How responsive street furniture could make streets more usable for everyone

Image: Responsive Street Furniture.

There's a touching video doing the rounds at the moment,  showing how a whole neighbourhood in Istanbul learned sign language in order to surprise a deaf neighbour. (Yes, okay, it's an advert for Samsung, but bear with us.) As the deaf man, Muaharrem, walks down the street on the designated day, passerbys sign "good morning". The baker is able to tell him what breads are on offer. A woman who bumps into him apologises with her hands. A taxi driver welcomes him into his cab in sign. 

It's clear that once he understands what's happening, Muaharrem is happy and grateful at the gesture. But during that first walk through town, he mostly looks mystified. Public spaces and streets, and the chance interactions they create, aren't designed for people like him: they work in favour of people with all their senses intact. And he's so used to this status quo that anything else feels strange and unfamiliar. 

But thanks to a new idea, nominated in the digital category for this year's Design of the Year Award, all this could change. Responsive Street Furniture, a concept created by engineer-designers Ross Atkin and Jonathan Scott, would allow streets to adapt to individuals' needs as they walked along. 

Here's roughly how it would work: users would regiser online with the service, and list any special needs or requirements, and would then receive a tag like the ones shown above.

As they walk along the street, the tag would communicate with nearby responsive street furniture. Crosswalks would wait longer for elderly users to cross, or beep for the hard of hearing. Streetlights would brighten for people with weaker eyes. Bollards would read out locations and the names of nearby shops. Fold-out benches would unlock for those who need to sit down more frequently. 

Implementing such an idea would involve a pretty large-scale replacement of our current stock of street furniture, of course. But it's important that the idea is floating around now: as smart city technology takes hold, it's likely streetlights and other types of street furniture will be replaced with new models, bristling with sensors and the kinds of technology which could easily fit into a responsive system. (It's worth noting that the Responsive Street Furniture system would collect "as few data as possible" on its users and their whereabouts, as noted on Ross Atkin's website.) 

Until then, the pair have created a prototype bollard, which carries out many of the functions mentioned above, and also includes a small streetlight. The video below shows it in action at a 2014 conference, and gives examples of users who could benefit from it: 

Lupita, a visiting tourist, has a tag which instructs the bollard to give her local information in Spanish, while Sylvia's tag tells the bollard to shine its light more brightly.

Overall, this is one of the first "smart city" ideas we've heard which haven't left us feeling a bit queasy. Let's hope the it makes it out of notebooks and conference centres and onto city streets.


What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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