“We could be one brain that is negotiating public space and social space collectively in real time,” said Gabriela Gomez-Mont, the head of the Laboratorio Para La Ciudad of Mexico City, says of her future vision of Mexico City.
On November 10, this vision won the Mexico City team the 2014 Audi Urban Future Award over Seoul, Berlin, and Boston. The Audi Urban Future Initiative “aims to establish a dialogue about urban mobility and sustainable and enjoyable ways to move from one place to another.” Mexico City needs this desperately. According to IBM’s commuter pain index, Mexico City has the worst, most painful traffic of any city in the world. In the megacity of 22 million people, the average commute time to the city’s business district is three solid hours despite that only 28% use of private cars for transport. With only 1.2 passengers per car, that 28% is causing what the team called “a real hassle for the rest of us.”
As a solution, they proposed a new “social contract for reinventing mobility.” Their plan–created by Gomez-Mont along with Jose Castillo, urban planning professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and Carlos Gershenson, their data analyst–includes a data-donating website and app called Living Mobs. The app anonymously tracks where people go, how long they take, and their modes of transit. The other component of the proposal is a program of data-sharing partnerships with companies, educational institutions, and government agencies. The app is already in use in beta form and the team has already begun to analyze the data along with the 14,000 data sets they have collected from over 30 current partnerships including Yaxi, Microsoft, Movistar, and Uber.
The app also allows users to access curated data commuter in real time: “As soon as enough real-time data are available for precise forecasts, citizens can adapt their mobility behavior and contribute to relieving traffic bottlenecks by departing later or choosing the means of transportation that take them to their goal fastest,” Castillo says. Simple informed decisions on a mass-scale amount to a new collective freedom “to use individual mobility when you need it and the freedom to choose other opportunities. And this can transform the megacity.”
“Society has the capacity to define what it means to live together… 1.2 people per car [is] nothing! That’s not about government. That’s about how we individually negotiate the common collective versus our personal comfort,” says Castillo in his presentation. “It is the citizen who has to be seen as the person who changes mobility and does not expect public policy to do so.”
But collecting and curating this type of data could have implications even beyond just getting to work. Gomez-Mont envisions a much more responsive city: “There are so many things that are locked into place that could … depend more upon demand and the way people are using the city. We could have dynamic systems for parking or two or one-way streets. The city could respond more actively to the way people are using it.”
There is an oft-repeated statistic that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. But, as Gomez-Mont points out, these revelations are old hat in Mexico City. Latin America reached 50% urban population two decades ago, and has already reached 70% today. Mexico City can, therefore, serve as a prime location for developing models that will serve well for the future of cities the world over. “We can produce a city operating system with the integration of data, the city, and mobility that can really be the DNA of the future megalopolis,” says Castillo.
The Mexico City team’s data solution is simple and low-cost. There are 100 million cell phones in Mexico (70% of those are expected to be smartphones by next year), so the plan appears viable. It represents a smart solution to traffic problems but also a paradigm shift in responsibility for solving urban issues and negotiating public space. It gives citizens the power of information and asks them to take accountability for the function of their own cities. Because, after all, as Gomez-Mont says, “Cities [are] a gargantuan cultural invention that we all create together.”