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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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Streetsblog USA
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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.


Bus Time Set to Expand to Manhattan This Month; Queens and Brooklyn Next

Coming soon to Manhattan. Photo: secondavesagas/Instagram

Nearly a year after the Bronx became the second borough to get real-time bus tracking on all its buses, the MTA’s Bus Time program is set to expand to Manhattan this month, according to signs spotted in Manhattan subway stations by Twitter user David Rose and Second Avenue Sagas.

In March, the MTA announced that Bus Time would go live in Manhattan “this year,” followed by Brooklyn, then Queens. The authority said that by April 2014, all five boroughs will have Bus Time. The program, piloted in 2011 on the B63 in Brooklyn and rolled out to Staten Island last year, is a popular feature for the city’s buses, which have struggled with ridership even as the number of subway passengers has soared.

The MTA says it will be making an official announcement about Bus Time’s Manhattan rollout early next week, and that “all five boroughs will be online sometime in the spring 2014.”


Meet Streetmix, the Website Where You Can Design Your Own Street

Streetmix lets users mix and match design elements to create the street of their dreams. Image: Streetmix

Last fall, Lou Huang was at a community meeting for the initiative to redesign Second Street in San Francisco. Planners handed out paper cutouts, allowing participants to mix and match to create their ideal street. Huang, an urban designer himself, thought the exercise would make for a great website. Now, after months of work beginning at a January hackathon with colleagues at Code for America, it is a great website.

The principle behind Streetmix is simple: it brings drag-and-drop functionality to a basic street design template. Users select a road width and add or remove everything from light rail to wayfinding signs, adjusting the size of each feature meet their specifications.

“It’s a little bit like a video game,” collaborator Marcin Wichary said. “We were very inspired by SimCity.”

But Streetmix is more than just a fun way for amateur street designers to spend an afternoon. “What we want to focus on is, how can this enable meaningful conversations around streets?” Wichary said. “For many people it’s a kind of entry point.”

The first version of Streetmix went online in January, but the latest version, which has new features and a slicker design, launched less than two weeks ago. In that short time, advocates have used the website to illustrate possibilities for Dexter Avenue in Seattle and Route 35 on the Jersey Shore. Streetmix has profiled how people from Vancouver to Cleveland use the website. Residents of Sioux Center, Iowa, even used Streetmix illustrations in their campaign to stop the state DOT’s road widening plan in their town.

“It’s giving power back to the people, allowing them to vocalize what their streetscape priorities are,” Huang said.

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Official Citi Bike Mobile App Now Available

The official Citi Bike mobile application is now available to download. The app provides a map of station locations and real-time updates about bicycle and dock availability, as well as turn-by-turn directions, riding tips, and a timer to help Citi Bike users avoid charges for exceeding the limits per trip. The app also allows users to locate nearby bike shops and, of course, Citibank branches; this summer, restaurant and event recommendations will be added.

Currently, all stations on the application’s map — which includes a layer showing bike lanes — are colored gray and listed as “inactive” until the system launches on Monday. Some station locations also have yet to appear on the map. DOT said in a statement that the map will be “continuously updated in the coming days.”

The app, developed by Publicis Kaplan Thaler, is available for Android and iOS. A third-party Citi Bike application called “New York City Bike” has been available since earlier this month.

New York won’t have the same app — Spotcycle — used for bike-share systems in Washington and Boston. Last year, Spotcycle’s developer, 8D Technologies, was dropped as a contractor by the Public Bike System Company, which supplies the equipment for Citi Bike.

Update: The Spotcycle app now includes New York City.

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Seven Ways Technology Is Rendering the Automobile Obsolete

As we try to understand why young people are so much less jazzed about driving than previous generations, one possible explanation always comes up: Kids today just love their smart phones.

That is part of it. But the full picture is far more nuanced.

The internet, and the ability to carry it wherever you go, has changed society in so many profound ways it’s no surprise that transportation is among them. A new study by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “A New Direction,” illustrates the myriad ways mobile technology has transformed young people’s relationship with transportation.

Yesterday, we covered the report’s critique of government travel forecasting and its analysis of why young people’s driving rates will probably remain lower than those of previous generations. Technology is one of the biggest reasons. Here’s why:

Go ahead, check your stocks online – but not if you’re behind the wheel, please. Photo: PC Mag

Constant connectivity. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed at the dinner table or on city sidewalks, people have trouble putting down their phones. It’s not just compulsive Facebook status checking that keeps people glued to their devices. People perform an increasingly broad assortment of tasks on phones: make travel reservations, go through work email, catch up on the news, diagnose children’s ailments — the list is nearly infinite. While car companies are trying heartily to incorporate digital connectivity and social media into their cars, they still need to battle the fact that such technology is dangerously distracting for drivers. Given the option, many young people would rather take transit, where they can use their phones harmlessly, making far better use of their commuting time.

Alternative social spaces. Older adults may think it’s weird when teens would rather text each other than see each other, but hey, the world is a weird place. “A survey by computer networking equipment maker Cisco in 2012 found that two-thirds of college students and young professionals spend at least as much time with friends online as they do in person,” write report authors Phineas Baxandall and Tony Dutzik.

Online shopping. More and more people are making purchases online rather than in stores. Young people are leading the way on that, too. And it can be greener than going to the store yourself.

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