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More Than Just a Bench

A handful of cities have installed solar-powered benches that can charge phones, sense heat and track traffic.

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A Soofa bench in Cambridge, Mass.
Between its bus stops, parks and plazas, Boston has thousands of benches. For the most part, they're just for sitting, but under a new pilot project, they could become data outposts for recording levels of heat, light and noise in public spaces, not to mention nearby pedestrian foot traffic. Boston and a handful of other large cities, including Jersey City, N.J., Boulder and Austin, have installed these "smart benches," which use solar panels to power mobile devices, such as phones and tablets. In the future, they'll be outfitted with a variety of sensors that will collect and share data with city agencies. 

It's not all that surprising that city officials would be quick to buy a few of these benches. After all, it boosts a city's reputation for embracing new technology and supporting the private development of analytical tools that benefit the public. Soofa, the company that makes the smart benches, capitalizes on city officials' desire to uphold that reputation. "It not only symbolizes their commitment to being innovative by buying our product," says Ed Krafcik, a business development manager at Soofa, "but the fact that you're an early adopter is really powerful."

The Soofa benches are part of a larger effort within urban government to add new functions to street furniture. When Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced that the city would be installing its first set of smart benches, he argued that public officials have to think about ways to augment or reinvent standard objects in an urban environment. “Your cell phone doesn’t just make phone calls," Walsh said, "why should our benches just be seats?” New York City is replacing public phone booths with NYC Link stations that provide free wireless Internet access, USB chargers and Android tablets. In Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and many other cities, conventional trash cans have given way to solar-powered bins that collect and share data with waste departments.

Smart furniture -- be it a phone booth, trash can or park bench -- has the potential to turn existing parts of the urban landscape into automated sources of information. Cambridge, Mass., has also installed more than a dozen benches with charging outlets, but officials see it as the first phase in a larger project. "If it’s going to be worth it for cities to put something like this out in the urban landscape," said Jason Zogg, a program manager at the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, "it has to offer more than just a charging station for phones." In the future, they have to offer useful data, too. 

For example, if Zogg is trying to attract a grocery store or pharmacy to a neighborhood that doesn't have one yet, he might be able to pique a company's interest with free, easily accessible pedestrian foot traffic counts he's collected through the benches. Cities will have the option to add a feature that allows the benches to identify the unique WiFi or Bluetooth signals from nearby cell phones, giving city planners some idea of how many people pass by the benches. (Krafcik says the benches wouldn't collect information to identify who is using the phones.)

Zogg noted that the Soofa benches do have some drawbacks and it's not clear whether the Soofa-type model or an alternative offered by competitors will prove more useful in cities. Other companies sell solar-powered charging stations that include USB cables for various mobile devices. The Soofa bench, by comparison, has outlets but no cables, leaving people out of luck if they don't have a USB cable. While a standard city bench can cost between $2,000 and $3,000, the Soofa models start at about $3,800 and go up with extra data-collection features. Boston recently installed a few that cost about $4,900 each. 

The Soofa benches do have one aesthetic advantage over other types of charging stations: "We’re trying not to clutter the urban landscape with too many pieces of street furniture," Zogg said. Between crosswalk signals, traffic signals, kiosks, waste bins and phone booths, city streets are already crowded. By replacing conventional benches with their hi-tech upgrades, cities don't have to add to the clutter.

While Soofa appears to be the only company selling street benches with enhanced technological functions, it probably won't be for long. That's why Krafcik says Soofa is starting to focus more on data collection and ways to empower city officials to make policy decisions with that information. For example, in Cambridge, the city's climate protection plan calls for minimizing the urban heat island effect by expanding the tree canopy and repainting dark roofs in lighter, less heat absorbant colors. The Soofa benches may help the city identify where the heat islands are so that the city can concentrate its efforts in those targeted geographic areas.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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