New publication: A guide to open transportation data

We’ve just released our newest publication, Getting Started with Open Data: A Guide for Transportation Agencies. Here’s what’s in store:

Getting Started with Open Data is a guide for transportation agencies that would like to release their schedule data and administrative records to the public, and need an introduction to the practice. This guide is intended to result in streamlined use of transportation services and promote a productive dialogue between agencies and their constituents. It is being released as a living document, intended for input from both transportation data owners and users, to result in the most complete open transportation data guide possible.

 View the full report here, and add your comments to the Google Doc here.


Event Recap: Technology and Urban Mobility

Technology in Urban Mobility Panel

Panelists Monica DaCosta (PA NY & NJ), Brian Ferris (Google), Adam Ernst (iTrans), Ernest Tollerson (MTA) and Jeff Maki (OpenPlans), and moderator Sarah Kaufman (NYU Rudin Center) discuss technology in transportation management on May 1 at the Rudin Center.

This morning’s panel, Technology and Urban Mobility: Perspectives from the Front Lines, covered the successes and challenges from the views of transportation agencies, non-governmental associations, private companies, and app developers. Some takeaways from the event:

– Releasing data for customer information is often perceived by the public as a luxury expense in the face of service cutbacks, but in actually, expenses related to data releases are negligible compared to those of transportation services. Providing extensive data makes the best use of the resources currently available.

– What is openness in transportation? Open data, transparent administrative documents, and the use of open source management systems.

– Transportation agencies are often so wrapped up in building tools with ever-decreasing resources that they often neglect coordination with adjoining agencies. It’s something they’re working on.

– What we’re most concerned about: the digital divide among those with and without smartphones, the dwindling resources of transportation providers, and a catastrophic event resulting in failures of transportation and communications infrastructure.

– Where we’re headed in the future: Real-time data, information customized for each user, and use of emerging communications tools for enhanced transportation management.

– Providing transportation services is a thankless task, and is not sexy enough for adequate public attention or resources. Remember to thank your transportation providers today!

Thanks to all who participated and attended, and we look forward to seeing you at the next event, Walking and the Life of the City, on June 7th.

Last night’s event: Short Talks, Big Ideas

The presentations at last night’s event, Short Talks, Big Ideas: Transportation at the Tech Frontier, were extremely successful- informative, thought-provoking, and even charming. A range of thinkers, ideas and projects showed the audience new ways to consider the present and future of getting around. Here are some takeaways from the presentations:

When thinking about transportation, consider: what is the purpose of travel? What are the best tools people can use for navigation? Andrew Mondscheim (of NYU Rudin) showed that when people have mobile phones, they walk further from home. Sophia Choi (of NYC DOT) is exploring taxi ride patterns through GPS data, and told us that 13 million taxi trips are taken every month. John Geraci (of faberNovel) explored tools for getting around cities, and what we can expect from future navigation tools, while Elizabeth Paul unveiled MTA‘s plans for a future fare payment system that will one day work in cities across the globe.

Don’t overestimate the power of the grid. Communications infrastructure needs better buildouts and policy revisions to account for the increased data requirements of smartphones, tablets and other devices, according to Anthony Townsend (of NYU Rudin and Institute for the Future).

Disruption can be unifying, as shown by Mark Krawczuk (of in his L Train Notwork project, in which he connected passengers in the morning rush hour.

Thank the people doing the thankless task of getting us around, reminded Lizzy Showman and Kathleen Fitzgerald (of School of Visual Arts) in their IHeartM15 project, in which they gave seat pillows to M15 drivers.

The future is promising if we maintain the increase of collaboration in city planning, involving communities in transportation decisions and share information between neighbors, noted Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans.

Hopefully all attendees came away with new ideas and insights about the future of transportation. Feel free to leave comments below.

For those of you unable to attend the event, presentations will be posted shortly.

We’ll be doing another Short Talks, Big Ideas event in September; feel free to suggest speakers or themes in the comments section below.

And please join us on May 1 for our next event, Technology and Urban Mobility: Perspectives from the Front Lines. Thanks to City College’s University Transportation Research Center for their sponsorship of both events.

Here are some photos of the event:


Over the past few years, New York City has become an emerging high-technology cluster as a wide swath of Manhattan stretching from 42nd Street to SoHo has been given the namesake “Silicon Alley,” with the arrival of many tech start-ups such as Foursquare, located near Union Square and the establishment of new offices for corporate titans such as Google in Chelsea and Facebook in Midtown. There are distinct differences between “Silicon Alley” and its West Coast counterpart in Silicon Valley. While high-tech companies are mostly located in sprawling office parks along arterial roads in Northern California, offices of tech firms in Manhattan, both large and small, are situated mere blocks from each other. While start-up companies in Palo Alto are 45 minutes away from the region’s primary financial district in downtown San Francisco, their Manhattan counterparts are a
short subway ride away from Midtown or Wall Street. Given the major presence of financial services, media, and advertising companies in Manhattan, New York City has become a preferred destination for ambitious, forward-looking start-up technology firms.

Technology companies along the "R" subway line


This past weekend, The New York Daily News reported that numerous start-up technology firms seemed to be oriented around the “R” line of the New York City subway that travels from Brooklyn, up Broadway in Manhattan, and to Astoria, Queens. The Daily News referred to the “R” as the city’s “Silicon Subway,” as many firms have decided that a location with good accessibility to mass transit is appealing out of consideration for how their employees, many of whom live in Brooklyn, commute to work. This map above from The New York Times shows where the hundreds of tech startups that have secured venture capital funding over the past year were located. I drew in the R-train’s route to illustrate how these start-up tech firms appear to be oriented around the subway and along Broadway.

Since 2002, Brooklyn has become a popular place to live for Manhattan’s high-income creative professionals: estimates based on US Census population and worker-household dynamics data reveal that the number of Manhattan workers earning more than $75,000 per year living in Brooklyn has increased by 217%, and the number of Manhattan workers in professional and technical services (a broad category that includes most high-tech occupations) living in Brooklyn has increased by 29%. Since about 4 out of every 5 Manhattan workers commuting from Brooklyn take the subway to work, and this reliance on mass transit in commuting continues to shape where employers choose to locate in New York City, as these maps have illustrated. Just as financial employers migrated to Midtown Manhattan to be closer to major transit hubs that their workers use when traveling to work from the suburbs, these start-up technology firms have also oriented themselves near mass transit, along the “Silicon Subway.”

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.

From Transport to Mobility


Waiting and stopping.

For public transportation users across the world, it is what defines their daily journey: waiting for the next bus or train, and then stopping several times before reaching the chosen destination. Waiting and stopping is so intrinsic to the public transportation experience that it is not often recognized, much less challenged.   Imagine a world in which waiting and stopping were eliminated altogether, where the choice of when and how to get to a destination was chosen not by a transit system but by each individual user.

Such is the world envisioned by Georges Amar. Amar is the Director of Prospective and Innovative Design at Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP), operator of the Paris subway and bus systems. In a recent lunch discussion hosted by the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, Amar highlighted the potential for transit agencies to reinvent the way transportation is offered and utilized. At the center of his presentation was a distinction between two interacting (and often competing) concepts: transport and mobility.

Transport, Amar stresses, is a rather outdated concept. Transport is the steel and the pavement and the bus and the physical elements that comprise the traditional role of transportation. Mobility, however, is a distinctly separate idea. Mobility is the ability to move about independently, without restrictions or barriers. Amar points out that our mobility is a function of the transport options available to us. More often than not, our desire for mobility transcends the physical restraints of transport. This concept is hardly surprising to anyone who has suffered through rush hour traffic. The gap between our demands for mobility and the restraints put on us by transport are immense, and can be measured in the minutes one sits idle at a station or the hours one wastes in highway congestion each year.

Amar envisions a world in which transit agencies focus on mobility instead of just transport. Offering new tools and services that allow users to embrace their own mobility is the next greatest challenge for transit agencies. In the old paradigm of transport, the one which most of us still interact today, we have a choice between two or three methods of transport. Shifting the paradigm from transport to mobility means offering a broad menu of options – “trans-modality” – which can mean up to 20 or 30 choices of modes.

So, how well are the world’s transit agencies doing at shifting the paradigm? Amar admits that even his own agency has a long way to go, but ideas and innovations are sprouting up. Amar points to the rise of carpooling, car sharing, bus rapid transit and bike sharing as early examples of a move towards “trans-modality.” Moving beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to transport will require planners to start by asking, “what would the user want?” Responding to those wants, Amar believes, is the very heart of the paradigm shift from simple transport to mobility.

Long Commutes in the New York City Region: Explaining how we commute in New York City and the surrounding suburbs

Photo Credit: Suzy Allman for the New York Times

Recently, the Census Bureau released a comprehensive report describing how Americans traveled to work in 2009. Once again, the New York metropolitan area was ranked as having the longest average commute in the country at 34.6 minutes, followed by Washington DC and Poughkeepsie. Great Falls, Montana has the shortest commute time of 14.2 minutes. Some have jumped to the conclusion that the New York region has the worst commute in the country simply because it has the longest, but a closer at the “Journey to Work” data can help explain the long commute lengths.

(Data Source: US Census Bureau 2009 American Community Survey)

The figure above shows that residents in the New York City region are far more reliant on transit to get to work on a daily basis: 2.7 million commuters take transit to get to work on a daily basis, and 300,000 rely on a commuter rail system that primarily serves suburban areas. Transit commutes, on average, are more than 20 minutes longer than car commutes. In particular, since commutes by rail in the region average 70 minutes in length (almost three times as long as an average car commute in the country), and 43% of all rail commutes in the U.S. take place in the New York City region, where the modal share for commuter rail is almost seven times as high as the national average. It is clear that the high share of transit, particularly rail, commutes is responsible for skewing the average commute lengths, rather than congested roads or poor accessibility to job locations.

Among those who commute to Manhattan, the numbers are even more skewed towards transit modes: 73.2% of Manhattan workers take public transit to get to work according to 2009 Census data, a proportion that is more than 14 times as high as the transit modal share for commuters nationwide. The share of Manhattan commuters traveling by rail is 11.7%, which is more than 21 times as high as the rail modal share for commuters nationwide.

In July 2011, the prominent urban economist Richard Florida introduced several explanations of commuting mode shares and lengths in New York and other U.S. metropolitan areas, such as population density, weather and climate, residential development patterns, and occupational characteristics. However, he curiously did not mention job location patterns as an explanation of how we commute, since after all, the purpose of these trips is to get to the workplace in the most efficient and convenient way.

The New York City metropolitan area is unique because a high concentration of well-paying jobs are still located in a central business district such as Midtown Manhattan, whereas in other regions in the country, job opportunities are more dispersed in “technoburbs” and “edge cities.” Therefore, residents of the New York region, particularly those living in the suburban areas, still rely heavily on mass transit to get to work: a recent Forbes study ranked the top public transportation cities in the country by modal use, and all but two municipalities of the Top 10 were in the New York City region. These municipalities not only included New York and nearby cities such as Hoboken and Jersey City, but also distant suburbs such as Great Neck and Bronxville, located along major commuter rail lines such as LIRR and MetroNorth. Thus, transit is not only essential for commuting among city residents, but also residents of suburban areas and “bedroom communities” in New Jersey, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley, who take short drives to the nearest park-and-ride lot and take the train or express bus into Manhattan. These commutes are long, but convenient enough for suburban residents to choose them over a long, stressful, and increasingly expensive drive into the city.

In cities with more dispersed job locations, the best and, in most cases, the only way to gain access to those jobs is by driving, due to transit systems that provide limited, unreliable, or non-existent services to job locations. In metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Raleigh-Durham, job opportunities are not concentrated in the downtown central business district but dispersed across the region in office parks and strip malls off arterial roads. Thus, the most practical and sensible way to access the workplace is to drive.

These maps below show how job locations could play a major role in determining commuting travel modes and lengths.

NEW YORK CITY (jobs primarily clustered in traditional “C.B.D.” in Manhattan)

BAY AREA (metro area with high transit use, jobs clustered in traditional “C.B.D.”)

DALLAS (notice the dispersion of job locations along interstates, beltways, and arterials)

OKLAHOMA CITY (again, notice the distribution of jobs along major highways)


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.