Israel is experiencing a collapse of the transportation system. Public transport is unreliable and under-developed, and many people rely on their cars to get from point A to point B. And with the increase of vehicles on the road — comes the increase in traffic. A commute of 4.8 km, which usually takes about 19 minutes without traffic — now takes me anywhere between 40 and 50 minutes.
When it’s morning, I tend to commute in “automatic mode”. I do what my navigation software tells me, pay attention to the environment, and slowly but painfully navigate my way via the traffic. The navigation software I use, Waze, is so called — smart. It is able to predict traffic buildups and re-route me to a less busy road. And since pretty much everyone in Israel uses Waze — the algorithm is very good. Many times I find myself taking a longer route, anywhere between 6 km to 8 km, which suppose to be faster (at least according to Waze) than my original, heavily traveled, route.
On a sunny morning commute — I had an epiphany. Technology has a huge effect on our day-to-day life. Let me explain.
Urban design fascinates me. We don’t think a lot about urban design in our day-to-day lives, but it is an interesting occupation.
If you’ve ever been in a European city, you probably visited the so called — City Center. It is usually a pedestrianized zone, with a “main” street on which the town hall, the towns’ market, and sometimes a church, are located. It is surrounded by smaller streets, which all eventually lead to the main street. I don’t know if you have noticed — but you can’t get lost here. No matter what route you take — you always reach the main street.
The reason behind this goes back in time when cities were small and people hanged out on the main street near the town hall and the city market. Farmers from all around the town — came to the market to sell their goods.
As towns grew and became cities, new neighborhoods were built to accommodate the growth. And then came the industrial revolution and zoning.
During the industrial revolution, everybody was building factories. Factories are usually big, ugly, smelly, and noisy. People don’t want to live near them, so they started to settle far away. This is why cities today have, so called, industrial zones. During working hours — those are filled with people (workers) and very lively. But after the working day ends, or during the weekend, they are soulless.
Apart from industrial zones, cities have other zones. Zones for multi-story residential neighborhoods; zones for single home detached units; business zones etc. And those zones are designed to accommodate those who live or work there. Multi-story neighborhoods for example are designed to be accessible by a big amount of people. Single story neighborhoods will be less accessible, and in extreme cases like the US — not accessible at all by public transportation, only by car. Business centers will be built around major transportation hubs like trains stations or bus terminals, to accommodate a huge amount of working people that are coming from all corners of the city, and sometimes even from nearby cities.
Mixed zoning exists as well, but as you can imagine — all those zones are designed around the people who live, work and recreate there. And people can, usually, choose where to live. Some value the city vibe and decide to live close to business centers in high rise buildings, while others might value smaller communities and decide to live in a single family homes far from the noise.
Here I was. Sitting in my car, in traffic, in a neighborhood designed around single family homes. Together with me there were tens of other cars. And for a moment I thought to myself — did the people who decided to live there — knew they will, eventually, end up living in a car clogged neighborhood?
I was never in this neighborhood before, nor it is the most optimal route to get from my home to my workplace. At least not according to graph theory, on which all navigation systems are built. But not to Waze. Waze does not calculate the shortest possible route. It calculates the shortest possible route, considering traffic. And sometimes, in order to avoid traffic, the best route is through quiet neighborhoods that were designed for minimal car traffic.
Technology is not a panacea
My point is not to complain about Waze. I’m here to outline a bigger problem — we, as humanity, reached to a point where we throw “Technology”, “AI” and “Machine Learning” at every problem we have.
Horrible traffic? — Let’s build AI navigation software!
Satellites internet? — Let’s lunch tens of thousand of satellites in low orbit, creating light pollution.
Bad and expensive taxi services? — Let’s create a non-taxi service where everybody can be a driver!
Money system bad!!! — Let’s create a decentralized financial system that emits ~27.4 million tons of CO2. 1
And everybody is okay with it. Because if you are not — you are anti progress. And technology is always associated with progress. But as with any solution, there are good technological solutions and there are bad technological solutions. And they need to be evaluated and their impact on our lives should be assessed. And in some cases, it might turn out to be that technology — is not the best solution for the problem.