Tag Archives: Digital cities

The Demon in the Machine

Chris Spencer

Chris Spencer

By James A. Bacon

On Oct. 25, 2013, Chris Urmson, a leader of Google’s autonomous car project, proclaimed that legal and regulatory problems posed no major barrier to the commercialization of Self-Driving Cars (SDCs). When accidents did occur, he told attendees of the RoboBusiness conference in Santa Clara, Calif., data collected by the cars would provide an accurate picture of exactly who was responsible. He shared data from a Google car that had been rear-ended by another driver. The annotated map of the car’s surroundings clearly indicated that it had halted smoothly before being struck by the other vehicle.

“We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as to what happened—we actually have the data,” Urmson said. “The guy around us wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”

The very same day, Toyota settled a case in which an Oklahoma City jury had awarded $3 million for a 2005 incident in which a Camry driven by 76-year-old Jean Bookout had accelerated out of control. Bookout had said she tried to use the foot brake and emergency brake to no avail. Toyota lawyers had argued that she must have hit the gas instead. At issue was the performance of an electronic throttle control system that replaced mechanical links between the accelerator pedal and the throttle in older models. Siding with Bookout, the jury bought the story that the electronic throttle was flawed.

Google may have data on its side but accident victims sometimes have judges and juries on their side. Toyota had won all previous unintended-acceleration cases and an exhaustive study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could find no flaw in the brake’s computer code, but the judge instructed the Oklahoma City jury that it could find a product defective even if no defect could be identified.

“It opened the floodgates,” says Chris Spencer, a Richmond, Va., attorney who has represented automobile manufacturers in hundreds of cases, including dozens that have gone to trial and reached a jury verdict. “All a lawyer has to do is get his client to say, ‘I did nothing wrong but something went wrong – it must have been the vehicle’s fault.’”

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

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Tech Insurrection

AnthonyTownsendSmart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

Coming up: Cars and Traffic Lights that Communicate

audi_displayThere are smart roads, and there are smart cars. The next step in the evolution of the digital city is smart cars that communicate with the smart roads.

As Jennie Xie writes for Atlantic Cities, there is considerable innovation in traffic signals these days. An increasing number of signals are synchronized to accommodate changing traffic flows during different times of day, week and year. Some are programmed to respond to changing conditions in real time. Meanwhile, new cars are rolling off the factory floor equipped with sensors and control systems designed to prevent inattentive drivers from drifting across lanes or tailgating too closely.

What if the traffic signal sent off a message telling cars when the light was about to change? In theory, cars could adjust their speed to reach the intersection when the light was green. If the traffic signals were networked, people could drive a lot farther before encountering a red light.

Automaker Audi is testing such a technology in Berlin and Ingolstadt in Germany and in Verona, Italy. And in Oregon, Texas and Utah, Green Driver is testing a mobile app that uses data from city traffic management systems to offer signal prediction regardless of the car being used.

The technology could well reduce congestion, concludes Xie, but there are safety concerns. It could cause problems if lights start changing unpredictably, if drivers speed up to catch lights, or if drivers pay more attention to the technology displays than to the actual road conditions around them.

Let’s hope that someone deep in the bowels of the Virginia Department of Transportation is paying attention to this trend. The time to pilot-test these new technologies is now.


Six Reasons to Feel Good about 2014

2014 -- woo hoo!

2014 — woo hoo!

by James A. Bacon

Despite awakening this morning with a hangover resulting from a fabulous New Year’s celebration last night, I was curiously and uncharacteristically upbeat about the year ahead. I still have grave reservations about the fiscal future of this country and I still believe Boomergeddon is in our future. But for some odd reason, I have been dwelling today upon the positive.

Internet of Things. The next wave of technology innovation, the contours of which are just now coming into view, will be as breathtaking and transformative as the World Wide Web and the wireless revolution and, in fact, represents the extension of those technologies into new domains. It goes by many names but the one that seems to be catching on is the Internet of Things (IoT). Prices are plummeting for sensors, wireless connectivity, data storage and data processing power, with the result that virtually all man-made things will be capable of being connected over the Internet, will be capable of sensing their environment and communicating with other things, and will generate massive amounts of data that can be mined for tremendous gains in productivity and energy efficiency. In so doing, the IoT will spawn a new array of cool products and services. As a bonus, the new wave of innovation will not be as focused on Silicon Valley as previous technology revolutions. The innovation will be more dispersed geographically and the resulting wealth creation will be more broadly shared.

Energy revolution. Say good-bye to Peak Oil, at least for two or three more decades. The fracking revolution has unleashed a bounty of fossil fuel production in the United States that seemed unimaginable only five or 10 years ago. Energy production is booming and the long-sought dream of North American energy independence is fast becoming a reality. The energy sector is spawning millions of jobs, directly in energy production and indirectly in industries that supply the trucks, the pumps, the pipe and, increasingly, the IT that supports energy production.

Manufacturing revival. The Internet of Things, also known as the “industrial internet,” will inspire another wave of productivity-enhancing innovation in the manufacturing sector, while inexpensive natural gas and electricity will create a tremendous competitive advantage for energy-intensive, U.S.-based manufacturers. These tectonic shifts in competitive advantage are occurring at the very same time that rising labor costs overseas are undermining the logic for off-shoring manufacturing capacity. In fact, the “reshoring” movement is gaining momentum. The revival of energy production and manufacturing augurs well for the blue-collar workforce and creates the prospect of increasing jobs and rising wages for a segment of America that has been badly battered over the past 20 or 30 years.

Illegal immigration. The effects of the energy revolution and reshoring movement will be felt even more dramatically in Mexico, which is undergoing the most profound economic liberalization in its history. The combination of a falling birthrate, shrinking labor surplus and unprecedented opportunity for Mexican workers will dry up the largest source of illegal immigration into the United States. Declining illegal immigration is good news for multiple reasons. First, it defuses a contentious social issue and it clears the way for immigration reform that will allow the admission of more legal immigrants, especially those with education and skills that will benefit the economy. Second, plugging the gusher of poor, ill-educated immigrants into the U.S. will mean less competition for low-paying jobs. Wages for unskilled and semi-skilled labor are far more likely to rise, creating better opportunity for the economically dispossessed.

Global warming. How else can I say this? The Global Warming  hysterics have been proven wrong. While true believers still cling to their conviction that runaway human-caused global warming will propel temperatures ever higher and unleash wave upon wave of environmental calamity, it is becoming obvious to everybody else that the worst-case scenario is not happening and will not happen. While carbon dioxide emissions may push temperatures modestly higher than they otherwise would have been, global temperatures have been stable for a decade and a half, confounding computer-model predictions that positive feedbacks in the climate system would lead to out-of-control warming. The most heartening story of the past month has been that of the scientists studying Global Warming getting trapped by Antarctic ice that was supposed to be melting! To explain the non-warming, climatologists have speculated that aerosols from Chinese air pollution are reflecting sunlight and heat or that the heat is hidden undetected in the ocean depths. Either way, the theory must be revised, the science is not “settled” and it is becoming impossible to bamboozle the American people into panicking over impending environmental doom. If calamity is not lurking around the corner, there is no justification for re-engineering the U.S. economy according to the specifications of know-it-all progressives…. which is very good news for the U.S. economy.

Teen pregnancies. There are positive social developments as well. Teen pregnancies, perhaps the primary cause of poverty in the United States, continue their dramatic decline. Teen girls are delaying sexual activity, and they are more likely to use birth control when they do have sex. Delaying motherhood increases the odds that young women will graduate from high school and find jobs that will lift them out of poverty. And it reduces the number of children growing up in households headed by baby mamas who are ill equipped to raise them. If the reservoir of U.S. poverty is not continually replenished through teen births and illegal immigration, eventually, it will become far less intractable. 

I could go on. The genomic revolution portends great advances in health care. Medicine will be increasingly personalized, tailoring treatments to the patient’s genetic make-up. The urban revival is bringing vitality back to the urban core of American metropolitan regions. So many cool things are happening. Just speaking from my narrow personal experience here in the Richmond region, the City of Richmond has much more to offer than it did when I came here 25 years ago — it’s a great place to live. New technology, including online learning, offers the prospect of shaking up our moribund educational system. The coupling of digital technologies or “smart cities” with smart growth and the emerging discipline of fiscal analytics (see “Fiscal Analytics and the Next Municipal Revolution”) portends a golden age for local government.

True, the federal government remains unreformed. The national debt has surpassed $17 trillion and interest payments on that debt will, at some point, become unbearable. The sequester has bought us time, but no one is talking seriously about entitlement reform. Indeed, Obamacare represents a spectacular step backwards — locking Americans into greater dependence for health care upon a fiscally irresponsible federal government that has no chance of keeping all of its promises. Meanwhile, unchastened by their failures, liberals and progressives remain as intent as ever to impose their fevered visions upon a reluctant nation. So, yes, there are many reasons to be pessimistic. But the United States is a great nation. There is much vitality within us. Many things are going our way. We will persevere.

Brace Yourself for the Internet of Things

IoTby James A. Bacon

The “Internet of Things” is one of the hottest buzz words in the global technology sector today. The phrase refers to a phenomenon, the mass proliferation of Internet-connected devices, that is as world-altering as the invention of the personal computer and the rise of the World Wide Web. Economy and society will change fundamentally when untold billions of devices — from cell phones to automobiles, water pipes to street lights, refrigerators to electric meters, wearable apparel to video surveillance cameras — all come to be embedded with computer chips, wireless technology and autonomous intelligence.

These devices will throw off massive volumes of data measured in exabytes (1,000 gigabytes is a terrabyte, 1,000 terrabytes is a petabyte, and 1,000 petabytes is an exabyte). A new generation of algorithms will mine this “big data” for patterns that, in an ideal world, will yield energy savings, productivity gains and greater convenience to power the next wave of economic growth. Given the perversity of human nature, however, the technology will have a dark side as well, leading to abuses by hackers, rip-off artists, organized crime networks, governments and other predators.

Cisco Systems, the networking giant, guesstimates that there are 8.7 billion connected devices in the world today. As prices for connectivity drop, the number of connected things will increase 25% on an annualized basis, meaning that we can expect 50 billion connected things by 2020. Some tech observers suggest that Cisco may be conservative. But if the number is anywhere close to the truth, the trend line is shifting from a linear increase in connectedness to an exponential increase. The Internet of Things will be upon us before we know it.

Virtually every major technology company has identified the IoT as the Next Big Thing — the next mega-market that will drive profits for years to come. You’ve no doubt heard of Google’s work on wearable computers and self-driving automobiles. But that’s just the tip of the data stick. Consider some recent corporate developments:

  • Chip-making giant Intel, having largely missed the mobile revolution, last month unveiled two low-energy chips, the Quark and the Atom, designed for Internet of Things applications as varied as wearable devices, intelligent vending machines and interactive kiosks. Last week, it launched an “IoT Solutions Group.”
  • Industrial titan GE invested $30 million in Quirky, a product-design company that specializes in creating consumer devices for the Internet of Things, with the goal of creating 30 marketable devices within five years.
  • Samsung, the Korean electronics conglomerate that recruited Luc Julia, director of Apple’s Siri project, has unveiled its a voice-activated platform for wearable devices. An immediate goal: to  integrate movement trackers, wearable heart monitors, Internet-connected scales and other devices relating to personal fitness.
  • Verizon, which operates the nation’s largest telecommunications network, introduced a new security solution to safeguard the growing number of Internet-connected automobiles, smart meters and home-monitoring systems from emerging technology risks.

And that was just last week.

While the concept is old hat to the tech community, awareness of the Internet of Things is just now permeating to the cultural cognoscenti. In a recent column, “When Complexity is Free,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described how every major part of a G.E. jet engine, locomotive or turbine comes equipped with online sensors that measure and broadcast every aspect of performance. Inspired in part by a case in which a hacker hijacked the baby monitor of a Texas family and screamed obscenities at a sleeping infant, the Federal Trade Commission has scheduled a workshop to learn more about the Internet of Things.

Like it or not, the IoT is coming. We non-techies and sub-cognoscenti who opine about public policy had better start dealing with it. On the positive side, the potential exists to transform the way we approach transportation and infrastructure. The so-called Smart Cities movement (see Monday’s post), a major current of the IoT river, offers the prospect of less expensive, more responsive government, not to mention more intelligent government decision making. Virginians potentially can save billions of dollars in infrastructure costs.

We also must prepare for the dark side. In a world awash in video cameras, license-plate readers, GPS car-tracking devices and movement-monitoring sensors in office buildings and shopping malls, how do we protect our privacy? In a world in which coins and currency are digitized into electronic bits that transfer with a swipe of the smart phone, how do we protect ourselves from ever-inventive cyber-criminals?

The Internet of Things is coming. It will transform everything around us. Will Virginia’s institutions adapt or will they crumble under the assault? Will we ride this technological tsunami to greater economic competitiveness and a higher quality of life, or will be watch slack-jawed as it washes over us? The decision is ours.

Smart Cities around the World Are Saving Money Now. How about Your Home Town?


by James A. Bacon

Suggested reading for every elected official, senior administrator and department head in Virginia government: “Smart Cities Readiness Guide” published by the Smart Cities Council. This easy-to-read document walks government practitioners (and interested citizens) through the process of using sensor, communications and analytic technologies to collect, communicate and crunch data. Proven smart cities strategies can boost productivity, increase responsiveness and reduce impact on the environment.

The early 21st century is a perilous time for state and local governments, which are overwhelmed by unfunded pension obligations, decaying infrastructure and a slow economy. Yet it is also a time of boundless opportunity as well. The emergence of smart-city technologies present a historic opportunity for local governments to address infrastructure-related problems without debilitating tax cuts. Cities around the world are grasping these opportunities — Virginia cities cannot afford to be left behind.

Implementing smart-city technologies can generate major efficiencies. Hard-pressed local governments often complain they have limited resources to invest, so the Readiness Guide points to eight areas that can yield quick payback.

Smart transportation. The ability to monitor traffic real-time, predict congestion, synchronize traffic signals and suggest alternate routes can yield massive savings by obviating the necessity of investing expensive concrete and asphalt.

Energy efficiency. Building automation systems can generate fast paybacks on HVAC, lighting and general electricity consumption.

Smart grids. Smart grids, which tell power companies were problems are occurring on the electric grid, can reduce outages and improve reliability, especially in areas subject to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or floods.

Smart water networks. Worldwide, 30% of all municipal water never reaches its destination. Smart water systems can pinpoint leaks and theft;as a bonus, they can alert customers to unusual consumption patterns that might indicate a problem.

Smart street lights. Smart systems can turn street lights off when not needed and enable remote diagnostics that can reduce maintenance costs.

Digital government services. Municipalities can reduce administrative costs by making manual systems for processing licenses, permits, registrations and other routine interactions accessible online or on smart phones. AT&T has bundled eight popular city applications into a package called Community Central that is hosted on the cloud and can be rolled out in short order.

Smart payments. Cities can generate significant savings by digitizing disbursements and collections.

Public safety. By feeding crime statistics into analytic programs, police departments can predict where crimes are more likely to occur and allocate manpower and resources accordingly. Automated systems also allow police to reduce time spent on paperwork.

These low-risk strategies have generated millions of dollars in savings in cities around the world.  For the most part, Virginia municipalities are in solid financial shape; they can afford to make the investment. Elected officials should press their administrators to explore smart-city options aggressively. If elected officials are asleep at the switch, citizens need to smack them across the face until they wake up.

The Digital Dominion — Not Too Shabby

digital_citiesVirginia cities didn’t exactly shine in the Center for Digital Government’s 2013 Digital Cities survey, but they didn’t do too shabbily either.  The CDG lists 10 finalists (more, if you include ties) in four population categories. No Virginia city snagged a top spot but seven deserved mention.

A panel of judges rated cities on factors such as transparency and open data, mobility, finance management, staffing, connectivity, cybersecurity, shared services, cloud computing, disaster recover and the use of virtualization techniques.

“Cities that are investing in technology are seeing huge cost savings that are critical to operations and their ability to meet higher demand for services,” said Todd Sander, CDG’s executive director. “These cities are true innovators and we applaud them as they work in the spirit of collaboration to provide extraordinary value to constituents despite budget setbacks.”

In the 250,000+ category, Boston, Louisville and Philadelphia scored top honors. In Virginia, Virginia Beach shared 5th place with two other cities.

In the 125,000-249,999 category, Alexandria scored 3rd, Hampton tied for 5th and Richmond scored 8th.

In the 75,000-124,999 category, Lynchburg placed 6th and Roanoke 9th.

And in the under-75,000 category, Williamsburg came in 9th.

Bacon’s bottom line: News flash to Republicans and conservatives who think that the surest sign of efficient government is low taxes. Not necessarily. Low taxes are great but they can simply reflect a minimal level of services. Productivity and responsive government are critical, too. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) are big drivers of productivity in government. Where does your local government stand?


Does Henrico Need a Meals Tax — or More Innovative Government?

Henrico supervisors -- following path of least resistance.

Henrico supervisors — old, tired, following path of least resistance.

From a column published in October edition of The Henrico Monthly:

by James A. Bacon

Before pulling the lever this November on the meals-tax referendum, Henrico citizens should ask themselves: Are they satisfied with county government that conducts business as usual, posing false choices between raising taxes or cutting services? Or would they prefer proactive government that adopts cutting-edge strategies to control costs, grow the tax base and improve the quality of services?

There’s no denying that Virginia local governments have seen better times. Revenues for most cities and counties have yet to recover to levels that prevailed before the Great Recession. Henrico County runs a tighter fiscal ship than most, as evidenced by its AAA bond rating, but its property-tax revenues have lagged, and big liabilities are looming.

The local-government share of the Virginia Retirement System’s unfunded pension liabilities amounts to $15.2 billion – Henrico’s portion is $507 million – and the state is compelling localities to accelerate payments into the system. The new rules could cost Henrico about $15 million next year, says Budget Director Barton Hinton. Also next year, state and federal stormwater regulations will go into effect that likely will force counties to spend millions more each year on mitigation. No one is sure what those costs will be for Henrico, but they could run into millions of dollars yearly – costs that, according to Hinton, aren’t included in the $100 million budget gap the county projects over the next five years.

Critics acknowledge that Henrico faces tough decisions. But the county’s position – “without new revenue, significant cuts may have to be made”– represents a bankruptcy of the imagination and an appeal to fear. Tax opponents have offered a litany of savings that county officials have waved off, from selling the county golf course to paring programming on the public access channel and charging insurance companies for county ambulance rides.

Contrary to the claims of county leaders, Henrico has not cut spending to the bone. “Over the past four years, Henrico has cut $115 million and 646 positions from its budget,” trumpets the Meals Tax website. But the numbers are hocus-pocus. In the county’s estimation, backtracking on budgeted spending increases or budgeted hires counts as a “cut.” Worse, the county counts $30 million in “utilization of one-time funds” to avoid school layoffs and pay for emergency vehicles as cuts.

Really? Spending “one-time” funds counts as a cut? Abracadabra! Now you see it, now you don’t.

What has Henrico County done to restructure and re-engineer the cost of government operations? Precious little. Most of its real cuts (as opposed to phantom cuts) were temporary – not filling vacant positions, cutting travel to conferences, deferring capital spending – and will bounce back as soon as money is available. The tally of permanent savings runs only $3 million – from telecommunications efficiency savings, vehicle-fleet downsizing and lower utility bills from energy savings. Three million dollars out of a $1.25 billion budget!

One can make a reasonable argument that the county needs a short-term revenue boost to get over the hump. Unfortunately, if voters approve the tax, which is expected to raise $18 million a year, it will run on autopilot long after the short-term budget crunch has passed. It will recede into the background and supervisors are not legally required to revisit it.

Voting “yes” on the meals tax takes the county’s leadership off the hook for enacting long-term reforms. Consider three broad strategies that no one is talking about.

First, experiment with Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to reinvent Henrico’s school system. Look to the example of Richard Bland College in Petersburg, which is using MOOCs to teach foreign languages. Richard Bland is outsourcing its instruction to an outside vendor that specializes in online learning. The college promises a pupil-to-teacher ratio of ten-to-one, and it charges only $4,000 per year for a full course load. K12 Inc., based in nearby Herndon, is one of many companies that provides comparable services to school systems. Don’t tell me Henrico, which spends more than $9,200 per pupil, can’t find a way to save money and improve educational outcomes. Read more.

For a similar take on Chesterfield County, click here.

Transportation Tumult

Look, ma, no hands, no driver!

Look, ma, no hands, no driver!

by James A. Bacon

There is an extraordinary level of hubris in the world of transportation and land use planning. Planners in state transportation departments, including Virginia’s, advance mega-highway projects based upon forecasts of what transportation demand will be two or three decades from now. My friends in the Smart Growth camp rightly reject many of these asphalt dinosaurs, but they then turn around and, with equal confidence, espouse equally expensive infrastructure for mass transit and high-speed rail based upon their own vision of the ideal transportation system.

At this moment in time, the Smart Growth crowd looks smarter than the highway infrastructure crowd. Road travel has declined markedly since peaking in the mid-2000s, and there appears to be greater demand for mass transit. Companies that bet big on rising traffic volumes have lost big. Here in Virginia, we need look no farther than the Dulles Greenway and the Pocahontas Parkway, where investors lost their shirts, and to the Interstate 495 Express Lanes, where toll-paying traffic has been slower to materialize than expected. How anyone can justify new billion-dollar highway projects in the current environment is beyond me.

That’s not to say that the future necessarily belongs to mass transit. The fact is, nobody knows. The transportation sector is undergoing the most convulsive revolution since the invention of the automobile and anybody who tells you they know how it’s all going to shake out is either a fool or a liar.

In support of that statement, I present three data points from my blog reading this morning. These stories highlights emerging trends that have yet to seep into the thinking of transportation bureaucrats, elected officials or even Smart Growth advocates.

  • Google is moving full speed ahead with its plans to build a self-driving car. While Google’s core strength is writing software for the cars, the company is holding talks with auto manufacturers to build cars to its specifications. Google is exploring the idea of entering the market through robo-taxi systems, in which a fleet of self-driving cars would pick up passengers and commuters on demand, according to technology writer Jessica Lessin.
  • The first electric bike store in the Arlington area, Hybrid Pedals, will open in September. The store will sell electric bikes that can travel 20 to 30 miles on a single electric charge, giving riders the option of extending the range by pedaling, reports ARL Now.
  • New York City is applying information technology to transform its  transportation system — instrumenting traffic lights to manage traffic in real time, paying for parking with smart phones and installing cameras to catch speeders in school zones, says Janett Sadik-Khan, NYC’s transportation commissioner in a UDM Cities videoclip.

New technologies are transforming everything relating to transportation, from roads and mass transit to parking and traffic light sequencing. Venture capitalists are rolling out new business models. The so-called “sharing” economy is challenging the bedrock assumption that people need to own their own cars.

Transportation and land use are extraordinarily complex systems, and people are deluding themselves if they think they know where all this innovation will take us. Would driving become a more attractive option if cars steered  themselves and people spent their commute time reading email or surfing the web? Would bicycling become more popular if electric bikes allowed people to travel faster with less exertion? Would people still take the bus if they could hail jitneys with their smart phones instead? Or would the ability to track the next bus’ arrival at a nearby bus top make that transportation mode more competitive?

What about non-transportation technologies that will effect driving patterns? Today, video conferencing is far less satisfying than a face-to-face meeting. What would happen if the quality improved to the point where people couldn’t tell the difference between being there and not? Would they travel less? Another conundrum: Technology allows white-collar workers to perform their jobs almost anywhere. The “office” has been reduced to a smart phone and laptop. Will people work more at home, driving less? Or will be they be free to work anywhere, meaning spending more time on the road?

Will people be driving more a decade from now, or less? Nobody knows. Indeed, the future is unknowable.

This is a spectacularly bad time to be placing multibillion-dollar bets on Big Infrastructure. We might bet right… but we might bet wrong. Given the breadth and speed of change, I would suggest, the odds of betting wrong are greater than ever.

Uncertainty is not an excuse to do nothing. But I would borrow from the thinking of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “Antifragile,” to suggest that this is a time for small experiments, not grand ones. Experiment… collect feedback… modify experiment… Collect more feedback. Also, we need to build more flexibility into the transportation system. Systems that can readily accommodate themselves to new technologies and changes in demand will serve better than systems that can do only one thing.

Why Do People Visit Spain, Not Virginia, to See Smart Cities in Action?

by James A. Bacon

Spain’s economy is a wreck, or so we surmise from the dismal drum beat of news about the European Union. The country is in recession, unemployment is nearly 27% and central government staggers from crisis to crisis. Yet, somehow, Spanish cities manage to stay on the forefront of harnessing technology to re-think the delivery of government services.

A case in point: the port city of Santander, which, with a population of 180,000, is not quite as big as the City of Richmond. As Pablo Valerio writes in UBM’s Future Cities blog, the city recently hosted a delegation of executives from Google, Microsoft and the Japanese government to walk the streets and view firsthand the miracle of the Smart Santader initiative.

A convert to the “internet of things,” Santander has embedded 12,000 sensors under the pavement, on street lights, in rubbish bins and on city buses. The sensors tell the city, and drivers, where empty parking spaces are located, when lights should be turned off, when garbage needs collecting and when buses will arrive. The city can track levels of temperature, noise and pollution. Citizens can report complaints by smart phone: just take a photo of, say, a pothole or broken light, and the city receives the picture along with the GPS coordinates of the location.

Here’s the bottom line: The city is saving 25% on electricity and 20% in garbage collection. Impressive. Valerio doesn’t say how that translates into return on investment, but it’s probably pretty good. Installation of the sensors cost €8 million (about $11 million) three years ago, courtesy of a EU grant. If the city of Santander saves $2 million a year, it would generate a rate of return that many private-sector companies would find attractive. Even if it saved only $1 million a year, the investment would exceed the cost of capital.

The city of Richmond is dipping its toe into the smart-city waters, working with IBM to build a Smarter City Support System, an analytical system that will help city officials better target how and where they invest city funds. Otherwise, I have seen surprisingly little interest among Virginia municipalities in harnessing digital technologies to drive efficiencies, lower costs and improve the quality of service as Santander has done.

What’s the difference? Are the Spanish that much more technologically progressive in their thinking — more progressive than counties like Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun in one of largest clusters of information-technology and telecommunications companies in the world? Really? Or are are we simply complacent? I don’t know the answer but I do know this: With the ITT talent we have in this state, there is no excuse for Virginia local governments to set the global standard for smart cities. Virginians should demand more from their local governments.

Are you listening, Henrico County?