DataGotham Roundup

Our researcher Sarah Kaufman presented at last week’s DataGotham conference/celebration of big data in New York City, giving a lightning talk about open transportation data’s benefits, background and future. The event was hosted at the Tribeca Rooftop, and the following day at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Sarah spoke alongside data gurus from and the CIA, and advocated for the continued opening of transportation data. The talk was related to her guide to opening transportation data, posted over the summer, which you can read here.

Photo of the Tribeca Rooftop party courtesy of Hilary Mason.

Transportation Headlines from Around the Web

This article from the Wall Street Journal points to conflicts between Amtrak and the LIRR as the source of the East Side Access projects many delays (via Wall Street Journal).

A recent article in Scientific American online finds the similar characteristics in the large subway systems of the world (via Scientific American).

Residents of the Upper East Side are not happy with the noise coming from the MTA’s late night construction work on the Second Avenue subway (via NY Post).

This article discusses a writers’ workshop on the 7 train among regular commuters. (NY Times)

- Catherine Dwyer

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

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.

The Long Process to Rebuild Lower Manhattan


The following piece by Mitchell Moss, executive director at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, appeared on the Russel Sage Foundation website.

The rebuilding of the World Trade Center site has been delayed by intense and noisy debates over the financing of the commercial development, the need to substantially modify an initially unrealistic site plan, as well as the cost of the extravagant PATH station. Key decisions by the Port Authority made at the outset of the process led to a highly centralized and flawed plan, which required massive expenditures for underground infrastructure and a new office tower—One World Trade Center—to be placed on the northwest corner of the site, a highly vulnerable location.



The comparatively rapid progress on the September 11 Memorial and Museum has been largely due to the central role played by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who chairs the foundation responsible for financing and operating the facility. Bloomberg insisted that the memorial be open to the public by the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack. (The Museum is expected to open in 2012.) The memorial occupies approximately half of the WTC site and displays the names of all the victims of the 9/11 attack, as well as those killed in the 1993 bombing. The site, which also includes 400 oak trees, will eventually be one of the city’s great gathering places, serving all New Yorkers as well as the families of the victims. It is designed to fit into the fabric of lower Manhattan as well as to be a place that honors those who died on 9/11. Paying for the operating costs of the Memorial and Museum has yet to be resolved, but efforts are underway for the federal government to absorb some portion of the costs.

While the Port Authority and the Silverstein Properties, the developer with the legal right to rebuild on the WTC site, engaged in a series of legal battles, New York City took a proactive approach to the renewal of the surrounding area under its control. In December 2002, Bloomberg announced that lower Manhattan would be redeveloped as a “24-hour, 7-day” community, with new housing, parks and schools, as well as improved transportation infrastructure. The mayor recognized that financial services had been emigrating from lower Manhattan for more than 25 years and that the future of this area would depend on a mix of uses.



This strategy has produced remarkable results. The population of lower Manhattan has doubled, and a surge of new public and private schools, as well as new parks and open space has appeared through the once bleak financial district. Federal and state incentives were especially effective in attracting a new upper income residential population. It is no accident that the city’s tallest residential building, 8 Spruce Street, was built just east of City Hall, with the benefit of low-cost financing provided by Liberty Bonds made available by the federal government in response to the September 11 attack.

Today, the center of the financial services industry in lower Manhattan has moved to the corner of West Street and Vesey Streets, where Goldman Sachs occupies a new, highly subsidized headquarters building in Battery Park City and opposite the headquarters of American Express. Wall Street today is largely residential on the south side of the street, and the only major financial institutions with headquarters on Wall Street today are Bank of NY Mellon and Deutsche Bank. The New York Stock Exchange continues to occupy the corner of Wall and Broad Street, but the actual floor of the exchange is largely filled with television cameras and computer terminals, not stockbrokers and traders. The building is a heavily fortified and well-protected relic, since most financial market activity is done in the trading rooms of major investment banks, not on the floor of the stock exchange. The Bloomberg strategy to diversify lower Manhattan’s office sector has turned out to be a wise one.