(Carol Denney)

It’s simple. Public sidewalks are too crowded for homeless people, but wide enough for waddling robots and monolithic, data-sucking electronic sidewalk billboards with 65-inch screens. Public sidewalks are dangerously over-filled with backpacks and bedrolls but have a sad aura of being deserted without unpermitted signboards, tables, chairs, and rolling racks of commercial merchandise. Personal belongings must not exceed a certain square footage on a sidewalk—for public safety’s sake—but those same sidewalks would be downright lonely without scooters. 

There’s no inconsistency here. The visible presence of poverty makes people sad and makes governments look inadequate. People trying to panhandle enough for a night’s shelter at the low-rent hotel make the 9.3 million expenditure on the renovated BART plaza look like a questionable set of priorities. Moving around the deck chairs is otherwise at least mildly entertaining. 

The Berkeley City Council’s agony over blankets and bedrolls blocking public sidewalks necessitating a raft of bewildering new restrictions was nowhere to be found in their haste to make way for 65-inch electronic screen kiosks spewing ads slated for those same public sidewalks. 

If you’re thinking, hmm, what 65-inch screen kiosks? you’re not alone. Only a lucky few were invited to the initial meetings where “IKE Smart City Kiosks” were a done deal, a franchise agreement requiring “wayfinding” monoliths dot Berkeley’s public sidewalks all over town—monoliths which cities like Raleigh, North Carolina, considered too tacky to tolerate. It’s a twenty-five-year franchise agreement, according to the paperwork, and the “Interactive Kiosk Experience” is ready for “silent 24/7 operation”. Marketing ads coming your way on your public streets and data-mining your information if you touch any one of the 31 “IKE” (Interactive Kiosk Experience) kiosks promising ad revenue not to your specific neighborhood, but to the city through the constant revolving marketing ads. 

Yes, they look horrible. That’s why the Smart City IKE people have spent eleven months “engaging with local stakeholders” to plan this thing in the dark. Somehow you were not invited. You’ll be welcomed to a public meeting someday somewhere in a room packed with cheerleaders for these things, IKE staff and the robot and scooter crowd. They know they don’t really have to sell a city council they’ve already nailed in a back room. 

The electronic sidewalk billboards came no closer than the scooters did to visiting the various relevant community commissions. This was apparently an urgent matter. The latest sidewalk regulations similarly flew through the air and touched down first at the City Council because only the business improvement districts’ opinions, after all, really matter. The community commissions’ perspectives on matters before the Council, like the public’s, are probably welcome. But apparently unnecessary. Mayor Arreguin has begun to telegraph his decisions even before opening public comment, in case you were under the curiously comic impression that your opinion was playing a role. 

The BART plaza renovation renewed the debate over whether public places were cluttered to the point of jeopardizing public safety or, as the BART plaza revitalization jargon implied, were in need of “activation” necessitating even more public funds, programs, and organized activities to displace whatever horror might happen more naturally. “Controlled space” is the new black. 

Note that at these hearings the start-up in question never really has to make a case. They just have to be patient so it looks like there’s a process. Everybody on the inside knows the decision is already in the bank. And that if the whole enterprise plays out to be an embarrassment, the way those bright little donation boxes did, they’ll disappear equally quietly so that nobody counts up the staff time and the other costs and brings it up at an inconvenient electoral moment. 

After all, anybody who isn’t enchanted with and salivating over scooters is probably some old fart who needs to make way for the latest jargon on transportation. It’s kind of a cult. If they spend enough money on taming and cultivating their scooter concept through a pilot program, if they “educate” the public and constrain the complaint processes, they may, they just may, end up with something at least half as useful as the bus. 

Carol Denney is a writer, poet, and musician who lives in the East Bay.