From Bricks to Bytes, Cities and Innovation

Regional Plan Association has always tried to focus on what's most important to making our region more prosperous, efficient, and fair. In the last century, there's no question that was physical infrastructure projects. Our three landmark regional plans, 1929, 1969, and 1996, focused on hard infrastructure such as transit lines, electricity, water supply, parks, and — especially early in the century — on accommodating automobiles. Our 1929 document, for example, proposed 2,500 miles of limited access highways and included a plan for Radburn, N.J., entitled "New Town for the Motor Age." Later we took a different tack, urging as early as 1969 to reserve several Manhattan streets for pedestrians and transit, and in 1996, a four-borough Second Avenue Subway.

But in our current century, there is the potential for silicon chips, the Internet, and new wireless technologies to make potentially much smaller interventions in the physical environment very important. Mario Gandelsonas, Director of Princeton University's Center for Architecture, Urbanism and Infrastructure, calls these systems "soft infrastructure." And as we start to think about what kind of recommendations may be included in RPA's Fourth Regional Plan, we are going to be paying close attention to these opportunities. Call it "The Smart Region Plan."

The importance of such subjects is why we focused on them at our 20th Annual Regional Assembly earlier this month at the Waldorf-Astoria, where over 800 regional business and civic leaders discussed Innovation and the American Metropolis. During panels and keynote speeches, we didn't ignore our traditional interests such as transportation and parks, but we did spend more time talking and thinking about how relatively cheap and innovative technologies could make them function much better.

For example, Boston's transit agency began making real-time data feeds available for five bus lines last November. Within an hour, a programmer had created an application on Google that showed the real-time location of buses on those lines. In two days there was a new web page which tracked the movement of the buses. In a week, a desktop application provided countdown information for a rider's specific stop. In a month, the Centre Street Station in Jamaica Plain had an LED sign that counted down to the next bus arrival. In five weeks, all this data was integrated on apps for the iPhone and Android. In seven weeks the data could be delivered to any phone. Finally, two months after the data was made available, a texting service would send real-time data to any mobile phone on the arrival of the next bus at any station. All this with the construction of hardly any new physical infrastructure at all, such as big electronic signs announcing bus arrivals. While these would be nice, why not harness the wider public in much quicker and cheaper ways?

Another example: we provided an audience for Zipcar — not because it's an easy way to rent a car off the street, but because we know that the capital cost of providing structured parking is killing great mixed-use, transit-accessible development projects that would satisfy market demand and add to property tax rolls from Newark to Bridgeport. ZipCar says that every parking space for one of its cars eliminates the need for about 14 conventional parking spaces. That means developers could reduce the capital costs of parking by 93 percent - a boon for TOD.

Congestion pricing is also a transformative system that relies on new technology more than hard infrastructure to reshape cities in good ways. London, Stockholm, and Singapore have demonstrated this, and someday hopefully New York City will too. But beyond using the laws of supply and demand to manage city streets, new technology provides us with many options for addressing traffic congestion.

The taxi fleets of Stockholm, New York, and other cities are now equipped with GPS monitors. In addition to exposing systematic overcharging by a few rotten cabbies, these mobile monitors provide instant feedback on traffic flows and capacity. Programmers at IBM are going beyond real-time analysis to create models that will predict traffic congestion before it happens. Soon stoplights will be connected to central databases that can calibrate the signals to ease traffic before it builds up.

The smart grid is another potentially transformative innovation, creating a two-way electrical supply system that monitors the flows and demands on energy to prioritize uses and needs and to reduce overall power demand (and, by extension, carbon emissions). And electric vehicles are essentially batteries on wheels, charging up during the night, when demand is lowest, and providing mobile sources of supply that can be drawn down during peak periods. Suddenly, metropolitan areas become the country's most efficient and interconnected energy users, gaining incredible competitive advantages. Power supply company NRG is in the process of making Houston the nation's first city to have full electric vehicle recharging capability. Yes, Houston!

And we've only begun to scratch the surface of the capabilities of GIS. As data sets become more robust, they will also become smarter — learning to connect with other systems and evolve.

Who knows precisely where these new technologies and capabilities will lead us? But that's where planning comes in — to try to sort through the priorities and possibilities, and then identify where these exciting new developments can and should take our cities and regions in the future. There will always be new capital projects we need to focus on — high-speed rail for the Northeast Corridor, for example, or seamless transit connections to New York's airports. But here's a bet that the next comprehensive regional plans — for New York and every other major metro — will be focusing much less on new highways and subways, and much more on innovation, technology, apps and creativity. It's going to be a wild ride!