Dr. Giovanni Vecchio is an urban planner, currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He is working in the Centre for Sustainable Urban Development (CEDEUS) and in the Department of Transport Engineering and Logistics, collaborating in projects dealing with urban accessibility and street design. Giovanni holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning, Design and Policy from Politecnico di Milano. He has have been visiting scholar in Colombia and the Netherlands, and previously worked as a consultant for AMAT, the mobility agency of Milan municipality. His research focuses on the implications of urban mobility for human and territorial development, with reference to transport justice, social inclusion, urban policy, and new technologies.
GV: Technology is already having a big impact on urban mobility. We have new tools to know the problems of our cities and address them, new materials and energy sources to build and maintain infrastructures, as well as manifold sources of detailed information in real-time. And in most cases, any ordinary person can take advantage of these technologies, although not everyone has access to the devices – smartphones, computers… – required to do so.
However, technology is not the ultimate solution to the problems of our cities. And sometimes the risk is that we focus on a solution we like – based on technology – rather than on the problem we want to tackle it. For example, automated vehicles are a great opportunity, but we do not know well what the urban problem we may tackle with them is: do we want to reduce road congestion, make streets safer, or make travel time available for other purposes? We should answer these questions before deciding if and how to continue exploring automated vehicles.
GV: Information is an invisible and yet powerful force behind our mobility choices. We have now access to huge amounts of information, updated in real-time, and available if we have access to apps or websites. For example, if I need to reach one place, I can easily calculate what route is faster or cheaper: I can take different decisions if roads are heavily congested, if there is a heavy disruption in public transport service, or if the real-time price of on-demand services is too high. We may also associate other kinds of information, too: for example, the number of pollutant emissions we produce for each travel option, or the rating that other passengers gave to a certain service or driver.
As suggested in a paper written with a colleague, we can use the information to nudge individual choices towards more sustainable behaviors, and also provide new services thanks to the unprecedented availability of information. To do so, institutions, communities, and corporations need to cooperate: each of these subjects has access to specific data, which are invaluable for developing innovative initiatives. But no actor can effectively address urban mobility problems on its own, not even when the most complete form of information is available.
GV: Chile is the most developed economy in Latin America and in many senses, it is a First World country. Therefore, it has a lot more opportunities for investments in technologies if compared to other countries in the region, and this is true also when we consider mobility.
This year, the IESE Cities In Motion ranking declared Santiago the n. 1 Smart City in Latin America. Santiago seems to be making the most of technological innovations: it has two operating automated subway lines and more are under construction; recently, a fleet of electric buses – the largest in the world – was introduced in the city; also, some “intelligent stops” are active, providing real-time information, control of the position of the buses, electronic fare collections, etc. At least in the most affluent areas of the city, many innovative services are present, such as Uber or free-floating sharing systems for bicycles and scooters.
And even the Metropolitan Mobility Plan is very confident that in a few years the city will make the most out of automated vehicles, big data and smart mobility at large. However, this attitude is a bit too “techno-enthusiast”, as if technology alone could easily and rapidly be the panacea for the complicated mobility of Santiago.
GV: Santiago’s enthusiasm for technology comes with at least three risks, in my opinion. The first is that decision-makers and investors are more interested in technology for the sake of it, rather than for the actual benefits it can bring for those who live in Santiago. For example, investing in electric buses or intelligent stops does not necessarily imply an improvement in the mobility of public transport users: without bus-only lanes (there are some in important road corridors, but not well managed), buses will still be very slow in congested roads and therefore no attractive for users, no matter how ecological or innovative infrastructure is.
The second risk is that some powerful technological tools (I think of big data) are currently employed mainly by private companies and not much by those in charge of planning the city. As I mentioned in a recently published book, big data comes with huge limitations: it represents only partially the demand and the need for mobility, overlooking worst-off people who do not always have access to technologies.
This brings me to the third risk, that is, to use technology only for the city of the rich. Worst-off groups often have reduced access to the technologies required to have real-time information or use app-based services; moreover, these services are seen as not profitable in low-income areas. Focusing on technology without considering who can use it risks thus to reinforce existing inequalities rather than contribute to reducing them.
GV: Undoubtedly, technology can change the opportunities available to the inhabitants of a city. Thinking of Santiago, somehow some forms of technology are – paradoxically – beneficial for upper and lower strata of the population. For example, ridesharing services like Uber, Beat and Cabify are quite widespread and are the most reliable alternative for moving at night or on the weekend for example, especially in those areas where public transport provision is poor or perceived as not safe. At the same time, companies working with ridesharing or delivery (like Cornershop or Rappi) also give opportunities to migrants who just arrived in the country and need a first job: many for example rent a car and start working with ridesharing or delivering with bicycles. Of course, there are a lot of issues related to this, from the precariousness of these opportunities to the exploitation and risks to which workers are exposed. However, in my opinion, is interesting to see how technology – at least at a superficial gaze – provides opportunities that quite different groups take advantage of.
GV: Probably we should break disciplinary barriers, and train to think in a problem-based way. The problems of the present and future cities go beyond sectorial definitions. For example, climate change is not simply an environmental issue, but raises significant social, economic and political problems: who is going to pay most the consequences of climate change? How is the economy going to change? How can we build consensus around the adaptive transformations that our cities require? In the end, to innovate is to do something new in a new way.
We need to train students – and train ourselves with them – to recognize how each discipline contributes to addressing problems that are interdisciplinary by nature and were never tackled before. However, if I think of movements such as Climate Strike, I suspect that younger generations are better equipped than us for understanding what are the urgent collective problems and for imagining alternative futures.
Valina Geropanta and Giovanni Vecchio —