Having grown up in the digital age, I have to admit I’ve gotten used to thinking of changes as things that can happen instantly, and that mistakes can be fixed as quickly as clicking undo. Real life doesn’t always work that way. However, new technologies and increasingly modernized city governments are empowering people to make changes in their community quickly and efficiently.
There will never be a replacement for old-fashioned face-to-face interaction, or eyes on the street, but there a host of new tools we have to work with now. We’re also fortunate in Santa Monica that we have a city government that gets it and is trying to make the best use of new applications and technology.
One of my favorite new tools is the Santa Monica GoRequest application. The app can be downloaded for free in the iPhone and Android app stores, or it can be accessed through the Santa Monica Government on the Go Web site from any Internet-connected computer or smart phone. It is similar to old phone-response systems to report non-emergency issues in the city, but thanks to Web technology, systems like GoRequest allow for more robust features like GPS tagging, attaching photographs and resolution tracking.
As a video game developer, this reminds me a lot of the application we use at work to track bugs and tasks for our game software. So a consumer reports an issue—it might be graffiti, it might be a leaky pipe, or maybe a pedestrian signal is broken. The issue is then tagged with a number, and the consumer will be contacted via e-mail or through their phone app if the issue has been resolved or at least acknowledged.
At first I was a little skeptical about this system. I immediately loved the idea, but I wasn’t so sure it would really result in real actions. As an advocate for bicycling and pedestrian issues, I’ve mostly used the application to occasionally report things like crossing signals being defective, sidewalk obstructions, roadway hazards for cyclists, intersections on bike routes lacking signal detection for bikes and the need for bike parking at locations I frequented. When I first downloaded the app to my phone, I quickly added a handful of issues into the queue. Sure enough, each issue was acknowledged, and some of them were fixed almost immediately.
Things like pot holes in bike lanes and broken pedestrian signals were promptly addressed. A request for an extra recycling bin on my block of multifamily units resulted in a new recycle bin. With issues more complex than a quick fix, like installing new bike parking where none existed previously, I received messages that my requests would be considered in new bike parking plans. This was where I got a little skeptical again. I kept getting the same canned response when asking about bike parking for weeks going into months.
As I wrote about in my last column, the city has been , and sure enough, places I had requested bike racks are getting them now. Not everything I’ve reported or requested has been fixed or addressed yet, but I have to say I am impressed at how responsive the city has been. I highly encourage people to check out GoRequest. If as much energy as went into complaining about unresponsive governments actually went into interfacing with local governments, we’d probably get a lot more done.
Car parking is another popular, or hated (depending on how you look at it), topic in city life. that what we have in Santa Monica is not a problem of lacking parking quantity, but more a problem of efficient utilization. This thinking is informed in part by checking in every so often with our very own Google-powered Santa Monica parking map, which has real-time data of parking spaces available at public garages and lots in the downtown core and along the beach. An independent developer has also used this data to make a snappy, color-coded iPhone app called SAMO Park.
I'm , but occasionally I am a passenger, usually as part of a carpool. I make it my mission to ensure that any group I'm with that is parking in downtown Santa Monica will find a space quickly and easily. I also choose the route that will allow the easiest turn into the garage entrance knowing where left turns are restricted.
Here's a recent example: My mom was visiting with my brother and wanting to go out to eat with me and my wife, and my cousin who was visiting. They wanted to go out to eat in downtown Santa Monica, on a weekend with ideal beach weather, and therefore packed. I wasn't able to sweet-talk everyone onto bikes, but going into such a situation clueless could make for one hell of a stressful family drive.
Usually my go-to option is the subterranean garage at the ; it's both cheaper and less used than other downtown parking options. But in this case, it was a pretty far walk from the restaurant we were going to. So I checked the SAMO Park app. Both mall garages and most downtown garages were in the red, either full or nearly full, but Structure 5 was totally green with hundreds of unused spaces.
We approached from Arizona, where left turns are allowed onto Fourth St., which allowed us to make a right turn into the structure. Making that left from Arizona, you encounter Structure 3 before you get to Structure 5, so 3 tends to fill up fast, often leaving Structure 5 as a gold mine of available parking spaces, even on busy days when almost everything else is in red.
With the right information and the tools to access it, we can learn to use our city resources more efficiently. In the case of parking structures and lots, if we more evenly distributed the traffic flow into them, through the use of the real-time information, and perhaps some more flexible pricing incentives like making less used garages cheaper and overcrowded ones more expensive, we may find there are better things we could do with the millions of dollars it would take to significantly expand parking capacity. If more money were invested in better transit service and cycling facilities, that would further relieve pressure on the car-parking demand and make our city greener and more sustainable in the process.
So if you see a problem like leaf-blowing, sprinklers drenching sidewalks or a nasty pothole on your bike commute, report it on GoRequest. If you have trouble finding parking when driving downtown, check out the Google Map or SAMO Park.
Hopefully we will see more tools like these developed to make Santa Monica an even better place, but no fancy smartphone app or Web page, is going to accomplish anything without users. It’s up to us to become citizens 2.0, and start applying these new tools.