play it occasionally. It’s interesting to read in the article how different people, now responsible for real cities, played the game, for example Roy quotes the Vice President of Transportation and Housing at the non-profit Silicon Valley Leadership Group

“I was not one of the players who enjoyed Godzilla running through your city and destroying it. I enjoyed making my city run well.”

Jason Baker

I, on the other hand, particularly enjoyed booting up ‘scenario mode’ where you had to rescue a city that had been ravaged by Godzilla, aliens, or a natural disaster.

This isn’t an article about nostalgia, though, and if you read the article in more depth you realise that it’s an interesting insight into our psychology around governance of cities and nations. For example, going back to an article from 2018 that also references SimCity, Devon Zuegel writes:

The way we live is shaped by our infrastructure — the public spaces, building codes, and utilities that serve a city or region. It can act as the foundation for thriving communities, but it can also establish unhealthy patterns when designed poorly.

[…]

People choose to drive despite its costs because they lack reasonable alternatives. Unfortunately, this isn’t an accident of history. Our transportation system has been overly focused on automobile traffic flow as its metric of success. This single-minded focus has come at the cost of infrastructure that supports alternative ways to travel. Traffic flow should, instead, be one goal out of many. Communities would be far healthier if our infrastructure actively encouraged walking, cycling, and other forms of transportation rather than subsidizing driving and ignoring alternatives.

Devon Zuegel

In other words, the decisions we ask our representatives to make have a material impact in shaping our environment. That, in turn, affects our decisions about how to live and work.

When we don’t have data about what people actually do, it’s easy for ideology and opinions to get in the way. That’s why I’m interested in what Los Angeles is doing with its public transport system. As reported by Adam Rogers in WIRED, the city is using mobile phone data to see how it can ‘reboot’ its bus system. It turns out that the people running the system had completely the wrong assumptions:

In fact, Metro’s whole approach turned out to be skewed to the wrong kinds of trips. “Traditionally we’re trying to provide fast service for long-distance trips,” [Anurag Komanduri, a data anlyst] says. That’s something the Orange Line and trains are good at. But the cell phone data showed that only 16 percent of trips in LA County were longer than 10 miles. Two-thirds of all travel was less than five miles. Short hops, not long hauls, rule the roads.

Adam Rogers

There’s some discussion later in the article about the “baller move” of ripping down some of the freeways to force people to use public transportation. Perhaps that’s actually what’s required.

In Barcelona, for example, “fiery leftist housing activist” Ada Colau became the city’s mayor in 2015. Since then, they’ve been doing some radical experimentation. David Roberts reports for Vox on what they’ve done with one area of the city that I’ve actually seen with my own eyes:

Inside the superblock in the Poblenou neighborhood, in the middle of what used to be an intersection, there’s a small playground, with a set of about a dozen picnic tables next to it, just outside a local cafe. On an early October evening, neighbors sit and sip drinks to the sound of children’s shouts and laughter. The sun is still out, and the warm air smells of wild grasses growing in the fresh plantings nearby.

David Roberts

I can highly recommended watching this five-minute video overview of the benefits of this approach:

So if it work, why aren’t we seeing more of this? Perhaps it’s because, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out on his blog, most of us are governed by incompetents:

An ideology is a collection of ideas that can form a political imperative that overrides evidence. Indeed most right wing think tanks are designed to turn the ideology of neoliberalism into policy based evidence. It was this ideology that led to austerity, the failed health reforms and the privatisation of the probation service. It also played a role in Brexit, with many of its protagonists dreaming of a UK free from regulations on workers rights and the environment. It is why most of the recent examples of incompetence come from the political right.

A pluralist democracy has checks and balances in part to guard against incompetence by a government or ministers. That is one reason why Trump and the Brexiters so often attack elements of a pluralist democracy. The ultimate check on incompetence should be democracy itself: incompetent politicians are thrown out. But when a large part of the media encourage rather than expose acts of incompetence, and the non-partisan media treat knowledge as just another opinion, that safegurd against persistent incompetence is put in danger.

Simon Wren-Lewis

We seem to have started with SimCity and ended with Trump and Brexit. Sorry about that, but without decent government, we can’t hope to improve our communities and environment.


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  • ‘Nation as a service’ is the ultimate goal for digitized governments (TNW) — “Right now in Estonia, when you have a baby, you automatically get child benefits. The user doesn’t have to do anything because the government already has all the data to make sure the citizen receives the benefits they’re entitled to.”
  • The ethics of smart cities (RTE) — “With ethics-washing, a performative ethics is being practised designed to give the impression that an issue is being taken seriously and meaningful action is occurring, when the real ambition is to avoid formal regulation and legal mechanisms.”
  • Cities as learning platforms (Harold Jarche) — “For the past century we have compartmentalized the life of the citizen. At work, the citizen is an ‘employee’. Outside the office he may be a ‘consumer’. Sometimes she is referred to as a ‘taxpayer’. All of these are constraining labels, ignoring the full spectrum of citizenship.

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving

Thanks to Einstein for today’s quote-as-title. Having once again witnessed the joy of electric scooters in Lisbon recently, I thought I’d look at this trend of ‘micromobility’.

Let’s begin with Horace Dediu, who explains the term:

Simply, Micromobility promises to have the same effect on mobility as microcomputing had on computing. Bringing transportation to many more and allowing them to travel further and faster.  I use the term micromobility precisely because of the connotation with computing and the expansion of consumption but also because it focuses on the vehicle rather than the service. The vehicle is small, the service is vast.

Horace Dediu

Micromobility covers mainly electric scooters and (e-)bikes, which can be found in many of the cities I’ve visited over the past year. Not in the UK, though, where riding electric scooters is technically illegal. Why? Because of a 183 year-old law, explains Jeff Parsons Metro:

You can’t ride scooters on the road, because the DVLA requires that electric vehicles be registered and taxed. And you can’t ride scooters on the pavement because of the 1835 Highways Act that prohibits anyone from riding a ‘carriage’ on the pavement.

Jeff Parsons

It’s only a matter of time, though, before legislation is passed to remove this anachronism. And, to be honest, I can’t imagine the police with their stretched resources pulling over anyone who’s using one sensibly.

Electric scooters in particular are great and, if you haven’t tried one, you should. Florent Crivello, one of Uber’s product managers, explains why they’re not just fun, but actually valuable:

  1. Cleaner and more energy efficient
  2. More space efficient
  3. Safer
  4. Making the world city a better place
  5. Force for economic inclusion

You might be wondering about the third one of these, as I was. Crivello includes this chart:

Courtesy of Florent Crivello

Of course, as he points out, you can prevent cars running into scooters, bikes, and pedestrians by building separate lanes for them, with a high kerb in between. Countries that have done this, like the Netherlands, have seen a sharp decline in fatalities and injuries.

Despite the title, I’m focusing on electric scooters because of my enthusiasm for them and because of the huge growth since they became a thing about 18 months ago. Just look at this chart that Megan Rose Dickey includes in a recent TechCrunch article:

Chart courtesy of TechCrunch

One of the biggest downsides to electric scooters at the moment, and one which threatens the whole idea of ‘micromobility’ is over-supply. As this photograph in an article by Alan Taylor for The Atlantic shows, this can quickly get out-of-hand when VC-backed companies are involved:

Unused shared bikes in a vacant lot in Xiamen, Fujian province, China (photo courtesy of The Atlantic)

This can scare cities, who don’t know how to deal with these kinds of potential consequences. That’s why it’s refreshing to see Charlotte in North Carolina lead the way by partnering with Passport, a transportation logistics company. As John R. Quain reports for Digital Trends:

“When e-scooters first came to town,” said Charlotte’s city manager Marcus Jones, “it left our shared bike program in the dust.”

[…]

By tracking scooter rentals and coordinating it with other information about public transit routes, congestion, and parking information, Passport can report on where scooters and bikes tend to be idle, where they get the most use, and how they might be deployed to serve more people. Furthermore, rather than railing against escooters, such information can help a city encourage proper use and behavior.

John R. Quain

I’m really quite excited about e-scooters, and can’t wait until I can buy and use one legally in the UK!


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