Rethinking smart cities

A businesswoman waits on a platform as a subway train approaches.

A businesswoman waits on a platform as a subway train approaches. Marilyn Nieves via Getty Images

“Where’s the technology we’ve been talking about for years?”

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series that Route Fifty is publishing ahead of Smart City Expo USA, which will take place Sept. 14 and 15 in Miami Beach, Florida. More than 100 speakers and several thousand attendees are expected. Route Fifty is a media partner and will be covering the event. More information about the expo can be found here. The other articles in the series can be found here. Thanks for reading!

In February 2021, Kimberly Slaughter became the CEO of Systra USA, a transit consulting firm best known for its work on signal modernization projects for various rail agencies. Slaughter, an industry veteran who has worked with Houston’s mass transit agency and served on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s transportation transition team in 2019, stresses the need for local leaders to consider equity and climate considerations as part of their “smart city” initiatives.

Route Fifty talked with Slaughter about how technology can advance those goals, as well as why she sees them as complimentary. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You’ve been a big advocate of rethinking what it means to be a “smart city,” with an emphasis on equity and sustainability. Can you explain why you have pushed for that shift in thinking?

Covid has been the catalyst if I’m being honest. It set everybody back and forced us to rethink things or think about issues that we, as a society, have put on the back burner. They’re tied to climate change. They’re tied to better management of cities and communities. The quality of life, the way we live on earth is tied to mobility. That includes access to education, health care, jobs, entertainment and even socialization.

[The focus on mobility] is making people think: Where’s the technology we’ve been talking about for years that could really improve the quality of life and even out the playing field for many people? We keep saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we’re going to invest in that technology.’ But, especially in the U.S., we have never made a full investment and treated it like it was a priority.

Are there any technologies in particular that you are excited about?

Some of it is as simple as building ‘digital twins.’ You use the BIM (building information modeling) software to create an image of the infrastructure you want to build. You get it right before we spend the money to build it on the ground. The beauty about that is you can build that model and put all the experts around the table. You can ask, ‘Is that a safe sightline?’ or ‘Can someone in a wheelchair navigate this space?’ or ‘Does that create security issues’ or ‘Is that even constructible?’ You can see if it interferes with underground utilities. You can bring operations people to the table and ask them, ‘Does the new bus that we’re talking about purchasing level out with the platform, or does the platform need to be higher? Can someone with a baby stroller get across there, or did you create a gap where the wheels are going to get caught?’

It’s not perfect. It’s not foolproof. But it’s a lot better than what we are doing now.

You’ve talked about ways that transit agencies can better use the data they already collect. Can you give me some examples?

A lot of people hear that they’re collecting data, and they ask me, ‘What are they doing with it?’ I tell them, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ That is a loss. There are so many things they can be doing with the data, but the public agencies don’t have the staff and the resources. We could use that data to understand how we truly travel and use things, so we can create systems and services that better serve us all and are more efficient.

My background is as a travel demand forecaster. Back in the dinosaur days, we used to design services and facilities and then used computers to forecast what type of ridership it would generate. We used traffic counts to determine how much traffic volume certain streets get, then we’d do surveys trying to get people to tell us what kinds of trips they were making and where they were going. It was so laborious. It takes years.

Lo and behold, then came our cell phones. Now we have that data, and we can actually design services that meet your needs based on what you really did. Should we have long-haul buses taking you places, or do you need short trips? What kind of vehicles should they be? Should it be a train or a tram or go underground? Now we have answers.

Could the proliferation of smart technologies hurt cities, especially if more workers use technology so they can stay at home and don’t go into work every day?

No, I think it could be complimentary. We just have to be proactive about it. Even though how people have been working has changed – everybody isn’t necessarily going into the office – there is traffic and activity all day long. They’re out doing something, right? So mobility is still a need. It may not necessarily always be a work trip, but the need to get from one place to another is still there. It could be going to the theater. It could be going to pick up dinner on the way.

That’s a real possibility, but it does take various entities working together to make it happen and to have a single vision for our country to have these layers of connectivity.

What advice would you give to vendors or companies who are pushing public agencies to buy or adopt new technology products to become smart cities?

I’m going to bring it back to the human factor. That really is what trips us up every time. I‘m a technology person. I love exploring the newest technologies out there and looking at what innovative people are doing. I love that. But I’ve had to learn over time, that people like what they know. They have this comfort zone with what they know. They don’t want to get too far out there.

That’s especially true if you’re working with public agencies that are dealing with public money, because they have to be accountable to elected officials, they have to be accountable to their constituents, the people in the community. So they’re very leery about changing to something new, even if they believe it might be better for them. They’re always concerned about what happens if it doesn’t work right.

Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: Why smart cities are about more than just tech

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