Rio’s Olympics of urban planning disasters: Which one will win the gold?

Well, this is just a nightmare. Rio's Olympic mascots do their thing. Image: Getty.

The long-awaited 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics are finally here -- long-awaited, of course, because it’s been painfully clear for a long time now that these games are going to be an ungodly, nightmarish, train wreck of a mega event.

Forget those campy, ultra-high-def slow-mo montages of athletes strutting their stuff as the music from “Chariots of Fire” plays in the background that seem to appear on the world's TV stations every time the Olympics rolls round: the main reason people are paying attention this timeis out of some sadistic desire to see just how miserable a flop the 2016 games are going to be.

Yes, it’s been one of those Olympics, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and everything that can’t go wrong goes wrong anyway. That something had truly gone afoul during the preparation for Rio’s cherished mega-event had already become apparent well over a year ago to many outside observers (cough, cough, told you so).

But as the opening ceremonies drew near, Rio just kept screwing things up, sometimes almost cartoonishly so. The city suffered from pretty much everything, from killer cops to an improper response to the Zika virus, to the oh-so-symbolic shooting of the games’ mascot, a rare Amazonian jaguar. This dumpster fire of an Olympics has had journalists falling over themselves in search of fitting epithets to hurl at the event (“Rio, capital of disaster capitalism”, an “unnatural disaster”) only to be bested by the government of Rio itself, which declared a “state of calamity” a month before the games began.

So, guided by a passion for pithy reviews of urban planning projects that will never be snuffed out – unlike the Olympic torch, which was in fact snuffed out in advance of the opening ceremony, then relit – I present for your enjoyment a different kind of Olympics: a competition between all the planning nightmares loosed upon the good people of Rio to determine which one is the absolute worst. Which one will take the gold?

Runner up: Porto Maravilha Plan

Rio 2016’s flagship waterfront plan, Porto Maravilha, comes in a lackluster 6th place in our little bad planning Olympiad. Which is actually good news for the project, to the extent that being the least bad is actually good.

The project has succeeded in getting rid of the ugly freeway that had gutted the zone. But many residents now worry that construction by big-name developers, including a certain spray-tanned, proto-fascist US presidential candidate, will push out long time residents. Sad!

Runner up: Tim Maia Bike Path

This one involves people getting killed, as well as a cause I actually believe in when done right: bike lanes. So I’ll suspend my barrage of bad jokes until the next finalist.

As part of its Olympic plans, Rio officials planned and built a series of bike paths, including a long elevated section along the coast, named for famed Brazilian soul singer Tim Maia. But in late April, the path’s shoddy construction led to one section collapsing after being hit by a wave, killing two cyclists.

Runner up: Barra da Tijuca Olympic Golf Course

Olympic proponents in Rio have long argued that the games will be a huge benefit to the city’s poorest residents. But it will be an even huger benefit to the city’s richest residents, who will now have their very own golf course upon which to smack small white balls around with sticks, built on environmentally protected marshland as part of a project that also includes luxury condos.

Bronze Medal: Guanabara Bay Clean-up

Pollution in Guanabara Bay last year. Image: Getty.

If you want to get an idea of what Rio’s Guanabara bay looks like, think of one of those carnival games where you grab toys with a metal claw. Then replace the toys with dead fish, trash, and all kinds of other nasty stuff you don’t even want to think about. As a Gizmodo headline put it, “Rowers will literally paddle through shit at Rio Olympics”.

Officials are frantically trying to clean the bay up, though they’ve somehow ruled out the rather obvious strategy of putting an end to the dumping of raw sewage into the bay.

Silver Medal: Australian Athletes’ housing

The housing created for Olympic athletes has been downright lousy, to the point of being uninhabitable. The US basketball team has slyly avoided this issue by camping out on a cruise ship protected by hundreds of armed guards.

The Australian team, lacking its own cruise ship, nonetheless decided to abandon its own Olympic digs due to leaky pipes and exposed wiring, and instead to move into a hotel. Instead of offering to fix the problem, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes, showing the same level of planning prowess he did throughout the run-up to the games -- which is to say, none at all -- offered to bring in a kangaroo to make the Aussies feel more at home.


Gold Medal: Vila Autodromo

Back in 2010, an impoverished settlement on the western edge of Brazil named Vila Autodromo was slated to be obliterated to make way for an Olympic Park – a clever name for a site that would host a handful of events during the games and then be converted into mostly shopping malls and luxury condos.

In the years that followed, residents were bullied, intimidated, and in some cases physically assaulted in an attempt to make them go away. And in the end, despite fervent resistance, most of them did. Its 2010 population of 600 families was down to 20 by 2016.

Though this might not seem like a natural pick for the top slot, it gets the gold for two reasons. First, because it so perfectly sums up what has all too often been the norm for Rio’s Olympic planning. And second, because it actually has something of a happy ending. The 20 remaining families were allowed to stay in Vila Autodromo after the games ended. City officials, bungling planning efforts in so many cases, also lived up to their promise to provide new housing to these families.

And all it took was six years of relentless pressure and the vast majority of residents being bullied out of their homes. I love a happy ending.

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The ATM is 50. Here’s how a hole in the wall changed the world

The olden days. Image Lloyds Banking Group Archives & Museum.

Next time you withdraw money from a hole in the wall, consider singing a rendition of happy birthday. For today, the Automated Teller Machine (or ATM) celebrates its half century.

Fifty years ago, the first cash machine was put to work at the Enfield branch of Barclays Bank in London. Two days later, a Swedish device known as the Bankomat was in operation in Uppsala. And a couple of weeks after that, another one built by Chubb and Smith Industries was inaugurated in London by Westminster Bank (today part of RBS Group).

These events fired the starting gun for today’s self-service banking culture – long before the widespread acceptance of debit and credit cards. The success of the cash machine enabled people to make impromptu purchases, spend more money on weekend and evening leisure, and demand banking services when and where they wanted them. The infrastructure, systems and knowledge they spawned also enabled bankers to offer their customers point of sale terminals, and telephone and internet banking.

There was substantial media attention when these “robot cashiers” were launched. Banks promised their customers that the cash machine would liberate them from the shackles of business hours and banking at a single branch. But customers had to learn how to use – and remember – a PIN, perform a self-service transaction and trust a machine with their money.

People take these things for granted today, but when cash machines first appeared many had never before been in contact with advanced electronics.

And the system was far from perfect. Despite widespread demand, only bank customers considered to have “better credit” were offered the service. The early machines were also clunky, heavy (and dangerous) to move, insecure, unreliable, and seldom conveniently located.

Indeed, unlike today’s machines, the first ATMs could do only one thing: dispense a fixed amount of cash when activated by a paper token or bespoke plastic card issued to customers at retail branches during business hours. Once used, tokens would be stored by the machine so that branch staff could retrieve them and debit the appropriate accounts. The plastic cards, meanwhile, would have to be sent back to the customer by post. Needless to say, it took banks and technology companies years to agree common standards and finally deliver on their promise of 24/7 access to cash.

The globalisation effect

Estimates by RBR London concur with my research, suggesting that by 1970, there were still fewer than 1,500 of the machines around the world, concentrated in Europe, North America and Japan. But there were 40,000 by 1980 and a million by 2000.

A number of factors made this ATM explosion possible. First, sharing locations created more transaction volume at individual ATMs. This gave incentives for small and medium-sized financial institutions to invest in this technology. At one point, for instance, there were some 200 shared ATM networks in the US and 80 shared networks in Japan.

They also became more popular once banks digitised their records, allowing the machines to perform a host of other tasks, such as bank transfers, balance requests and bill payments. Over the last five decades, a huge number of people have made the shift away from the cash economy and into the banking system. Consequently, ATMs became a key way of avoiding congestion at branches.

ATM design began to accommodate people with visual and mobility disabilities, too. And in recent decades, many countries have allowed non-bank companies, known as Independent ATM Deployers (IAD) to operate machines. The IAD were key to populating non-bank locations such as corner shops, petrol stations and casinos.

Indeed, while a large bank in the UK might own 4,000 devices and one in the US as many as 12,000, Cardtronics, the largest IAD, manages a fleet of 230,000 ATMs in 11 countries.


Bank to the future

The ATM has remained a relevant and convenient self-service channel for the last half century – and its history is one of invention and re-invention, evolution rather than revolution.

Self-service banking and ATMs continue to evolve. Instead of PIN authentication, some ATMS now use “tap and go” contactless payment technology using bank cards and mobile phones. Meanwhile, ATMs in Poland and Japan have used biometric recognition, which can identify a customer’s iris, fingerprint or voice, for some time, while banks in other countries are considering them.

So it’s a good time to consider what the history of cash dispensers can teach us. The ATM was not the result of a eureka moment of a single middle-aged man in a bath or garage, but from active collaboration between various groups of bankers and engineers to solve the significant challenges of a changing world. It took two decades for the ATM to mature and gain widespread, worldwide acceptance, but today there are 3.5m ATMs with another 500,000 expected by 2020.

Research I am currently undertaking suggests that ATMs may have reached saturation point in some Western countries. However, research by the ATM Industry Association suggests there is strong demand for them in China, India and the Middle East. In fact, while in the West people tend to use them for three self-service functions (cash withdrawal, balance enquiries, and purchasing mobile phone airtime), Chinese customers consumers regularly use them for as many as 100 different tasks.

Taken for granted?

Interestingly, people in most urban areas around the world tend to interact with the same five ATMs. But they shouldn’t be taken for granted. In many countries in Africa, Asia and South America, they offer services to millions of people otherwise excluded from the banking sector.

In most developed counties, meanwhile, the retail branch and the ATM are the only two channels over which financial institutions have 100 per cent control. This is important when you need to verify the authenticity of your customer. Banks do not control the make and model of their customers’ smart phones, tablets or personal computers, which are vulnerable to hacking and fraud. While ATMs are targeted by thieves, mass cybernetic attacks on them have yet to materialise.

The ConversationI am often asked whether the advent of a cashless, digital economy heralds the end of the ATM. My response is that while the world might do away with cash and call ATMs something else, the revolution of automated self-service banking that began 50 years ago is here to stay.

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo is professor of business history and bank management at Bangor University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.