Presenter highlights flaws of ‘Smart City’ transportation

Movement is a salient feature of the milieu of modern life, necessary for its most fundamental aspects: obtaining necessities, engaging in various forms of social interaction and getting to work. It is therefore troublesome that many U.S. cities lack adequate transportation systems to support this movement, often forcing individuals to depend on private companies for guaranteed travel.

The failure of public transit was a defining feature of City University of New York Assistant Professor Dr. Kafui Attoh’s lecture, titled “Uber, Public Transit, and the Idiocy of the Smart City” and delivered on Thursday, Nov. 15. His lecture, sponsored by the Geography Department and Urban Studies Program, focused on Uber’s role in the transportation landscape of Washington, D.C., and alternative visions of a “Smart City”—a city constructed based on collected data—that do not fail to serve underrepresented populations.

The lecture began with opening remarks by Professor of Geography and Director of Independent Program Joe Nevins, who was the main organizer and is a friend of Attoh.

Following these remarks, Attoh began his lecture: “My argument starts here,” he said, pulling up a quote from the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto on a Powerpoint slide. “One of the things Marx and Engels argued was this new age was primed to do something incredible: ‘to rescue a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.’”

He continued by defining idiocy as isolation, saying, “We should talk more about urban idiocy, [and] we should talk about why: What it is about urban cities that makes them isolated? What about cities threatens to make idiots of us all?”

Cole Palatini ’21, who attended the lecture, evaluated the similarities of rural and urban isolation in an email interview: “In the same ways that the rural are isolated from the people around them spatially, people in modern cities are isolated by technology. When people call an Uber on their phone, they skip the process of moving throughout the city as a community activity.”

Private transportation systems such as Uber facilitate this urban idiocy because they decrease demand for public transportation systems, rendering it a less profitable investment, which discourages movement for those located in less populated remote areas. According to Attoh, Uber drivers have a particularly antagonistic relationship with public transportation in D.C. “Uber’s relationship to public transit is a curious one,” he said after showing the audience interview transcriptions of drivers happy to hear about a metro glitch, as it indicated they would make more money off of trapped commuters. “It’s severely undermining mass transit.”

Beyond fostering a hostile relationship between private and public transportation, Uber impacts various social fabrics, including the relationship between drivers. According to Attoh, the Uber Pool rating system creates competition between drivers: “The failure of one driver feeds into another’s success, leaving more customers available to transport. Uber ratings…prevent [solidarity] between drivers.” This creates driver isolation, helping Uber remain profitable through preventing collective action, unions or other benefits for drivers.

One might question why many continue to rely on private transportation in the face of these shortcomings. According to Professor of Geography Yu Zhou, private transportation remains popular because of the U.S. culture of associating public transit with lower socioeconomic statuses: “Once it’s programmed into our minds that buses are for poor people, and public transit has class implications, it became very difficult to improve those systems … To create new public transit, you need to purchase property, which is always a challenge. To improve transit, you need investment. American cities are built for private cars.”

Palatini elaborated on reasons for continued dependence on private transportation, focusing on the failure of public transit to adequately serve public need. “Taxi drivers don’t have to go to neighborhoods they feel are unsafe—often predominantly minority neighborhoods. Also, public transit systems might lack infrastructure in these same places,” he said. “While these forms often fail people of color by restricting access to the city and therefore opportunity, Uber functions on a model where riders can without fail find a driver to come get them.”

However, as Zhou indicated, “Having a private company to fill in the gaps [of public transportation] doesn’t always work, because it doesn’t always address the public need.” This is because Uber, as a private company, is focused on maximizing profit, not serving the public. It does not benefit an Uber driver to travel a long distance to pick up a client in a remote area when there are clusters of clients available in the city center, a pattern that promotes the isolation of remote groups.

Given that both private and public transportation systems are flawed, the question becomes how to improve them to adequately serve the public. According to Attoh, Zhou and Palatini, access to data on movement could help improve public transportation to better represent public needs.

Uber, as a data-collecting company, owns much of the information necessary to improve these systems. However, according to Attoh, “Uber’s commitment to build [a] smart city is limited by its own business model in a world with the commodification of data.” In other words, because data is Uber’s asset protected by intellectual property laws in the United States, the public cannot force Uber to share its data. According to Zhou, “This privately owned data is going to be used to maximize private profit, and not by the public to help better design the city.”

Although ostensibly committed to the “Smart City” vision, Uber doesn’t publicize most of its data, indicating that its vision is informed by self-interest: Uber dreams of a city profitable for its own business, which may or may not align with the wellbeing of the city and those who populate it. But what does Uber, and other technology companies for that matter, mean by a “Smart City” in the first place?

Any vision of a “Smart City” must be characterized by the balancing of different needs. “The Smart City was originally…a vision to make traffic better, ease congestion, or make traffic data known,” said Zhou. “But there are competing needs within a city. Is it mostly geared toward commuters or for residents? Businesses or private residents? Automobiles or pedestrians? Space is tricky, and areas have multiple roles…so when you say you’re going to build a smart city, the question becomes: for whom?”

Attoh concluded the lecture with his own comments on the Smart City: “Whatever vision we might offer for a smart city, it should be offering a collective response to the collective problems of our cities, rather than offer an idiotic response.”

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