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Posts from the Technology Category


Beyond Car Ownership: How Finland Set the Stage for Mobility-as-Service

This October, the Finnish company MaaS Global launched Whim, an app that serves as a portal to a wide array of transportation services. Helsinki residents who sign up for Whim pay a flat fee for unlimited access to transit and get points that can be spent on taxi rides or car rentals.


Whim provides unlimited access to transit in Helsinki and “points” to pay for other types of transportation services.

It’s all part of the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications’ effort to adopt a “mobility as service” model. The concept goes a lot deeper than a trip planner or fare payment mechanism on your smartphone. At its core, “mobility as service” is about minimizing car ownership.

Instead of people paying large sums and taking on debt to own a depreciating asset, which they can then drive around cheaply, “mobility as service” connects people to the best option for any given trip. The key is to make this service as seamless, convenient, and economical as possible.

At a TransitCenter panel last night, Finnish officials discussed how they re-wrote the nation’s transportation regulations to optimize the mobility-as-service model.

Before Whim could launch, said the transport and communications ministry’s Krista Huhtala-Jenks and MaaS Global CEO Sampo Hietanan, Finland had to streamline rules that got in the way. Regulations that, for example, treated traditional taxis differently than companies like Uber and Lyft were an obstacle.

This process of “de- and re-regulation,” as Huhtala-Jenks called it, aims to make the mobility-as-service market as attractive as possible for both the transportation providers and the people buying these services. It’s not about creating rules on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re not in the business of putting out fires,” she said. “So we’re not taking separate cases like almost [everyone else] in the world that, ‘Oh, we have this case of Uber, let’s regulate it.’ We don’t want to start spot-regulating. That world is gone already.”

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6 Principles to Make Self-Driving Cars Work for Cities, Not Against Them

Self-driving cars are coming, and maybe sooner than we think. But the question of how they will shape cities is still wide open. Could they lead to less traffic and parking as people stop owning cars and start sharing them? More sprawl as car travel becomes less of a hassle? More freedom to walk and bike on city streets, or less?

How will self-driving cars impact cities? Hopefully federal regulators won't ignore this question. Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

The answers depend in no small part on how federal and local policy makers respond to the new technologies. The National Association of City Transportation Officials wants to get out ahead of these changes with a statement of policy recommendations to guide the deployment of autonomous cars in cities [PDF].

Here is what NACTO proposes.

1. Cars should be fully autonomous, not partly

If cars have some automated features but still require human drivers to occasionally take control, safety could suffer. NACTO cites research that shows semi-automated vehicles actually increase driver distraction, lulling motorists into thinking they can pay less attention to the road. But fully automated vehicles should be able to achieve much better safety outcomes than human drivers.

2. Maximum speeds on city streets should not exceed 25 miles per hour

Self-driving cars should be programmed not to exceed 25 mph in urban areas. Controlling speed is one way self-driving cars could yield enormous safety benefits. But it will require regulators — with support from the public — to insist on putting safety above speed, which, historically, America has failed to do.

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Google Patents “Flypaper” to Save Pedestrians By Sticking Them to Car Hoods

Google engineers' newest concept for pedestrians would glue them to the front of cars. Image: U.S. Patent Office

Not the Onion. Image: U.S. Patent Office

The minds at Google have come up with a novel idea to protect pedestrians in the event of a collision with the company’s self-driving cars.

The tech behemoth was awarded a patent this week for what it describes as a “flypaper or double-sided duct tape”-type substance beneath an “eggshell” exterior on the hood of the car. In a collision with a human being, the shell would crack and the person would stick to the adhesive. The idea is that after the initial collision, the flypaper will prevent people from hitting the asphalt or getting run over, which is how severe injuries are often inflicted.

A Google spokesperson told the San Jose Mercury News the patent doesn’t mean the company will go ahead with implementation. Even if the idea works as planned, it’s easy to envision scenarios where it would backfire, like if the car strikes another vehicle or a tree while someone is glued to the hood.

A much more important question for the impending autonomous car future is how these systems will minimize the potential for collisions with pedestrians in the first place. A fleet of robocars won’t need flypaper if they can’t exceed, say, 15 mph while operating on crowded city streets.

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High Stakes for Cities as Feds Start Regulating Self-Driving Cars

Last week as part of his State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a $4 billion investment over the next 10 years to test autonomous vehicles and get them ready for the market. Two days later at the Detroit Auto Show, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that federal regulators would begin to develop coherent safety regulations for autonomous vehicles — something industry leaders have been pushing.

How long before we start seeing self-driving cars in cities? What kind of change will they bring? Photo: Smoothgroover/Flickr

How can the emergence of self-driving cars be shaped to benefit cities? Photo: Smoothgroover/Flickr

Before you dismiss these developments as just another sop to the car industry, consider the huge implications that autonomous vehicles could have for cities. There are upsides — NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind has said that self-driving cars “can eliminate 94 percent of fatal crashes involving human error” — and there are downsides as well. The ease of operating autonomous vehicles could lead to supercharged sprawl, for instance.

The emergence of self-driving cars raises a host of questions about issues ranging from liability in the event of a crash to the potential for shared autonomous vehicle fleets to free up huge amounts of street space.

Right now there’s a patchwork of state laws regulating the self-driving prototypes that companies are testing (and many states have none). Last month, California released the first state rules governing autonomous cars for public use.

I’m not saying this is all good. I’m saying it’s inevitable, so we should be shaping the way it happens.

Federal regulators say they will work with a group of states, car makers, and other interests to establish model legislation for states. Meanwhile, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will develop performance standards for self-driving cars.

So the next six months will be a critical time in shaping how self-driving cars are adopted. What should people who care about city streets look for during this process?

In his book Startup City, former Chicago and D.C. transportation director Gabe Klein touches on the emergence of self-driving cars and the potential consequences for cities. We spoke to Klein (who also serves on the board of OpenPlans, the organization that publishes Streetsblog USA) about why these regulations matter and what to look for as they’re developed.

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Can a New Way to Measure Streets Help Advocates Tame Speeding?

You’ve heard of sensors that can count cars or bikes. Tools like that can help transportation planners make smarter decisions about where bike infrastructure is needed, for example. A new digital tool called Placemeter aims to measure streets at a much more fine-grained level, analyzing a variety of different aspects of movement in an urban environment.

Placemeter’s software extracts information from video of streets — it can measure the movement of vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians and then tell you about things like the incidence of speeding or the foot traffic for a specific storefront. Cities are finding lots of interesting ways to use it — but it’s not just for bureaucrats. The people behind Placemeter think it will be very useful for advocates too.

I caught up with Alexandre Winter and Florent Peyre, the founders of Placemeter, to find out how their platform can help us understand what happens on streets.

How do you see Placemeter being useful for improving streets for people using various modes of transportation, including walking?

Florent Peyre: When you want to optimize a city, you need to be able to quantify and measure it first. We’re making it a lot easier and a lot cheaper to measure continuously at a fraction of the cost of hiring a data collection company.

We work with the city of Boston, where they’re interested in building more parklets, but they get pushback from people who think there should be more parking space. What we bring to the table is the ability to quantify the effect of such a change by measuring baseline and then how many people use that parking spot now that it is a temporary pedestrian zone. Bringing a layer of data removes a lot of the passion from a lot of those discussions.

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10 Cities That Are Getting “Wired Transportation” Right

Image: Frontier Group, U.S. Public Interest Research Group

The Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group rated 70 cities on the availability of tech-enabled services like real-time transit information, ride-hailing, and bike-share. These are the top ten.

Which cities are making it easy to catch the next bus without a long wait, hail a ride with an app, or hop on bike-share? According to a new ranking from the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Austin is leading the pack when it comes to embracing technological innovation that helps people get around without being tethered to a car.

The research team examined the availability of 11 types of technology-assisted transportation — like real-time transit information, ride-hailing services, virtual ticketing, multi-modal trip-planning apps, and bike-share — in 70 U.S. cities.

Some of them have penetrated nearly every market. For example, 68 metros have some form of peer-to-peer car-share that allows vehicle owners to rent their car to other people using services such as RelayRides. Services the authors call “ridesourcing,” like Uber and Lift, are available in 59 cities. Ride-sharing services designed to facilitate carpooling, like those offered by ZimRide or Carma, are only available in five cities.

Some form of bike-share is available in 32 cities, and 47 offer real-time transit data. Only six cities, Austin among them, have “virtual ticketing” that allows transit passengers to purchase rides using smartphones without cash.

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NYPD Crash Data Now Easier to Use and Updated Daily

No need to reformat NYPD's monthly reports anymore. Now, crashes, fatalities and injuries can be easily mapped and sorted. And it's updated daily. Image: NYC Crashmapper

No need to reformat NYPD’s monthly reports anymore. Now, crashes, fatalities and injuries can be easily mapped and sorted. And it’s updated daily. Image: NYC Crashmapper

The city went live with a major upgrade to NYPD’s crash data today. Information about traffic crashes was previously released via difficult-to-use monthly updates posted on the police department’s website. Now it’s available through a standardized feed updated daily on the city’s open data portal, allowing the public to sort crashes by time of day, street, zip code, and borough, as well as by the number of injuries and fatalities.

Later today EDC will be launching the BigApps competition, and Mayor de Blasio has asked NYC’s tech community to take on the issue of street safety. With this NYPD data upgrade, developers will have more flexibility to build useful tools for the public. A community board, for example, could receive an alert within 24 hours whenever there is a traffic injury or fatality within its borders.

“Up until now, New Yorkers haven’t had the opportunity to easily assess the relative safety of their street, the route their child walks to school, or their neighborhood at large,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White in a city press release. “The Mayor’s announcement represents an important step forward to present crash data in a timely fashion that New Yorkers can view, understand and use, so that we can all make our city safer.”

“On first pass, this looks fantastic,” said John Krauss, who developed a map of crashes using the old data set. “This is amazing, and more than I was expecting.”

By opening the source data to the public, the city has essentially leapfrogged a City Council bill that would require NYPD to map its crash data. But despite the improvements, there are some remaining questions. The updated data goes back to July 2012, but NYPD has been publishing crash information since August 2011. The updated data adds geographic coordinates, making it easier to map the information, but they are tied to the nearest intersection, not the actual location of the crash. (NYPD has said it will work with the DMV to update crash forms to allow for more precise location data.)

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De Blasio Calls For Vision Zero Apps. How Much Data Will He Release?

BigApps NYC, EDC’s four-month competition to develop mobile and web applications using city data, is set to launch tomorrow with a mission from Mayor Bill de Blasio to build tools for Vision Zero. The more data the city opens up to developers, the better these apps will be, so the question now is how far City Hall will go to make crash and enforcement information transparent and accessible.

This morning, de Blasio appointed Anne Roest as commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and indications are that a Vision Zero data announcement is coming soon. The key aspects to keep an eye on are improvements to datasets that are already public, and which additional datasets will be released.

Currently, the public can track tickets from red light and speed cameras, find out how many moving violations the police issued each month, and get monthly reports from NYPD on where each of the city’s reported crashes occurred. But the crash data is released in a difficult format that developers must unscramble before using.

Last week, NYPD told the City Council that it will soon improve the way it releases crash data. Putting the data out through the city’s existing open data portal would help, and so would the release of additional traffic safety information. For instance, crash investigations remain sealed from public view. In addition, because there’s no way to track moving violations below the precinct level, right now it’s hard to know exactly where NYPD is concentrating its enforcement efforts.

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NYPD: Public Too Stupid to Understand a Citywide Crash Map

This morning’s City Council transportation committee hearing covered a number of bills, including one that would require NYPD to release data to the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications for a public map of crash locations and traffic fatalities, to be updated monthly. NYPD testified in opposition to the bill, claiming that it was already doing enough to release information to the public. A panel of technology and street safety experts testifying later disagreed, and were joined in their skepticism by some council members, including committee chair James Vacca.

NYPD thinks its data, shown above on a third-party map, is too confusing for the public. Image: NYC Crashmapper

One of NYPD’s main objections to the crash map bill is that crash reports, which must use forms from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, map incidents to the closest intersection, not geographic coordinates or addresses. Without having a precise location, NYPD says the public might be confused about where crashes actually occur.

“Putting it on a map is inherently somewhat misleading,” NYPD assistant commissioner of intergovernmental affairs Susan Petito said.

Council Member Dan Garodnick asked if the agency would be interested in joining the council to advocate for a change to the state form to allow for addresses or geographic coordinates. “I don’t think so,” Petito replied. “The utility of a street address, I can’t sit here and tell you that would add anything.”

While arguing against sharing more detailed information with the public, Petito said that the police department’s own access to high-quality information about where and why crashes occur give the department a better perspective on traffic safety than the public has. “We look at it a little differently from the way a member of the public would,” she said. “We have access to so much more information, including everything on the police accident report.”

“I’m not worried about confusing the public,” Vacca said after the hearing. “I think people understand what’s released more than the police department would give them credit for, and I think we should have the information.”

While having the city create its own crash map would be a step forward, transportation and technology advocates testifying today said it’s more important for city agencies to release quality data to the public, which would be easy to access by coders and interested communities. At present, crash and summons information is released in PDF and Excel formats that the police department must compile each time it releases data, and developers must reconstruct to create complete, geographically-tagged data sets.

“The data isn’t truly open,” Transportation Alternatives general counsel Juan Martinez said. Though Local Law 12 of 2011 was a “landmark bill” that helped open up city data to the public, Martinez said, compliance by city agencies, including NYPD, has been less than comprehensive. “We are strongly recommending that in addition to making a map, which is one way to present the data, you also make the data available,” Martinez said.

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Bus Time Went Live in Manhattan This Morning

Bus Time is now operational for Manhattan buses. The service, already in the Bronx and Staten Island, is planned for Queens and Brooklyn within six months. Image: MTA

After signs went up in subway stations last week, the MTA made it official this morning: real-time bus tracking is now available for all Manhattan buses, joining Staten Island and the Bronx, with Queens and Brooklyn to come online within six months.

Bus Time for Manhattan buses appeared shortly after midnight last night, adding 36 routes and 1,800 bus stops to the program. Bronx and Staten Island buses that have portions of their routes in Manhattan are already equipped with the tracking technology, which was developed in part by OpenPlans, Streetsblog’s parent organization.

As of today, the MTA says there are 2,852 buses in its fleet with the GPS devices, serving 6,000 bus stops in the three boroughs with Bus Time.

Real-time tracking information — which tells users how many stops or miles away a bus is, instead of calculating a countdown estimate — is available online and on phones via app, text message, or scannable QR code at each bus stop.

While Bus Time allows users to track their buses, some council members want real-time information to go one step further and are calling for the city to rewrite its bus shelter contract to include countdown clocks for buses, like those in some subway stations, so riders can get service information without checking their phones.