Tips & Tools

Taking Care of Walking

9/19 Sensor city and our feet

9/19 Sensor city and our feet


How to create a smart city for pedestrians? Conscious handling of data and using apps that stimulate walking are important ingredients. The final article in a series of three in preparation of the Walk 21 world conference (7-10 October 2019). The first two articles you can find in my recent Blogs. The articles are all published in the Dutch specialist magazine ‘Verkeer In Beeld’.

A city is as smart as its inhabitants. Utrecht Science Park, on the east side of the city, seems to be a place full of smart people. ”It is remarkable to watch” says Cor Jansen, director of Utrecht Marketing: 'Within Utrecht Science Park many people ride their bicycles from A to B. But not the professors. They walk. In a smart way, they opt for a few more minutes of travel time in order to refresh their mindset".

Catching up

While the number of 'smart city projects' is growing, the slowly increasing knowledge in the domain of pedestrians does not find its way fully in practice. During the research for my book, I learned that the interests of pedestrians are insufficiently represented. This is why decision-makers often neglect these interests. These lags behind should be taken into account by smart projects.  

Big Brother

Data brokers face dilemmas and uncertainties. The phenomenon 'big brother is watching you', for example, has its dangers in the private sphere through data collection, as China shows. There, twelve regional governments link all kinds of citizens’ data to their pedestrian- and other traffic behavior. The aim is to hand out punishments or rewards. As with many experiments and 'pilots' in the field of data, there are no accessible and verifiable evaluations here.

Pedestrian sensors

Other developments also give rise to speculation about the future. Take a look at the trials with the sensor district in Toronto by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google. Or consider the effects of self-driving cars. Marleen Stikker, director of the Dutch independent technology think tank De Waag, expects that self-driving cars, for example, will make it necessary for all pedestrians to wear sensors. She argues for the fundamental discussion as to whether a private party, such as a private self- car, is actually allowed to take over control of the public space.

Eyes and ears

For traffic and mobility professionals there are opportunities in the field of smart data and apps that support walking. A first example can be found in everyday municipal practice.  Many citizens make contact with their municipality to make a 'public space notification' online or by telephone. About rubbish in the street, crooked sidewalks, you name it. By filtering out, collecting and analyzing data on walking, an image is created: what goes wrong and what goes right? A basis for a pedestrian policy is made by linking these citizens’ findings to other eyes and ears, such as district management and maintenance teams and the police.    

Searching best locations

Objective data can reduce prejudices about walking and walking distances. An example is the exact indication of walking distances and durations going from A to B. "It was really not so bad, that walk", is a frequently heard reaction. This is particularly important when it comes to key decision moments, such as searching the best location of a new home. Municipalities can encourage real estate agents to report real walking distances and number of walking minutes online for houses for sale.

Getting gamers out of their seats

Expert Mark Aarts is heading innovative movement projects around gaming and e-sports. With his initiatives he seduces a target group that is overweight. "Gamers can stimulate each other to do more sports or exercise. Many players take an idea seriously because a fellow gamer is suggesting it. Sometimes they want to do more joint activities than just sit at their gaming tablets". Aarts mentions a tournament that was combined with where there was also a lot of football. By incorporating movements in games, gamers take extra steps.

Happy Life

Aarts talks about an interesting example in which he himself is not involved. Linked to Minecraft, the popular game where you build your own virtual worlds, the local government sports agency of the Dutch city Deventer (‘Sportbedrijf’) released the Happy Life app in 2018. The more steps you take on your smartphone, the more imaginary building blocks you earn. Two cities duplicated this initiative.  Rewards can also be redeemed by participants in their own city: for example, free swimming lessons or participation in the Greenest Obstacle Run.

Apps help

Back to Cor Jansen. As director of Utrecht Marketing, Cor Jansen is one of the driving forces behind developments in the city. As a member of the Utrecht Development Board, he supports initiatives to get Utrechts population more active on its feet. Marketing tools like apps can support physical measures. His vision: “The eBike is becoming the norm. The fast bike replaces the car in many situations. Now that Dutch governments are investing more in cycling, the quality of walking facilities has to improve too. For example, we have to define more pedestrian zones with a ban on cycling. This will prevent the city from becoming a battlefield between pedestrians, cyclists and cars". Because: "Walking becomes the best way to move around in inner city urban life”.

30 September 2019

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