Smart Cities, Dumb New Yorkers

by Barry Drogin

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As a carryover from my days working in Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), I still get a trade magazine relating to the field. One of the hottest topics is Mobility as a Service (MaaS), which presumes a move away from private car ownership to public (and public/private) transportation modes. Since various forms of sharing (car, bike, etc.) and hailing services are part of this initiative, the use of mobile (smart) devices is assumed. Although the more general idea of a "smart city" goes beyond the implementation of city infrastructure (again, public and private) to support this initiative to the use of analytics and services well beyond transportation, the connection between a "smart city" and a "smart phone" is not coincidental.

It would be foolish to separate economic inequality from this consideration, because class is so embedded in it. Do all students (let alone all classrooms) have access to computers? Do all people have a mobile device, whether by paid subscription service or through free Wi-Fi? Within the context of a city, many urban areas are car-centric, are underserved by public transportation and by licensed taxi and limousine services, and many make the argument that e-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft help poor people whose only asset is a car earn money and serve poor communities through the freelance "gig" economy.

I tend to side with Jarrett Walker, not with Elon Musk, on the general idea that transit, not cars, autonomous, e-hailed, shared, or privately owned, are the "smart" solution to a city's transportation needs. Cars simply take up too much street space, for parking and for driving. To use the lingo, it's not "scalable" in a real sense, no matter how efficient computer algorithms may be.

Moving away from cars to bicycles, buses, and subways, there is a lag between deployment of fixed "smart stations" (at CitiBike docks, bus stops, and subway platforms and entrances) and free vs. paid Internet access at those stations, so the argument can be made that it's certainly better to have something (the ability to ask when a bus will arrive) than nothing. In a short period of time, when the communications infrastructure and the ownership of smart devices is ubiquitous, this kind of discussion will become moot.

I am not a Luddite, and it's not that I don't see the advantages. But this is my very roundabout way to get to what I really want to think and write about - the ubiquity of smart devices within the city streetscape. The impact of these smart devices on street life, street culture, on New York, and on New Yorkers.

There are two aspects of New York street culture at war here - the leave-me-alone, stay-out-of-my-personal-space, respect-my-privacy isolationism vs. the help-a-stranger, celebrate-diversity, people-watching connectivity. I've lived in NYC for over 30 years, and I'm not going to claim that the former doesn't exist and isn't actually preferred to (indeed, often sought against) the small-town everybody-knows-everybody's-business culture. We New Yorkers have the right to be lost in our own thoughts, to tune out, to want to be left alone.

It does bother me, however, when individuals, couples, and groups, whether hanging out (loitering) or walking, are looking at their smart phone, talking on their smart phone, being somewhere else other than in the street, with their friend or lover or group of friends or family. They are no longer part of the connectivity to neighbors and strangers; they are connected to someone who is somewhere else. They could be at home, on the street, on vacation, or living somewhere else - so why are they here in New York City? They are in a virtual world.

I can't be nostalgic for street stoop culture, because it was already gone when I arrived. Neighbors do not sit on street stoops, children do not play in the streets. We go to parks, playgrounds, dog runs, sports fields, plazas, bars, restaurants, coffee shops, stores, and mini-malls (often labeled "markets"). We still have the hunger to be amongst other people, to go out, to see and be seen, to engage.

These smart devices, however, satisfy that craving for engagement by placing us into a virtual world. They may be the final death knell of New York street culture.

To end with an anecdote, they also may be the death knell of street smarts. I met someone who had just gotten a smart phone two weeks prior. We met at a cultural event; it doesn't matter which one. We left to get to a subway station. We were in midtown, and I determined that the most convenient subway station to go to was the Lexington Avenue/53rd Street E train station. Although I don't go this station often, in my three decades in NYC, I know this station.

Does this station exist? Of course it does. Every New Yorker, let alone any New Yorker who lives near the E train, should know it exists, should remember it, should know the E train stops. She checked her smart phone. It was as if, in only two weeks, she had already lost the ability (because she had lost the necessity) of knowing the E train stops. Her smart phone had made her dumber.

You see why I am concerned.

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Last Updated: May 6, 2018