Cycling: it’s too smart to be grouped with “smart cities”

If you’re in bike advocacy, you would have had it happen to you: being sat at the card table with the smart cities geeks. Given the things cycling can do for cities, we ought to be at the table with the generals, not the boys with the phone apps, for chrissake. A modern nation needs three things, Babies, Bikes and the Bomb, the three Bs of existence. Our governments or their allies take care of the bombs. Nature looks after the babies and bikes. As for phone apps and smart poles, my god, they’re just garnish.

 

The sort of data analysis SmartCities (from hereon used as one word, like McDonalds) promotes is perfect for port operations. When huge vessels occupy huge spaces, you don’t want delays, under charging, or planes or ships leaving half full. Data analysis lets you fine tune movements and pricing. The five and ten percent gains are worth millions.

Take that principle and apply it to big-ish items and big-ish spaces in cities. Big items include cars. Big spaces include oversized homes and on-street car parking spaces. Uber and AirBnB are wringing the surplus value out of spare bedrooms and car seats while tech companies are jostling to be the ones providing cities with dynamic pricing for on-street car parking.

The problem with SmartCities thinking is it makes owners of oversized homes addicts of AirBnB, owners of oversized vehicles addicts of Uber, and cities addicts of on-street car parking revenue. Those addictions make it harder for us to properly address the underlying waste: the surplus size of our homes, the oversized nature of the tools we buy for our transport, and our ludicrous allocation of space in the city for parking. We stay addicted to revenues. We get ourselves contractually bound and overcommitted. Dumbest of all, we keep building big homes, buying cars and building car parking.  When you look at it that way, there’s nothing smart about SmartCities thinking at all!

There are other problems too, that people like Evgeny Morozov and David Harvey point out, like the way private tech companies can hang us all out to dry the moment we’re dependent upon them.

The problem for bicycle advocacy is the confusion that comes from being sat at the same card table as these little boys with their data and phone apps and disruptive startup incubator accelerator entrepreneurial “I think I’m Steve Jobs” piss-ant phoney baloney, who know nothing about big important things like Babies, the Bomb and the Bike. I’ll admit, some useful data may be gathered from bikes (or at least public share bikes) and data analysis will help major bike users such as the Dutch optimise bike parking in critical places such as train stations.

But that’s about the end of the SmartCities story, as far as bikes are concerned. There will no sooner be an Uber of cycling than there will be an Uber of raincoats. Even if there is something like it, it won’t matter if they try ripping us off when they attain their goal of monopoly status, or skip town when they’re not making profits. We will all just go and pump up our tires, as we have done for a hundred years now, then ride where we like ignoring the road rules and chain our bikes to street poles, as naturally as we lace up our shoes. Cycling embodies the Situationists’ idea of the dérive. It cuts at right angles to capital’s attempts to extract profit from people.

The greatest irony with SmartCities hype is it comes on the back of a decade of talk about resilient cities. Making yourself dependent on monopolising tech companies is about the least resilient (or most vulnerable) thing you can do. You make yourself into a tree with one root. A resilient city is one structured like a rhizome plant; if you’ve got them in your garden you’ll know there’s no way to kill them. Solar panels, rainwater tanks, planter boxes, bikes… these are tools of a resilient city. They can’t be knocked out with one hit, like an on-street car parking system contractually bound to a tech firm rising out of SmartCities.

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