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THE LEGIBLE CITY IS HERE, IT’S JUST NOT EVENLY DISTRIBUTED.


Last summer, New York City struck back
against the congestion caused by Uber and Lyft, adopting a one-year cap on the number of ride-hailing vehicles that can roam the city streets. The cap was roundly criticized by the startups in question — why place arbitrary limits on the size of their fleets? Particularly when the same algorithms directing drivers to flood busy areas at rush hour could just as easily be tweaked to charge congestion pricing fees, because these can see where the vehicles are, and where they’re headed.

But the city has no such tools — only a blunt instrument. The hyperlegible city is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. In anthropology, “legibility” refers to the erasure of local customs (think: taxi regulations) in order to make a place more governable… or profitable. Uber and Airbnb, for example, have built empires by alternately ignoring or rewriting local laws to make cities more legible for users, opening up the hidden neighborhood gems to all, while keeping their data and methods opaque. As cities struggle to tame these disruptors, a new generation of startups is working with cities to make the rules governing urban life more transparent for all.


In anthropology, “legibility” refers to the erasure of local customs in order to make a place more governable… or profitable.


“The idea of black box algorithms deployed for maximum financial extraction — I think that’s going to be regulated,” says Yale Fox, CEO of Rentlogic, a graduate of URBAN-X Cohort 04. “What worked five years ago with the Uber and Airbnb approach of, ‘Let’s go into a city, do what we want and ask for forgiveness later’ isn’t going to work any more.”

Rentlogic and its fellow URBAN-X cohort members Open Data Nation and ClearRoad are all striving to build a more legible city on behalf of the public, whether through grading every residential building in New York, mapping the risk of traffic injuries for every block in Chicago, or building the dynamic road pricing system Manhattan lacks, respectively.

 


ClearRoad CEO Frederic Charlier goes a step further, stating that legible systems like road pricing will enable cities to rapidly spot and mitigate the negative externalities of idling Ubers, and to test alternatives. “If there’s a burden on certain commuters,” he explains, “we could charge lower rates to take account of socio-economic conditions.” In other words, a hyperlegible city is one in which you can follow money to its source, and thereby make fees more equitable.

But it’s not only a matter of transactions. “In Washington D.C., people of color are seven times more likely to be struck by a vehicle,” says Carey Anne Nadeau, CEO of Open Data Nation. “We can use data to decide which intersections are the most dangerous, and whether to implement a speed bump or other measures by supplementing decisions with data.”


“A hyperlegible city is one in which you can follow money to its source, and thereby make fees more equitable.”


There are strict limits to this, she adds. A hyperlegible city isn’t one in which data settles every debate. But being able to see inside a city — not only how it works, but who’s using it, with what impact, and who is being excluded — is essential to building a city that is better and, hopefully, more equitable.

 


Words by Sara Trigoboff.
Illustration by Maria Giemza.

The article is from the second edition of the URBAN-X Zine, which explores how startups and citizens are augmenting increasingly machine-readable cities. Now that public space has been quantifiably proven to be a critical, social reactor powering urban life, how will we prevent companies from exploiting it? The obvious solution is to simply put a price on everything. But in doing so, will we learn the value of nothing? The materials in this publication reflect the views of its individual contributors and may or may not reflect the views of URBAN-X.

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