How Do We Get to ‘Smart’ From Here?

Maybe there are some very good reasons why you don’t hear much lately about this being a Smart City.

By Dennis Boone

Remember the “Smart City?” That was the phrasing you might have heard a lot about back in 2016 when City Hall was touting its efforts to become—no kidding—the World’s First Smart City. To further that ambitious goal, the city created the position of Chief Innovation Officer in 2016.

The first occupant of that office fought the good fight for three years. His successor was gone after eight months. Then came a new mayor and the announcement that the city was pulling the plug on its innovation office.

One doesn’t hear that “smart city” stuff bandied about much anymore. Wonder why that is. Did we get dumber? Or did we just realize that The Dumb is such an essential part of our nature that we’ll never overcome it?

My money is on the latter, and it’s confirmed almost daily on a drive across any part of the city:

 My all-time favorite is a stretch of 22nd Street, just where it ties into Cesar Chavez Boulevard. For reasons no one has ever rationally explained, that four-car-length strip of asphalt is marked one-way for a good, oh, 100 feet, maybe less. Traffic flows unimpeded from the west, but if you approach the intersection from the east, you must turn right onto Pennsylvania, then make the 135-degree left turn onto Southwest Boulevard before taking a right at Chavez. The best part? The traffic lights controlling westbound vehicles that aren’t there still operate on a cycle.

 The advocates of public transportation, in their ForeverWar against you and the vehicle in your garage, have scored another uncontested victory with the restriping of Rockhill Road at the northern gates of UMKC. Why? To accommodate bicycle ridership that simply does not exist in meaningful numbers and never will. The system of wide boulevards envisioned before the internal combustion engine arrived and gifted to this city by 19th-century visionaries remains under attack, with left-turn lanes being erased and traffic chokepoints increasing in the quest to up our “road diet” count. I wrote about this back in 2018, when Gillham Road was reduced to one-lane northbound, but conceded then that I might have been wrong, that we should wait for a while to see if the promised throngs would come forth in a classic “if you build it, they will ride” municipal fever. Usage by bike riders since then—some days, you can drive the entire length from UMKC to Hospital Hill without seeing one—only confirms the spectacular level of Dumb that has taken hold. A policy made worse than Dumb by being Stubborn at the same time.

 Wouldn’t a Smart City be one that reduced the idling time of those dreaded gas burners, moving vehicles more fluidly and efficiently from Point A to B? It Seems like it, but even something as simple as road-resurfacing impact seems to be beyond the grasp of City Hall. Take 75th Street, where east-west traffic counts vastly exceed those of The Paseo. Yet a new layer of asphalt at that intersection has flipped the control cycle to a better than 2:1 time ratio, benefitting north-south traffic that is rarely there. Meanwhile, you can often find 15 cars, sometimes more, waiting out the red light on 75th for no useful purpose whatsoever unless you’re selling gasoline to those motorists.

Meanwhile, The Area Transportation Authority seems paralyzed by financial distress caused by . . . debating whether to resume charging bus fares, which were dropped during the early stages of the pandemic nearly four years ago. Lacking the courage to reinstate fares, the ATA has been racking up annual operating losses of $10 million a year. Meanwhile, pay-as-you-go fares are just part of daily life in New York ($2.90 per ride; what’s up with that? Just round up and take the extra dime), Chicago ($2.50), Dallas ($3 during rush hour, otherwise, $2) and most any other city that might consider people paying for their transportation “smart.”

We could go on playing this game for quite a while, as the Dumb has spilled over into public-school administration, Jackson County administration (especially with property assessments), public-private partnerships (see: annual subsidies, Power & Light District)—it’s a long list.

Thank goodness our local elections are non-partisan and have been blessedly free of interparty squabbling for decades. Just imagine how much worse things would be if we’d been electing people who campaigned on fiscal responsibility, data-driven success metrics, and a commitment to true public service.

It’s almost too terrible an idea to contemplate.

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