Urban areas are one of the main deployment sites of new technology, as highlighted by the smart city concept. Cities are more densely populated globally, and have the highest volumes of goods and people flowing. They are natural sites for the application of technology to resolve social and economic problems. How technology is introduced, and whether social and economic problems are resolved in the interest of workers, depends on power.
Public transport is no exception. Technology is allowing capital to re-envision what transportation systems should look like. Some of these visions focus on transport becoming an on-demand service provided by privately owned digital platforms. In some cases the transport means are even driven by volunteers. In other cases, the vision is to connect all forms of transport, including bicycles and walking into an interconnected system that allows users to select whatever mix suits them to get from A to B.
Many cities globally are moving towards becoming ‘smart cities’. This generally means the use of technology and data to improve urban services including transport. This can occur by connecting all bureaucratic data into one place for easy access by citizens – as happens in Moscow – where people can see their children’s test results, school reports, what they ate for lunch in the same place they can pay their bills and parking fines. In other cities mobile phone data is used to assess how people move across the city, or to determine when rubbish bins are ready for collection. The data is collected from dispersed databases, and also from sensors like mobile phones, cameras and chips embedded in traffic or other infrastructure. The interconnection of data sources is key to the vision.
This definition of a smart city emphasises technological solutions to social and urban problems. This involves political choices and could exacerbate existing inequalities. Shifting the smart city narrative in the interests of workers and communities will need a wider focus on social justice in cities, participatory democracy and public engagement.
Currently in many cities the technology is provided by private companies, who then control the data. There are problems with transparency and with democratic accountability. Citizens in some cities are beginning to take action, and demand access and democratic control of data.
Impacts on urban transport workers
Urban transport workers will be highly exposed to this trend. Buses, taxis, metro systems and so on would all be integrated in the idealised ‘Smart City’. The question is how?
Transport workers should have two main concerns. The first is whether the smart city really means a ‘privatised city’ where the technology and data is collected, analysed and owned by private companies who use it to determine working conditions and the structure of the system itself. In such a situation workers would contribute their data to the running of the system, but have no control over what was done with it.
The second is how these new visions affect existing public transport systems where most workers are public employees or in formal employment. If public transport systems are undermined in favour of uber-style ride-hailing apps this will result in a notable decrease in incomes and working conditions in the sector. If the Smart City concept links services by formally employed workers to those provided by informal, part-time or volunteer workforces, then significant downward pressure on pay and conditions can be expected alongside the impacts on safety and passenger service. However if unions are strong and influential we can shape a just transition in the interest of both formal and informal workers.
There are other concerns too – a city run on data has to collect that data. Who collects it, analyses it and owns it then becomes an incredibly powerful player in that city. This has potential impacts on democracy, on social and gender exclusion, and on all sorts of issues that will affect transport workers as the people that keep goods and people circulating across it, as well as inhabitants of these cities. Public transport workers, formal and informal, and citizens must be part of a democratic planning process on the future of cities, to ensure that data is a public resource.
In many cities transport workers have already seen the disappearance of thousands of jobs in customer service and ticketing, from ticketing office staff to train and bus conductors. This process is continuing as we can see in the current union disputes over guards on trains.
This disappearance of people from transport infrastructure is also about safety, and about human connection. People like to deal with people when they have a problem, and they feel safer using manned transport. It is also a gender issue, since many of the jobs that are going are those where women dominate. Union strength will determine in whose interest these issues are resolved.
This is the most salient example. Metro systems are among the easiest to automate as they function in a controlled environment without much exposure to the weather. Here there is a clear trend towards further introduction of driverless technology, with China and the Gulf expected to lead the way. Some companies expect up to 70% of metro systems to become driverless within about 6 years. Other areas of public transport aren’t so easy to automate.
Buses and other road passenger transport will be far harder to make driverless. This is partly due to the complexity of the road environment, but also the complexity of the passengers’ needs. Bus drivers can offer first aid, they lower disabled ramps, they need to monitor passenger behaviour. Not easy for an AI (artificial intelligence) to do for the foreseeable future.
Deployment of remote control buses
This could be far cheaper, and could be done in conjunction with having ‘someone’ on the buses to do customer service (on lower pay than a driver). The drivers would operate from an office with screens showing lots of data, and the buses would potentially be able to be operated from cheaper cities, or even other countries.
The economic advantages for employers is clear. Use cheaper technology that already exists, deskill a human role on the bus, and shift the skilled role to a cheaper labour region.
Public transport workers are increasingly be exposed to monitoring technology, whether through their phones or wearable devices, or through cameras and microphones being deployed throughout cities and their systems. AI will gradually be introduced that will increasingly be able to benchmark workers against each other, and could be used to drive down pay and conditions. It doesn’t have to, but if transport is run by private or public companies run for profit, then this will be the tendency for technology in the sector.
This demands that workers have more say in how technology is deployed, and in how it can be used by their employers.
Worker control of technology
How technology is introduced and what effects this has on public transport workers, depends on power. There are social choices that are implicit in new technology and new work practices. As unions we need to influence the narrative on technology. What conditions are required for technology to benefit workers? What policies and campaign goals will help us achieve this? What are our union demands for a smart city?