Re-learning the city

I’m probably a bit behind in this regard – I’ve only just joined the ‘smartphone’ club – but in the context of Dublin, where I live, I’m not too late to the game. In the last few months there have been some decent developments in Dublin’s ‘app’ scene (‘apps’ are applications or small software programs installed on mobile phones). Some tap into the updated timetable information provided by Dublin Bus at bus stops around the city. Others provide up-to-the-minute information on train times, which rail commuters to NUI Maynooth will find useful despite the supposed punctuality of Irish Rail’s service (a train running ten minutes late is, ahem, considered to be punctual!). And for ambidextrous drivers there is live traffic information accessible on their smartphones via Google Maps [I’ve no doubt there are many more: please feel free to point them out].

For users of the bus times apps – and real time passenger information available on bus stops – the city has become quite a different place. Gone are the days of standing around anxiously waiting (even for as much as 45 minutes in my experience!) for a bus to come; an era when the only information available was the scheduled times of departure. Those were days when you couldn’t pop into the nearest Spar for fear that the bus would come and go without you. Now it’s possible to know where the bus actually is and work out with a fair bit of confidence when it will arrive, even if your stop doesn’t have a real-time sign.

Here’s an example. Trying to get somewhere yesterday afternoon I checked the ‘app’ and saw that a bus was due to arrive at a stop on Leeson Street in 31 minutes. I worked out it would be with me in 40 minutes. Time for a coffee, then. And a large slice of Battenburg Cake! And I was right. I arrived at the bus stop and lo-and-behold, for the first time ever since moving to Dublin in 2006, I arrived at a bus stop and the bus I wanted arrived just then. This marked a minor but nevertheless decent change in how I experience the city. It means that a crucial part of city life, public transport, is just that little bit more attractive, more accessible, more know-able. The city has changed, albeit not in any grand way. And it has knock-on effects. Up until I discovered this app, if I was planning on heading into the city, I would not even consider waiting for a bus and instead would have headed for the Luas because, although it is more expensive, the Luas at least informs passengers of the next arrival. This is, after all, an age when we want to know, not guess, when objects we need or desire will arrive. But now the Luas loses out because I don’t need to head down the street to catch it. And the same probably goes for most people who use the Luas; after all, their local bus stop is probably closer and the bus tends to be cheaper (from where I live, it’s €1.65 into town by bus, versus €1.90 on the Luas). So surely we will begin to see passenger numbers tilt towards the bus.

The train apps also change how we might experience the city. I know from my commuting that I frequently head to the station only to discover that the train is delayed, often by quite a while. The inconvenience isn’t too harsh but it can be frustrating. I could’ve stayed in my office for a while longer. Or even sipped my afternoon pint just that wee bit more leisurely. With the train times app I can now anticipate when the train will arrive and adjust my banal little plans accordingly. It’s not a major change but it’s helpful. However, I should point out that, as things stand right now, I’m mobile, reasonably fit, probably not too out-of-shape. But knowing actual arrival times might seriously improve the situation facing elderly (but technologically-astute) travellers on a cold day, or wheelchair-bound passengers rushing to the station. Whatever. The point I want to make is that these relatively minor socio-technical developments change our urban experience by potentially altering the personal geographies we create each day as we move through time and space.

More broadly, what these two examples say to me is that some of the recent technological developments will require us to re-learn the city. This isn’t a new process, of course. Take the electronic toll payments on the M50 (yes, take them, away, for good!). How many people who aren’t computer literate have struggled with getting online in time to pay? Or going back further, how long did it take drivers to learn how to use those fiddly machines in car parks as opposed to the simple task – still common throughout the world – of paying an actual person on the way out? So that task and indeed the requirement of re-learning how the city works and how we have to navigate it is not new. But perhaps the recent changes with mobile phone technologies and the (growing) proliferation of ‘apps’ marks a new and possibly quite different phase. As Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge have argued, we’re now living through (and in some respects are the lab rats in) the emergence of ‘code space’: spaces and spatialities underpinned and even made possible by lines and lines of simple and highly complex software code. Increasingly, we’re even carrying coded objects with us in the form of laptops, smartphones, MP3 players, GPS receivers, and so on, thereby adding a good few layers to the already-complex way in which we all handle code space.

Equally as much as we might need to start re-learning the city, those who run services in the city are also probably going through the motions of re-calculating what these technologies might mean. Of course, a major issue here is the slightly more dystopian possibility that code space equals surveillance, securitization, even militarization; the ubiquity of security cameras is an obvious cause for concern about all our civil liberties but so is the possibility that our phones can be used to track our movements as I’ve noted before on this blog. So perhaps the Garda Síochána are giving some thought to what these sorts of technological development mean (and it isn’t hard to imagine that recent events in Britain and all across the so-called Middle East might be on their mind: riots, looting, but also revolt).

Returning to Dublin Bus, however (and moving down a layer or two from thoughts of revolt to mundane issues about buses!), it also seems possible to me that one outcome of real-time information flows will be a reduction in the number of bus stops. Note here that budgetary considerations have already been at work in deciding which stops get the new signs: not all by any means and even as infrequent as one sign for every seven stops (or at least that’s how it looks on one of the routes I use). This is fine for the app-user because, as I outlined earlier, it’s relatively straightforward to work out when the bus will arrive based on information from another mile or so down the road. But there is no improved level of anticipation for the elderly passenger without a smartphone whose nearest stop doesn’t have any information. Looking further into the future, maybe the result of real-time information will be an increase in the number of signs but with the closure of stops in-between, which again will have knock-on effects for many passengers.

What else will be re-planned as the ‘smart city’ takes shape? We know technology results in a new urban fabric. For example, cities across the world were fundamentally re-planned as the number of cars increased: as Robert Moses said about New York in the 1950s, it was necessary to hack through the city with a meat axe to make the car-friendly city. Nothing so dramatic will result from phone apps, but yet the spaces and places we know are always the products of our social relations and the combinations of minor little shifts, twists, developments and plans. So what it is that we should expect to see; what new materials and patterns will get stitched together to re-make the urban fabric?

And what will be the result of the already-evident and probably growing disparity between the spaces and places or indeed regions that have their apps and real-time knowledge flows and the spaces and places without them? I think we can already discern a ‘spatial division of anticipation’ emerging: a division between spaces and places where we can wonder and wait versus areas where we know and can expect. It is also worth noting that this division exists at very local (the houses next to bus stop with real-time information versus those further down the road), more regional (the difference between Dublin and, say, Mullingar), and indeed international (the difference between the technologically-equipped countries and those without) scales. A coalition of entrepreneurs, civil servants, and public sector managers pushed for the data boxes to be opened up and made accessible, thereby resulting in that humble bus times app on my phone. But what will happen regarding these minor or more profound technological changes in places where those coalitions don’t exist or places they ignore?

In this regard I think it’s appropriate that I finish up by giving a plug for a conference on regional development which Chris van Egeraat here in Maynooth is organizing.

Alistair Fraser


One comment

  1. Alistair · · Reply

    Update: yeah. Uh-huh. As if things could be so smooth. The irish rail app just missed the fact that the train to dublin was ten minutes late! Teething problems?


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