Public Services and the Wonders of the Third Week in August

There are times when transportation and other infrastructure work just as they should. Smart cities look for ways to make that happen all the time.
June 9, 2015
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

Residents of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area have a number of viable public transportation options, including a subway system, buses and train service to other parts of the region. Yet, the region has some of the worst highway traffic congestion in the United States.

But every year, with the arrival of the third week in August, the pressure on the region's transportation infrastructure eases. Tourist season winds down, so the number of out-of-town visitors dwindles to a trickle. Congress is usually out of session at that time, which frees lawmakers' staffs to take time off and even take leave of the area. And many of the region's commuters are away on vacation.

During the August respite from snarled traffic and crowded trains, the D.C. region's transportation infrastructure works as it should. Within the metro area, a 30-mile commute by car from northern Virginia or central Maryland into Washington may take just 35 minutes, compared to the 75-90 minutes normally required during peak-volume traffic times. Access to the regions' greenways, parks, museums and other cultural amenities becomes far easier. Mass-transit commuters and car drivers alike can be heard to say, "I wish it was always like this."

In a smart city, it is always the third week of August. Transit systems move people from place to place efficiently, taking them where they need to go in a comfortable and timely manner. Other public infrastructure systems -- electricity, water and sanitation, to name just a few -- hum along without major disruption. In a smart city, the convergence of leading-practice information technology and government policies, plans and programs results in delighted customers.

The equation for creating a smart city is simple: Technology + Governance = Smarter Cities. Technology may be the easiest part of that equation, as new applications, software and platforms targeted at local governance issues come online every day.

To ease traffic in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, one of the most congested in the United States, the region uses automated traffic-control systems with magnetic road sensors and cameras routed through a centralized computer system to control 4,500 traffic signals. Since the $400 million system was completed, it has increased travel speeds by 16 percent and shortened delays at major intersections by 12 percent.

In Orlando, Fla., the home of Walt Disney World and one of the nation's most heavily visited tourist destinations, a mobile app helps downtown patrons locate information about parking in the city, including information about pricing and locations for available slots.

Local governments also routinely use technology to collect mountains of service-delivery data. To put that data to work requires adequate management structures that turn technology outputs and other data into actionable, measurable outcomes for the community's residents, businesses and other stakeholders.

One effective way to do that -- an essential approach to smart management -- is through is resident engagement. New tools and social-media technologies are making it exponentially easier for the conversation between the local government and residents to take place and for local leaders to hear and react to the needs of their residents. Palo Alto, Calif., for example, is one of a number of communities that routinely use the Open Town Hall online-forum platform to pose questions about new initiatives that the city may undertake and to get input from residents. More-traditional tools such as citizen surveys also provide data that local officials can use to measure the performance and public perception of their service-delivery functions.

As the trend towards urbanization increases, the need for smarter communities becomes more imperative. Local government service-delivery responsibilities will continue to expand and diversify. To meet those challenges, local officials will need to seek out the right combination of technology and governance. A model of service delivery that aims to make every week the third week in August will go a long way toward meeting the demands of the people who live, work, and play in our communities.