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Joe Nathanson: Smarter cities make for better city living

You’ve been in this situation: You’re driving around in circles looking for parking in a crowded downtown, wasting time, wasting gas and testing your patience.

What if you could pull to the side, check your smartphone and determine the location of nearby garages, the availability of parking spaces and their cost?

You can do that now — at least in a few places on a pilot basis.

Using sensors installed in on-street parking spaces and in municipal garages, newly designed parking meters and real-time data on available parking spaces, San Francisco’s SFpark project is providing drivers with time-saving intelligence as they head for destinations in the heart of downtown.

The public can access the information by means of a website, through smartphone applications and, eventually, via text message. Funded by the U. S. Department of Transportation, SFpark is an example of how information technology and wireless communications systems can make urban living a little more manageable.

The SFpark system will also incorporate a parking fee structure designed to encourage drivers to make trips in off-peak hours by charging more in periods of high demand. An additional convenience, still to be implemented, will allow drivers to pay for their parking space by using an app on their smartphones.

This pilot project was cited by Dr. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, at the recent Intelligent Cities Forum in Washington.

Most people live in cities

Hundreds of people at the day-long event heard of other “smart” projects, ranging from innovations in a small community in Texas to wide-scale information technology projects designed to manage urban life in the world’s great metropolises.

The forum was hosted by the National Building Museum in partnership with IBM Corporation and Time magazine, with funding support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Chase Rynd, the museum’s executive director, began the program by noting that, for the first time in human history, a majority of the world’s population lives in cities. That majority might grow to 75 percent of global population by 2050, he said, with increasing challenges to providing fresh food and water, reliable sources of energy and managing a host of systems from transportation to waste disposal.

Rynd suggested that this trend toward global urbanization might contain some of the very solutions needed. People living in more densely developed communities have a lower carbon footprint, are more likely to use public transportation and may be able to use energy more efficiently.

At the same time, Rynd observed, terabytes of data are now available describing our water consumption, our transportation patterns and energy usage. The focus of the day’s forum was identifying how to harness this wealth of information to create more efficient, equitable and healthier cities and a sustainable planet.

On the very day of the forum, IBM, based on its experience in some 2,000 “smart city” projects in recent years, announced its Intelligent Operations Center for Smarter Cities initiative.

The company describes this center as “a streamlined suite of real-time dashboard, analysis, and data integration tools” designed to mimic the more expensive civic control centers it has built in New York and Rio.

Another featured speaker at the forum, Anne K. Altman, IBM’s general manager, Global Public Sector, pointed to the innovations taking place in Rio de Janeiro, where its operations center is linking the information across many agencies of that metropolis of nearly 12 million inhabitants. Over the coming year IBM expects to make available to other cities specific modules for management of public safety, water distribution and transportation systems.

Small steps can help

Getting “smart” doesn’t necessarily require such comprehensive solutions. Even incremental steps can accomplish meaningful gains.

One such application helps the public transit user enjoy a more satisfying experience: an automated system advising the passenger of the estimated arrival time of the next bus or train. Having such information gives some degree of assurance to the transit rider and can boost ridership.

If you have used the Metro in Washington you’ve seen a “next vehicle arrival” system in operation.

On a smaller scale, you can observe it working fairly reliably in Baltimore at key stops along the Orange and Purple routes of the Charm City Circulator.

The Maryland Transit Administration has been discussing such an information system for two decades. A pilot system was under development in 2006, but administrative roadblocks led to its cancellation.

A new effort is now underway, but five years later and counting, our metropolitan transit system — from the standpoint of the harried rider — is still trying to “get smart”.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record. He can be contacted at [email protected]