The Promise of Urban Intelligence

Version 1


    Pedestrians are in more danger than they realize. As city populations continue to swell (5.1% since 2010) and America enters the “Decade of the City,” urban mobility design and pedestrian safety is now more an imperative than ever.


    When I first moved to New York City two employees in our office building were killed on their way to get sandwiches by a van going too fast, right in front of our building. And since then there has also been at least one severe accident or death every year at my son’s middle school—enough is enough. Our civilization is capable enough to solve this problem and help pedestrians, bikers, and vehicles share the road safely.


    If we take a closer look at the problem, we find that city departments of transportation and their respective safety organizations often use antiquated, expensive tools to measure the speed of cars. And when it comes to foot traffic, they often use manual counts: a person on a sidewalk with a hand clicker manually counting people as they pass by. The resulting data is sparse, expensive, spotty, and rare!


    Urban planners and developers are using inferior data to make inferior decisions; it’s error-prone, based on micro (vs. macro) scale, and only representative of a single snapshot in time. Better design will stem from better data, and if have any hope of reducing vehicular fatalities as city dwellers fight for inches, higher resolution is needed.


    So, how does better data translate to lives saved?


    For starters, ubiquitous measurement blanketed across a city could unlock new opportunities to understand how cities actually ebb and flow. We could also identify high-risk areas through real-time pedestrian movement and install deterrents to keep drivers from speeding or infringing road rules; and we would know—really know, for the first time—where to invest in signage to better inform traffic rules. In general, city planners could operate more like startups than governments—and that’s just the beginning.



    The era of the smart city is coming—quickly. All sorts of new sensors are coming online and our roads are quickly becoming part of the fabric of the digital world. There will soon be many new data sources for planners to avail themselves—everything from data generated by business’ front-of-store analytics to street light cameras using computer vision to measure cars as they pass by, like what we’re doing at Placemeter. The beauty is that this data is all around us. It’s generated every day. And it belongs to all of us. All we have to do is capture it and use it.


    The onus is no longer on our DOTs to solve this problem. The truth is citizens are the real key to scaling urban intelligence. A distributed network of open measurement points would yield far greater results than a closed system using panel survey thinking. Just look at what Dark Sky has been able to achieve with hyper-local, crowd-sourced weather. Doppler paints weather in broad strokes (like DOT), Dark Sky fills in the details. The same is true for traffic.


    For example, one researcher, Melissa Sands, worked with Placemeter to ask, “does higher foot traffic, and therefore more ‘eyes on the street’, translate into more 311 reports?” To answer this question she combined New York city’s 311 reports (New York City's main source of government information on non-emergency services) with Placemeter-generated foot traffic data in Manhattan over the course of two weeks. She discovered that reports of homeless persons in need of assistance are rarely made in the least trafficked areas but are over-represented in places with a high density of foot traffic, helping us glean that less trafficked areas are more at risk. This one individual helped reveal an immensely valuable insight about the care of New York City’s homeless population by asking one simple question.


    Like Melissa's question, there are thousands of other fascinating questions worth asking. And once we have a distributed network of data we don’t have to stop at the now either; we can look to the future. The beauty of data is that it lets us model traffic and pedestrian behavior, which can help us predict the growth of cities and learn how to prevent accidents from happening in the first place. Predictive urban intelligence is not far off, but we can only get there by driving on a road paved with data.


    Take this as a parting note — until now, urban intelligence has been relegated for urban planners and boardroom developers only. That’s changing. You should be excited. We all now have the opportunity to shape the cities we live in. But in the next 30 years the world’s population will double, and with it, cities will be twice as crowded as they are now. You should feel empowered, but we’re all on the clock to solve the problem, before it gets worse.

    Alexandre Winter is the CEO and co-founder of Placemeter, an urban intelligence platform that quantifies the movement of modern cities, at scale, to reveal hidden patterns and strategic opportunities. Follow him @awinter.