Smart Cities and Smart Design: How can Central Texas “Get Smart?” Part I

What makes a “Smart City?”

We’re familiar with smart phones, and are becoming increasingly familiar with smart homes, filled with connected appliances, thermostats, home-assistance devices like Alexa and more.

This connectivity not only simplifies many facets of our lives; it can also make us safer. You can now view your front door from your office computer, or lock your car door from your phone. The over-arching theory is that the total sum of convenience and security enhances your quality of life.

That same theory applies to the Smart City concept – from energy efficiency, to traffic management.

The goal is to provide our citizens with improved outcomes in public safety, health care, energy, public services, environment, transportation, and overall mobility through greater connectivity.

More and more sensors can be deployed to monitor more functions – from parking, to trash removal. Dashboard and body cameras can improve public safety and enhance trust and credibility. We can improve energy efficiency by automating energy systems in offices.

All of this collected data then becomes another in-depth information tool for additional planning, improvements and to predict long-term outcomes of initiatives.

There are, however, drawbacks.

The more connected we are, the more we reveal about our personal lives through data. Geo-tracking that reveals our location can send us help – or harm. We simultaneously increase our safety while potentially leaving us more vulnerable.

We should approach Smart Cities with enthusiasm, but with real caution in mind.

What makes a “Smart Design?”

About 18 months ago, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) held a Transportation Visioning Summit “to develop a vision for a federal transportation program that addresses current and future challenges.” One point made was that the “smart design” of cities is not new, nor is it exclusive to the Smart City movement.

As cities change, urban planners, city leaders and major employers have been tasked with designing ways to either accommodate or mitigate those changes, whether through denser city centers to allow folks to live closer to work, or to incentivize telecommuting to reduce congestion.

Those design adaptations will almost surely, eventually, reduce the reliance on automobiles. In the words of one participant: “ … you’re no longer connected to your vehicle, you’re connected to mobility.” 

But a reduced reliance on vehicles requires infrastructure adaptations to make these “smart” initiatives seamless. We have to consider first- and last-mile solutions. And the only way to do that is through city-wide, and regional, collaboration.

Smart mobility

As this Forbes article explains, “Smart cities will be the linchpins of the autonomous age – deploying the digital infrastructure necessary to connect cars to vital information, reduce traffic congestion and make roads safer.”

For example, the talk of autonomous vehicles, or AVs, is infiltrating transportation conversations now, with testing conducted here in Austin. It’s exciting, but we have a lot of work ahead of us to fully reveal the advantages – and disadvantages – of this technology.

One of those disadvantages could be that as personal AVs become more popular, they actually put more vehicles on the road – not fewer. As our region has been growing, the number one chaos-creating factor has remained the same: the single-occupancy vehicle.

The reluctance to forgo personal vehicles is one factor, but for many of our residents, it’s the lack of easy-to-use options that feed that reluctance. Exacting behavioral change on a personal level requires a painless transition – from when you first step out your door, to the last mile of your destination.

A report from last year showed that motorists spend an average of 17 hours a year driving around in search of a parking spot. In addition to costing you about $345 annually in wasted time (and fuel), this adds to vehicle emissions, increases your chances of missing appointments and in many cases, causes such frustration that you simply leave, possibly costing a business your patronage.

All of this is why the Mobility Authority focuses on multi-modal transportation. Folks willing to take public transportation need a system that will serve their neighborhoods; suburban sprawl has made that a challenge. Bicycles and scooters alike need safe, multi-modal paths and roadways, security for their small vehicles, and a way to occasionally transport them. And smart-parking technology can reduce wasted time and harm to the environment.

Smart control

The Smart Cities concept has everything to do with mobility, and everything to do with quality of life – whether the priority is increasing bike ridership, or a parent being able to get in and out of a medical appointment during lunch hour without having to spend 25 minutes looking for parking.

We can’t increase our digital connectivity until we increase our personal collaboration to ensure it gets designed and done to maximize the benefits and minimize any chaos.

In an upcoming blog, I’ll discuss features of some of our regional organizations’ Smart City plans, including the City of Austin, Capital Metro and CAMPO.


Smart cities, smart design, autonomous vehicles, mobility

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