Why mobility cannot be had as a blanket solution
In conversation with Katja Schechtner, mobility expert and Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Ms. Schechtner, you have been living, researching and working at the interface of architecture and urban planning, traffic planning and digitization for around 25 years in various places around the world. With this international and interdisciplinary view and your many years of experience, can you identify a common denominator that characterizes successful urban and transportation planning?
Every city is different. Every city has its own beat, every city has its own rhythm. Every city has its own mentality. And therefore also its own mobility behavior. So the circumstances are quite different depending on the city. This means that for planning, it is always crucial to consider local conditions and needs; you have to take them into account. Once solutions have been achieved, they cannot simply be transferred from one city to another, but must be developed and adapted to the local context. Even within Austria, one could not simply use planning from one city for another, for example from Vienna to Linz or vice versa. What works in Paris is far from working in Tokyo. Asian cities are a completely different world anyway. A study visit to Japan at the time inspired and shaped me for my later work. The interplay between people, machines and infrastructure was like ballet. The choreography is the task of the planners.
I worked and lived for a long time in Asia, in the USA, in various countries in Europe and Africa. For example, I was involved in introducing public transportation in large Asian cities, such as a bus rapid transit system in Laos and Pakistan. Of course, these different experiences and insights help me intuitively recognize structures and patterns when I arrive in a place. But the crucial thing is to work on site in an interdisciplinary way with experts from different disciplines; only then can a concept succeed. Like cooking, you need a recipe; the basic ingredients are usually the same everywhere, but the spices are different depending on the location. So of course you can be inspired by the concepts of other cities, but you must not be under the misapprehension that you can transplant a certain street from A to B, for example. As I said, planning must be adapted to local conditions and likewise to the local culture. New York's beat would be too fast elsewhere; it works there.
Der Takt einer Stadt ist individuell.
What role does data play in this context?
We need to understand mobility as a system. With the help of meaningful, reliable data, we can better design mobility in cities and use it more efficiently. This has implications for the distribution of space, because this also depends on which means of transport and resources are needed where. With the help of data, we gain in-depth knowledge and insights about such needs and uses. For example, we can understand connections between different parts of the city and areas and use other data when closing gaps in connections to determine which mobility service makes sense and will be accepted in a specific case. Digitization opens up possibilities for designing mobility and urban space in an environmentally compatible way to meet actual needs.
When we talk about design, we are also talking about the atmosphere of a city or individual streets and squares, i.e., how people feel there. Can data be used to make statements about - also perceived - characteristics and qualities of a city?
In a research group at MIT, we dedicated ourselves to the quantification of emotions triggered by certain places and streets of a city with the project "Place Pulse". The intention was to make diffuse qualities of a city measurable in emotional maps. Several thousand people of different origins, who had never been to the respective places before, used a web tool to look at photos of places in New York City, Boston, Linz and Salzburg, among others, from Google Street View. In each case, two street images were juxtaposed and the viewers were asked to rate them according to certain criteria, such as safety. If the ratings were sufficient, an algorithm created a measure for each image so that the feeling of safety for individual places could be quantified. We plotted these measures on an emotional map.
We cross-referenced these with, among other things, geographically disaggregated data on crime - for example, the murder rate of individual New York City neighborhoods - and found correspondences with the perceptions of safety that had been collected. So the interesting thing was that perceived safety reflected crime rates. So people can "see" these factors. And we can teach this, fear and insecurity, to an artificial intelligence as well with these findings. Based on this research, we can now better forecast the development of urban areas based on automated analyses of street photos. This makes it possible, for example, to carry out targeted preventive interventions or improvement measures if necessary, or to plan in a more human-friendly way, to make small interventions that have large effects - in the form of lighting, for example.
Keyword learning AI. What role could this play in the context of autonomous vehicles?
One goal, for example, is to enable self-driving cars to have a kind of gaze understanding in traffic. To this end, researchers at the MIT Media Lab have developed moving headlights in a prototype that can detect pedestrians and signal to them that it's okay to cross the street by "blinking," so to speak. Everyone understands that. No instructions are needed for this; it's intuitive. So in this interaction between man and machine, it's not man that should have to adapt to a technological environment, but the other way around.
What role do aesthetics play in urban and traffic planning, alongside hard factors such as functionality and efficiency?
For me as an architect, the aesthetics of individual buildings and the cityscape as a whole is a central aspect, although I lost sight of this for a while as I became increasingly involved with the subject of mobility. In a domain dominated mainly by men, the topic, especially when coming from a woman, was dismissed as soft, as something beaurocratic. But yes, aesthetics must play a central role in a livable city, it conditions it.
From your point of view, which city succeeds particularly well in mobility, which one do you personally like?
New York, for example. The subway system and how people are guided works very well, even though it's a fast city. In Paris, the merging of housing and mobility has worked well, and Anne Hidalgo's current efforts toward a 15-minute city are right. In Paris, the pace is different, here life takes place much more in public spaces, people spend more time outside, in cafés, as living space is simply very scarce.
Thank you very much for these exciting insights into your activities.
Katja Schechtner is an urban researcher and mobility expert.
She develops strategies and technologies that keep our cities moving. Most recently, she analyzed and developed technology and innovation policies with a focus on data science, AI and blockchain in the field of transport at the OECD in France, worked on infrastructure projects in major Asian cities for the Asian Development Bank in the Philippines, and before that established a mobility research department in Austria at AIT. In parallel, she has been a visiting researcher at MIT in Boston since 2010 and a visiting professor at the Angewandte in Vienna since March 2022. In Austria, she is a supervisory board member of AIT and OeNPAY.