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.