This is why south east London doesn't have "Boris bikes"

London mayor Boris Johnson does his famed impression of a man about to fall off a bike. Image: Getty.

London's hire bikes have been a bit of a success story. Okay, they're massively subsidised, and used disproportionately by the sort of travellers who don't really need that subsidy. But they're well used, and they’ve just found a new sponsor in the form of Spanish bank Santander, and since they launched in 2010 they've expanded several times to cover a growing slice of the capital.

Not all of the capital, of course; nor all of the inner city, nor even a particularly rational or sensible selection of it.

Here's a map of the docking stations. See if you can spot the rather glaring omission:


What this shows is that you can hire bikes in such far flung districts as Walham Green and Cubitt Town. But head south east, and the docking stations stop frustratingly quickly.

This has been annoying people. So the Peckham Peculiar, a free local newspaper for an increasingly hipsterfied part of south London, is rallying the troops. Earlier this week it launched a petition on Change.org, calling on mayor Boris Johnson to, in not so many words, sort it out.

It's a noble cause – why shouldn’t an area of town surrounded by hire bikes on three sides be included in the scheme? Nonetheless, there are several reasons to think it unlikely it’ll have much of an impact.

One is that Johnson is not a man known for his responsiveness to public pressure. Another is that the petition has only just crept into triple figures, meaning it’s frankly not exerting all that much pressure in the first place.

Some of the comments left below the petition.

The big one, though, is that the scheme's expansion has so far been done on a pay-to-play basis. As the Evening Standard reported in February 2013:

Transport for London expects to start erecting new docking stations in April but is charging boroughs up to £2m each to join the bike hire scheme.

(...)

[Lambeth] is paying £200,000, while Kensington & Chelsea — which was included in the original scheme — is expected to pay £400,000. Hammersmith and Fulham is paying £2m. Last year Tower Hamlets paid £1.9m for the eastern extension.

On one level, expanding transport infrastructure based on third parties' willingness to pay makes some sort of sense. Money is in short supply; demand for infrastructure isn't. So to make sure you get the best bang for your buck, you should prioritise those areas where someone else will stick their hand in their pocket. (See also Northern Line extension, cable car, et al.)

On another level, though, this is a very silly way of doing things, and the gap in the hire bike system shows you why: it means we get transport infrastructure that has very little to do with actual patterns of demand. It results in absurdities like the bikes being available half a dozen miles from town in Putney, long before they make it 500m east of Tower Bridge.

The current gap may not persist forever. Peter John, the leader of Southwark council, whose domain contains much of the excluded area, said in January last year the borough was looking into finding cash to plug the hole. Since then, though, Johnson has tried to downplay expectations of a further expansion, talking instead of the need to intensify coverage in the area already included.

So while a south eastern extension of the bike zone isn't impossible, it'll almost certainly require more than petition to make it happen.

If you do want to show your support for the cyclists of south east London, you can do so here.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.