Can smart mobility planning prevent the "Disneyfication" of Venice?

Venice, the Birmingham of the south. Image: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty.

Venice is struggling with both a shrinking population and a massive flood of tourists and cruisers. The Italian island has an unrivalled place in the memory of Europe. Today, its visitors number around 20m people a year, almost 100,000 each day; most of them are day-trippers. That number is roughly double than the 58,000 inhabitants the city hosts today.

The unique geography of the historic island, spanned with innumerable bridges and canals, reduces the city’s capacity to absorb and slow the visitor flows. Arrival and departure are concentrated in two gateways located within approximately, two minutes walk of each other: the train station of Venezia Santa Lucia, and the bus station Piazzale Roma. This situation creates high level of congestion: people and goods arrive mainly by boat or train, but 70 per cent of movement in the inner city is on foot.

Visitors are completely disorientated in a labyrinth of narrow streets, countless bridges and blind alleys, and disturb the residents’ daily life. The existing system of signage is confusing, and this “information disorder" contributes to the image of an inaccessible city”. Tourists don’t even realize they have even arrived in Venice when they reach Piazzale Roma, and ask themselves if it is a Venetian piazza or a parking lot.

Leaving the square, they tend to follow the crowd heading across the Constitution Bridge, which offers an open line of sight to the city, without really knowing whether or not their destination is actually across it. Since 2008, the Calatrava Bridge has completely reshaped the distribution of flows into the inner city, creating congestion along some well-defined streets and alleys, whilst others remain isolated and suffer economically.

The city’s original function is effectively under threat. Demographic statistics show a constant hemorrhaging of the city’s population: since the 1950s, it has fallen by more than two thirds. Venetians are abandoning the insular city for Mestre, situated on the mainland, to avoid ever increasing pressure from tourist numbers, soaring property prices and a significant reduction in essential everyday services. Venice, so spectacular by day, turns into a ghost town by night. Streets and piazzas stand empty, since inhabitants are very rare and increasingly tend to be old.


A “de-tourism” strategy is often presented by authorities, and endorsed by residents, as an obvious rescue plan. But would the transformation of Venice into an open-air museum with controlled access really be a healthy strategy for the city? Analysis of the Census data shows that most of people’s income comes from touristic services.

If plans to limit the number of tourists were to be taken forward, it would need to be done as part of a comprehensive strategy that involved replacing some of the lost income from tourism with other economic activities. It would also require some way of restoring housing affordability and essential services to the island. If not, this approach could end up reducing economic opportunity yet further, and thus reinforcing the pattern of migration to the mainland.

The worst case scenario, feared by all residents is the complete “Disneyfication” of Venice. How will future tourists be able to truly appreciate the city without its inhabitants? Notwithstanding the protection received from UNESCO, Venetian identity and cultural heritage must be further preserved too.

Could reshaping mobility and re-designing wayfinding be the key to relieving congestion, reactivating abandoned areas and rediscovering the rich cultural offering of Venice?

The Venice municipality is working on providing a system of terminals capable of managing the pedestrian flows. The municipality has also identified the need to diversify access to the island, by developing new entry points at Tessera and San Basilio.

But these solutions will remain ineffective in a context of fragmented institutional responsibilities, unclear city governance and pressure from the tourist economy.

The city needs a “smart solution” that reflects a real understanding of the city’s needs and a dialogue between city actors. A group of professionals and students from Urbego and IUAV University, in partnership with sensor systems provider Blip, decided to tackle the issue by assessing the “walkability” experience of pedestrians.

Venice from above. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

The group’s aim was to integrate the concept of smart cities with those of human scale design and progressive governance initiatives. It made use of technology to refine the information related to pedestrian flows on the ground.

The researchers tracked people movements in terms of frequency and directions in the central station, and in the Piazzale Roma area, through a network of Wifi and Bluetooth sensors. In order to assess the real experience of users, pedestrian behaviors, they observed pedestrians’ reactions, and recorded their suggestions.

The data provided a basis for the creation of a new decongestion strategy, and for ways of improving users’ orientation as they explore the city. Experiments were conducted to test the initial prototypes, and the results were used to reshape the final proposals.

Despite its ambitions, the Venice Smart City vision poses the difficult question of how to link the global agenda of smart cities into a very specific urban context through a people-centred collaborative process. The experience shows the difficulty of acting in a fragmented political territory, and underlines the need for social innovation and in situ solution testing.

In order to embrace the complexity of the city development, local government, citizens, institutions and tourists must come together to achieve a resilient future of planning based on human capital, experimental methodologies and user-orientated design.

Farah Makki is an architect and PhD candidate at EHESS, Paris. She is the co-founder of Urbego.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.