One mayor's smart-city vision: No scooters, more surveillance

South Bend, Indiana, CIO Denise Riedl; Montgomery, Alabama, Mayor Todd Strange; New York University Assistant Professor Neil Kleiman; and moderator Brenna Berman at the Smart City Atlanta Expo. (StateScoop)

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Last month, Montgomery, Alabama, launched its first bikeshare system with a modest network of 55 bikes that residents and visitors can ride between 10 docks scattered around the city’s downtown. The system, operated by Zagster — a mobility company that runs bikeshare networks in cities, universities and corporate campuses around the United States — reportedly didn’t cost Montgomery a dime, thanks to a sponsorship from a group of health care companies, including Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange brought up his city’s new amenity as an example of successful public-private partnership during a discussion on collaboration Friday at the Smart City Expo Atlanta conference.

But while Strange is embracing the bikes, Montgomery residents shouldn’t expect to see the other popular forms of rentable transportation.

“We are not doing scooters,” Strange said.

Strange recalled seeing electric scooters — offered by Uber, Bird and other companies — piled up on the sidewalks of Atlanta and other U.S. cities, and said they’re even more cluttered overseas. “I was in France and they’re even worse,” he said.

Strange is hardly alone in his unease. Scooters and other new forms of shared transportation have created new and unprecedented challenges for cities in collecting data on how people move around, to say nothing of how they alter considerations of traffic flow and public safety. Neil Kleiman, an assistant professor of urban planning at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, said his conversations with city officials often begin with therapeutic griping about “scooter debris.”

“When I have smart-city convenings, I usually give 10 minutes at the start for mayors to vent,” Kleiman said. “How do you address these vehicles on your streets? Given that it is the Wild West, how can different parties come together and find a digital realm that improves the physical realm?”

Despite Strange’s opposition to rentable scooters, Montgomery is one of just two cities in Alabama — along with Huntsville — that the state legislature has legally authorized the companies that offer the vehicles to operate. As another drawback, the mayor cited a recent trip by one of his Cabinet officials to Knoxville, Tennessee, where that official fell off an electric scooter and broke his arm.

When asked to name a “smart city” trend that does excite him, Strange pointed to a surge in law-enforcement and surveillance technology, particularly a new Montgomery Police Department program that sends feeds from privately owned security cameras around the city to a new “real-time crime center.” The program, called STAR Watch, has already enrolled 5,000 cameras around the city since its launch in February, Strange said.

The initiative is voluntary, but Strange said it’s given his police department the ability to deploy a “virtual patrol” to track everything from criminal suspects to protest activity.

“It is Big Brother, but there are so many people out there who don’t appreciate life,” he said. “We can know there’s a rally going on and have eyes in the sky. Facial recognition, license plate recognition, that is the future.”

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Bikeshares, Montgomery, scooters, Smart Cities, Smart City Expo Atlanta, Todd Strange
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