In smart cities, advertisers will rule

A LinkNYC kiosk in New York City. Image: Getty.

“If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” The phrase was coined in the 1970s to talk about television advertising, but has since become the internet’s whole business model: we get nice services, for free or for very little, and in return, our attention is sold to advertisers.

But what if that logic dominated everyday life? With the rise of the smart city, it’s becoming a reality. And local authorities should be both upfront and cautious about the risks.

Sous les pavés, la pub

In a time of disappearing budgets, it is understandable that councils will jump at any opportunity to improve their cities without spending a penny. Companies like JCDecaux and Clear Channel provide cities with street furniture such as bus stops and bicycles, in return for advertising space.

Occasionally, though, the public service aspect is all but forgotten. In 2015, JCDecaux replaced Paris’s 2,000 bus shelters with a new model. With their sleek design, the new shelters had USB ports for charging your phone, and large, digital advertising screens. The only problem? They didn’t actually provide shelter from the rain and had to be changed.

Other times, public utility is just an excuse for brand promotion, as with the “trackable water refill stations” recently installed in London by Canary Wharf Group – narcissistic water fountains with a screen that tracks the number of plastic bottles saved.

With cities desperate for innovation yet strapped for cash, advertisers have been emboldened to set their own rules. A recent report from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America talks about how the knowledge that a bus passenger is taking a specific route towards a specific destination could be used for hyper-targeted messages: “The information might include: an upcoming destination; reminders about previous purchases; points-of-interest along the way.”

This mixing of public and private usages is one way advertisers are cementing their urban domination. As one advertising CEO puts it, “The serendipitous confluence of municipal poverty and secular change in marketing practices presents a unique opportunity for a new breed of public-private partnerships.”

In reality, “public-private partnerships” often means public data being used for private ends. The best example of this took place via Intersection’s digital kiosks in New York, the LinkNYC. These kiosks were designed to replace the city’s payphones, and they feature HD screens for accessing maps, services and video calls, a phone, and USB charging ports. The “Links” are owned and operated by the CityBridge consortium, and are funded by advertising on the large screens. Last year, “InLinks” launched in the UK.

Intersection turned public data into private ad dollars last year, when it helped the beer brewing company MillerCoors run an advertising campaign in partnership with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). MillerCoors used MTA data to detect when there were delays on certain train lines, and subsequently relayed this information alongside the slogan, “Your commute can wait” and an invitation to stop off for a beer.


Protecting data in smart cities

So where is our personal data in all of that? The future of outdoor advertising lies in the combination of two inherent features of the internet – free, advertiser-subsidised services, and targeted ads. And the latter means large-scale data collection. As Le Monde reports, the screens that companies like JCDecaux are fitting on public infrastructure “use cameras and detection systems to identify with remarkable precision the sex, age, height, weight, and geographical origins of passers-by”. In some cases, cameras even use “emotion detection”, to check if people are responding positively to the message.

The marketing possibilities are so enticing that Philippe Baudillon, president of the French branch of Clear Channel Outdoor, just published a book about smart cities, Réinventer la Street Experience. In his reimagined city, we are all connected, all the time; the street becomes a “real-life hyperlink”, sending people towards websites and social media campaigns.

The book explains that Clear Channel has also developed a tool called Consumer Audience Smart Tracking, which uses “more than 2,000 socio-behavioural criteria taken from anonymised data” to analyse consumers passing in front of a screen, “making it possible to identify not only the number of people who walk by, but also their lifestyle and consumption habits”.

Baudillon stresses that the data is used to identify and target large groups, not individuals: we don’t have to worry about the bus shelter revealing our internet history just yet. Still, with smart street furniture linked to your smartphone’s Wi-Fi, and bourgeoning facial recognition technology, hyper-targeted outdoor advertising is increasingly plausible.

Public authorities have, however, shown that they are willing to uphold privacy laws. In 2013, the company Renew London trialled recycling bins which featured LCD advertising screens, and which tracked Wi-Fi signals from pedestrians’ phones. Renew said it collected data from media access control (MAC) addresses simply to measure footfall. But after campaigners raised privacy concerns, the City of London Corporation asked Renew to halt its trial.

The French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) denied JCDecaux authorisation to collect similar data. The device would have gathered data from any smartphone users within a 25 radius of their advertising screens, meaning not everybody was likely to have seen the A4 sign notifying them of their rights, according to Osborne Clarke’s marketing law blog.

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in May, should give citizens even more power in such cases. Businesses are now required to share what kind of information they collect, and individuals must be able to withdraw their consent.

But this is much more complicated in a physical, public space than it is online, as the CNIL’s decision recognises. That is why the public should be consulted before projects are finalised. While free technology is always enticing, cities mustn’t forget whom they are supposed to serve, before the next big data scandal hits the streets.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.