Confronting Gender Violence on Public Transit


New York’s subway system is a marvel: a vast network of tracks, trains, signals, and electricity that covers four boroughs and moves millions of people each day. We tend to focus on how effective the system is at moving people to where they need to go and the social and economic benefits this mobility brings.

But the subway system is also a giant mobile shared space, bringing riders all of the pleasant and unpleasant experiences associated with public spaces. One of the most common unpleasant experiences is sexual harassment: unwelcome advances and other physical or verbal contact of a sexual nature. Far too many people, particularly women, risk encountering it every time they use the subway.

Since 2005, Hollaback! continues to provide a unified online space for women and LGBTQ individuals to collect stories of harassment, with the goal of reclaiming public space. Stories from are a constant reminder of the risks individuals face on a daily basis on the subway.

Beyond drawing attention and raising awareness, we ultimately want to tackle this problem and end sexual harassment on public transportation. Particularly right now during the United Nation’s designated 16 days of action to end violence against women, from November 25 to December 10.

This Monday, December 5th the Manhattan Young Democrats and the Hunter College Women’s Rights Collation are partnering to facilitate a panel discussion with several key people to shed light on this topic and help bring forth some solutions. Panelists include:

  • Jerin Afria, Chair of National Organization for Women – Young Feminist Task Force,
  • Emily May, Co-founder and Executive Director of Hollaback!;
  • Susan Moesker, Coordinator of Community Violence Prevention at the Center for Anti-Violence Education;
  • Hilary Nemchik, Chair, Domestic Violence Task Force at the Office of the Manhattan Borough President; and
  • Chief Michael Osgood, Commanding Officer of the Special Victims Unit, NYPD;
  • Dr. Gail Garfield, Associate Professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY will moderate.

When: Monday, December 5, 2011, 7pm to 8:30pm

Where: Hunter West Building Lobby, Hunter College, Southwest corner of Lexington Ave. & 68th Street


For more information on the conference and the movement to end street harassment, visit Hollaback’s website at

Notes from BitCity 2011


by Christopher Whong

On Friday November 4, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation hosted BitCity2011 – Transportation, Data and Technology in Cities, with representatives from government, the private sector and academia discussing the many benefits and challenges of wired cities, wired transportation, and a wired population.

Janette Sadik-Kahn, the transportation commissioner for New York City, presented the keynote presentation, giving conference-goers a whirlwind tour of New York’s tech-innovations being deployed on streets.  Taking a more engaging approach to exploring how people move around the city, she stated that “Traffic is now the tail and not the dog,” and showed examples of the city’s high-tech arsenal for analyzing, enforcing, and streamlining transportation flows.  Among these is the use of RF transponders to give buses signaling priority at intersections, cameras to ticket those driving in the bus lane, and the use of NYC Taxi’s GPS data to verify that those pesky pedestrian-friendly changes such as those we’ve seen at Times Square actually resulted in decreased vehicular trip time.

Future tech-based projects were highlighted included the much-anticipated NYC bikeshare (and a nice little web-portal to allow citizens to suggest bikeshare stations), and smart curbs that will show the smartphone enabled driver where he might find an open spot, a technology that is has already been deployed in San Francisco.   Commissioner Sadik-Khan concluded that the city will continue to embrace technology to make traversing New York as efficient as possible.

Crowdsourcing apps such as Waze are changing the way users interact with public transit. Image courtesy of Flickr user MattHurst


Michael Frumin and Candace Brakewood’s presentation on the real-time bus location tracking pilot currently underway in Brooklyn was a refreshing example of government not taking the expected big, slow, and dumb route.  In using COTS (Commercial-off-the-shelf) components to allow buses to securely transmit their GPS coordinates in real time, they have been able to produce outstanding results in a relatively short time frame, and without the normal high-cost, “custom engineered”, and time-consuming fiasco of outsourcing the job to a contractor.

The concept of “crowdsourcing”, or gathering massive amounts of data piece by piece from many distributed users, was illustrated in a presentation by Di-Ann Eisnor, VP of Platforms and Partnerships for Waze.  Waze is a mobile app that allows drivers to share real-time information about the road network, including speed traps, accidents, and hazards.   These points show up as icons on the screens of other “wazers”, and they can make informed decisions about their routes, or at least know why they are stuck in traffic.  (Traffic, we would find out in another part of the conference, can actually make us more productive)

What’s most exciting is that Waze seems to have become the de facto authority on real-time traffic information in several cities, and has been embraced by local news stations and integrated into the morning traffic reporter’s toolkit.  Phoning traffic conditions into the “hotline” is so 20th century.  (Ironically, I was once an avid wazer, but moving to New York city removed me from the target demographic.)

Mitchell Moss, the executive director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and urban planning professor at NYU, participated in a panel about new forms of data in transportation planning, stating up front that “the role of information in transportation will be more important than transportation itself”.  Moss cited numerous examples of how people have historically been “off the grid” while in transit, but this is no longer the case (excepting the subway, America’s final frontier for mobile network connectivity).   There was even mention of the phenomenon of red lights being more desirable in traffic because they present an opportunity to send text messages and reply to emails!  Traffic congestion has made us more productive!

Dr. Anthony Townsend, Research Director at the Institute for the Future and visiting scholar at the Rudin Center, closed the conference with a brief history lesson about communications networks in cities, specifically wireless communication.   He made a specific point of showing how the FCC has sliced and diced the spectrum over the last century, and assigned authorized uses (and users) to different frequencies.  He made the analogy that the airwaves are a shared resource just like waterways and roads and we may need to reform the regulations as our usage changes over time, and that “Telecom Policy” should be a political topic of concern as our data needs grow exponentially.

The most exciting thing about BitCity 2011 is that it’s only 2011.  10 years ago, internet access was 50 times slower than it is today, and smartphones didn’t exist.  Google Maps was in its infancy, facebook as we know it did not exist, and “blog” was not in anyone’s vocabulary.  The network will get faster, our smartphones will become more sophisticated, and demand, both on the government and the private sector for data-integrated products that make our lives easier is going to increase as well.  We’re just getting started, and are laying the foundations today for true “smart” transportation and cities tomorrow.


Christopher Whong is a first-year Urban Planning at NYU Wagner specializing in Transportation, Environment and Infrastructure.  He has experience with networks and information systems and is focused on finding more efficient transportation options.

The Growing Role of Social Media in Transportation

by Lyndsey Scofield

When you think of people who use social media, you generally don’t think of traffic engineers or state DOTs, but last week’s web-based conference on social media held by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) would surely change your mind.

With panel discussions and interactive breakout sessions, the conference mimicked a true brick-and-mortar event and attracted hundreds of attendees. For an organization that usually caters to a more traditional and technical audience, I was impressed by both the innovative format and accessible content. Clearly the transportation sector is embracing social media and looking for additional ways to take advantage of tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. This comes with great benefit to the public, who are increasingly using social media as a means to keep updated on news, express their opinions, and connect with others.

During an afternoon session called “Engaging Your Audience,” several panelists shared their success stories around using social media, and I’d like to share a couple of my favorites:

Starting locally, NYC DOT’s Neil Freeman talked about The Daily Pothole, a surprisingly entertaining and lighthearted Tumblr started by the agency to connect with a broader audience. They mainly use the site as a place to post pictures and impressive statistics about their efforts to repave troublesome roads, but more importantly, they’ve gotten residents to actually use the site to report potholes in their neighborhoods. As Neil put it, they’re “making potholes and asphalt fun!” Now who would have thought that was possible?

Image: Screenshot of The Daily Pothole, 9/26/11

My next highlight comes from Bobbi Greenberg in Arlington County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. With a dense population and plethora of good transportation options (including trains, buses, bike lanes, and zip cars), Arlington County Commuter Services really wanted to encourage more people to leave their cars at home.

They have launched a campaign called the “Car-Free Diet” that relies heavily on social media to spread their message. Their website features interactive tools like the car-free diet calculator, and they routinely post informative videos on their YouTube site. However, their major success comes from the Car-Free Skeptics Challenge, which follows the experiences of self-proclaimed “car-free skeptics” who agree to ditch their cars for 30 days. With regular blog posts, YouTube videos, and Facebook & Twitter updates, the contestants become ACCS’ biggest proponents of walking, biking, and taking public transit, putting real faces on their campaign.

Image: Screenshot of Car-Free Diet twitter page, 9/23/11

As you can see, social media allows for a level of creativity and dialogue that just isn’t possible through traditional methods of outreach. It’s promising to see interest growing in these types of initiatives among transportation agencies and organizations, and I expect that the most effective & innovative applications are still to come as more agencies embrace the social web.

The sessions from the conference were recorded and are available on the TRB website, as are the PDF versions of many presentations.




Not-So-Smart Cities


By Greg Lindsay

THE Southwest is famously fertile territory for ghost towns. They didn’t start out depopulated, of course — which is what makes the latest addition to their rolls so strange. Starting next year, Pegasus Holdings, a Washington-based technology company, will build a medium-size town on 20 square miles of New Mexico desert, populated entirely by robots.

Scheduled to open in 2014, the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation, as the town is officially known, will come complete with roads, buildings, water lines and power grids, enough to support 35,000 people — even though no one will ever live there. It will be a life-size laboratory for companies, universities and government agencies to test smart power grids, cyber security and intelligent traffic and surveillance systems — technologies commonly lumped together under the heading of “smart cities.”

The only humans present will be several hundred engineers and programmers huddled underground in a Disneyland-like warren of control rooms. They’ll be playing SimCity for real.

Since at least the 1960s, when New York’s Jane Jacobs took on the autocratic city planner Robert Moses, it’s been an article of faith that cities are immune to precisely this kind of objective, computation-driven analysis. Much like the weather, Ms. Jacobs said, cities are astoundingly complex systems, governed by feedback loops that are broadly understood yet impossible to replicate.

But Pegasus and others insist there’s now another way — that, armed with enough data and computing muscle, we can translate cities’ complexity into algorithms. Sensors automatically do the measuring for us, while software makes the complexity manageable.

“We think that sensor development has gotten to the point now where you can replicate human behavior,” said Robert H. Brumley, the managing director and co-founder of Pegasus. These days, he and others believe, even the unpredictable “human factor” is, given enough computing power, predictable. “You can build randomness in.”

Mr. Brumley isn’t alone in his faith that software can do a better job of replicating human behavior than the humans themselves. A start-up named Living PlanIT is busy building a smart city from scratch in Portugal, run by an “urban operating system” in which efficiency is all that matters: buildings are ruthlessly junked at the first signs of obsolescence, their architectural quality being beside the point.

To the folks at Living PlanIT and Pegasus, such programs are worth it because they let planners avoid the messiness of politics and human error. But that’s precisely why they are likely to fail.

Take the 1968 decision by New York Mayor John V. Lindsay to hire the RAND Corporation to streamline city management through computer models. It built models for the Fire Department to predict where fires were likely to break out, and to decrease response times when they did. But, as the author Joe Flood details in his book “The Fires,” thanks to faulty data and flawed assumptions — not a lack of processing power — the models recommended replacing busy fire companies across Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx with much smaller ones.

What RAND could not predict was that, as a result, roughly 600,000 people in the poorest sections of the city would lose their homes to fire over the next decade. Given the amount of money and faith the city had put into its models, it’s no surprise that instead of admitting their flaws, city planners bent reality to fit their models — ignoring traffic conditions, fire companies’ battling multiple blazes and any outliers in their data.

The final straw was politics, the very thing the project was meant to avoid. RAND’s analysts recognized that wealthy neighborhoods would never stand for a loss of service, so they were placed off limits, forcing poor ones to compete among themselves for scarce resources. What was sold as a model of efficiency and a mirror to reality was crippled by the biases of its creators, and no supercomputer could correct for that.

Despite its superior computing power and life-size footprint, Pegasus’ project is hobbled by the equally false assumption that such smart cities are relevant outside the sterile conditions of a computer lab. There’s no reason to believe the technologies tested there will succeed in cities occupied by people instead of Sims.

The bias lurking behind every large-scale smart city is a belief that bottom-up complexity can be bottled and put to use for top-down ends — that a central agency, with the right computer program, could one day manage and even dictate the complex needs of an actual city.

Instead, the same lesson that New Yorkers learned so painfully in the 1960s and ’70s still applies: that the smartest cities are the ones that embrace openness, randomness and serendipity — everything that makes a city great.


Greg Lindsay is a visiting scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and the co-author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.” This piece appeared recently in the New York Times Sunday Review.