No, this is not your normal bus stop. Photos courtesy JCDecaux.

These Two LA Bus Stops Might Change the Future of Cities

Mayors are beginning to understand that citizens should have instant access to vital information — through the air. Here’s where it begins.

Digital-era humans are constantly optimizing — sometimes it feels as if we’re all engaged in an endless game of Frogger, continually navigating past a continual stream of obstacles, seeking the home of a thriving life. Nowhere is this practice as visible as in cities, where densely-packed populations weave past one another and new technology could provide opportunities to make life better. As mayors become more responsive to their citizens, how could adding the magic of public-enabled digital information to structures and streets help out? And what’s the role of the private sector in this transformation?

One possible answer is emerging in The Big Orange, Los Angeles. This summer, JCDecaux, the biggest company you’ve never thought about, teamed up with Outfront Media and the city to digitally-enable — hold your breath here — two bus shelters.

Don’t laugh. The implications of this humble pilot project are likely enormous, and it’s worth taking a look at the new levels of vibrant life to which this experiment points. It’s also important to note the changes in local governance that made the pilot possible in the first place.

First, the leading player. JCDecaux is the world’s largest street furniture and transport advertising company, and has been around for decades. You may not know it exists, but its output is constantly in your face. Next time you go through an airport or a train station, look for the JCDecaux name — it will be there, because the company serves up ads on about 400,000 screens in more than 70 countries. JCDecaux can do projects of enormous scale and has deep and long relationships with cities around the world.

The company has traditionally focused on public transport advertising rather than orienting itself around cars and highways. In 2003, JCDecaux launched ad-supported self-service bike rental, beginning in Vienna. It now operates those systems in nearly seventy cities around the world. The Paris system, Vélib, has been particularly successful, with tens of thousands of bikes. (Here’s a nice bike-share interactive history, courtesy of Atlantic’s CityLab.)

Now, the pilot for this LA story. This summer, JCDecaux and Outdoor Media outfitted two bus shelters — the humblest, most old-fashioned of civic structures, both located near City Hall — with WiFi hotspots, a USB port for charging devices, and displays of transit information. They also have iBeacons, a kind of digital lighthouse that is constantly signaling its presence and sending small bits of data to nearby iOS devices (but only when those users have affirmatively opted to receive that data and have downloaded an app that makes the data useful). If you push a button, the bus shelters will talk to you, providing bus times. And they use less power because they’re equipped — retrofitted, really — with LED lights.

These structures may be called bus shelters, and people may indeed wait for buses in them, but they can also be understood as something much more: the first potentially responsive public structures in the enormous sprawl of Los Angeles. And the project can easily scale: Every one of LA’s 114 neighborhoods has bus shelters. Think of what this could mean for the city as a whole. Every part of the city could have an interactive civic platform suitable for a host of uses, making real digital back-and-forth between the city and its places possible for the first time. Civic action; a neighborhood seeing itself; tourist happiness; local knowledge — all made visible.

On the connectivity front, I predict that people will get used to these things very quickly. We already live on several layers at once most of the time, both present in our physical location and present in our digital living room of email, alerts and ambient awareness of the digital flow of our lives. We’ll begin to assume that public WiFi will be present whenever we are in public places. And why shouldn’t we be able to charge our devices at any time, anywhere? Airports still need to get better at this. (JCDecaux has been providing charging stations in US airports for about five years, first in partnership with Samsung and now mostly with Verizon.) But maybe unassuming, omnipresent bus shelters will lead the way.

Civic information and interaction could become, in the future, a bigger part of the role of public buildings. Right now, this pilot (and others across the country — an example is LinkNYC in Manhattan) is ad-supported. But as cities gain strength in bargaining over later agreements, more of the real estate of public structures could be dedicated to public purposes: pushing out city information (not just bus times) and engaging with citizens about subjects that matter to neighborhoods. The privacy implications of the iBeacon are obviously important, and cities will want to be careful about who gets access to what personally identifiable information of citizens — for what purpose. (I’ve written about this here.)

There’s a useful sidelight to this development: Without fiber connections to these shelters, they won’t be as effective. No fiber, no unlimited high-capacity WiFi. So basic city communications infrastructure will have to be up to snuff, an essential step for any responsive city.

Now, the governance side. It matters — a lot — that Mayor Garcetti is interested in digital innovation in Los Angeles, and that he has a top-flight team with extensive experience in the private sector. This is still new; this whole change in cities and the hiring of Chief Data Officers is just happening now. (Brett Goldstein, of Chicago, was the very first — hired in 2011.) It matters that Los Angeles today cares about mobility and not just cars.

It also matters that cities are interested in doing small-scale pilots to test digital projects. A decade ago, this wouldn’t have happened. Now, Los Angeles is willing to try something small, see what works, and adapt over time.

So pay more attention to JCDecaux. Watch for their name and think about the company’s role in your public life. And next time you’re waiting for a bus, consider how much more the bus shelter could be doing for you. The traditional physical transit shelter could be a key platform for the development of new digital services in urban spaces — where most of us spend most of our time.

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