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Street smarts are crucial to planning our cities  

Photo by Andrew Halliday
Photo by Andrew Halliday

The congestion on our streets from bikes, dockless bikes, scooters, e-scooters, e-bikes, EV-charging, and even people are making our kerb-side a battleground. We need to think smarter about how these increasing and competing channels can all access the veins of our city. Most roads are still designed for cars first.

Time makes fools of even the most expert of predictor. The pace of change and advances in technology influencing our cities around the world means that plans and solutions by cities on things like transport, mobility and how we live, whatever they were, will probably be wrong.

For example, if you listen to some corners of the tech world, they would say not only are autonomous vehicles (AV’s) around the corner, they will be the solution to all our woes.

And whilst there is no doubt that AVs, and flying cars are coming and will be an important reality to adapt to – I would say that all the technology in the world, autonomous or otherwise can’t overcome poor city and design outcomes or decisions.

I don’t think anyone wants to be the next Kodak or Blackberry, having invested so much into a solution or service that quickly gets swallowed by the tidal wave of change and technology.

Technology is reshaping the way citizens move around our cities, but we haven’t changed the building blocks – our streets.

Or even one that refuses to be aware of the change happening around them. But this risk exists for our cities too.

Technology is reshaping the way citizens move around our cities, but we haven’t changed the building blocks – our streets. We really stopped planning for, or caring for, most of our streets years ago.

We are still designing and ruling streets with antiquated engineering and infrastructure led design logic that is neither delivering new streets worthy of celebrating, nor ensuring our streets evolve to respond to modern pressures and challenges from changes in our cities and technology.

City streets are at the “frontline” of advancements in a host of areas – from smart technology to urban agriculture. But few are thinking about how to “curate” our streets and that is why, to avoid the potential dystopian outcomes we need to carefully and clearly think about the role of streets in the future.

What we do know is that our city will be different.

But how different? I think that is in part up to us – planners and residents alike – to plan for how our city evolves and manages this inevitable “technification”.

We need to more actively contemplate the future proofing of our cities and investment decisions in major city assets and infrastructure, but also make some tough decisions about our city too, on topics like housing.

To me, thinking about how our city will evolve and adapt is as important as hypothesising about what the city may be like.

At a US conference earlier in 2018, an Uber representative said that their data from key US cities was telling them that fewer than 50 per cent of pick up and drop offs where occurring at the kerb itself.

Instead the inability to access the kerb meant they were occurring in through lanes.

As we move towards an autonomous future, and in a period when we are essentially programing the “behaviour” into AVs, should we be worried that we might be hard coding into them an ability to drop us in through traffic lanes or that if we forced drop off at the kerb, that getting access to safe drop-off/pick-up spots might severely impact efficiency?

The congestion from bikes, dockless bikes, scooters, e-scooters, e-bikes, EV-charging, and even people is making our kerb-side a battleground.

We need to think smarter about how these increasing and competing channels can all access the veins of our city. Most roads are still designed for cars first.

But if there is a more efficient model of car-sharing and autonomous vehicle access will the status quo need to change? And how can we plan for that?

Nobody knows anything. Everyone is an outsider, and it’s all up for grabs.

Our connections through 5G technology will increase by a factor of 20 from our current potential. The impact on tech-enabled transport will change what we know about how people use our cities. But as Andy Kessler so eloquently put in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

The Future is dodgeball, and to understand what is coming, you need to let some of those balls whizzing by start to hit you… Nobody knows anything. Everyone is an outsider, and it’s all up for grabs.

To me, Andy Kessler has eloquently captured what our cities need. Each of our professions tend to hang out with each other, planners with planners, engineers with engineers, and we only go to our own professional type events and conferences. Ultimately, I see this fundamentally being about making decisions today, with the best information we have at hand, with an eye to the future. It is about knowing what you know, and what you don’t know, being smart enough to know the difference and keeping an open mind to the future and you will only get that by exposing yourself to new thinking and innovation.

In a world where five years, let alone 10, is an eternity in current technology advances, in reality, we have no idea what the future of our cities will be in five years from now. But there are a few principles I think will help with a future-proof approach:

  • Collect data even before uses potentially exist for it
  • Share data quickly, regularly and freely (including the pooling of public/private data)
  • Include sensors and pit&pipe access for communications equipment when delivering anything
  • Develop collaborative evolution frameworks to ensure longevity of technology investment and resilience.
  • Promote interoperability and seamless connection

Chris Isles is executive director, planning at Place Design Group. He will be speaking at the Urban Motion conference on 19-20th November in Brisbane.


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