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The sensing power of taxis

The latest project out of MIT’s Senseable City Lab examines the “sensing power of taxis” in various cities around the world. Looking at traffic data, they determined how many circulating taxis you would need to equip with sensors if you wanted to capture comprehensive street data across a particular city. This might be useful if you wanted to measure things like air quality, weather, traffic patterns, road quality, and so on.

What they found is that the sensing power of taxis starts out unexpectedly high. It would only take 10 taxis to cover 1/3 of Manhattan’s streets in a single day. However, because taxis tend to have convergent routes, they also discovered rapid diminishing returns. It would take 30 taxis (or 0.3% of all taxi trips) to cover half of Manhattan in a day, and over 1,000 taxis to cover 85% of it. A similar phenomenon was observed in the other cities that they studied: Singapore, Chicago, San Francisco, Vienna, and Shanghai.

However, if you look at the percentage of trips needed to scan half of the streets in a city, Manhattan has the lowest rate at 0.3%. Vienna is the highest at 9%. But I’m not sure if this is a function of the utilization rate of their taxis or if it has something to do with urban form. Singapore has a similarly low rate (0.44%), but its street grid looks nothing like that of New York’s.

Here’s a short video explaining the project:

1 Comment so far

  1. Jakob P.

    Could it be that the total number of cabs is just way less in Vienna, leading to a similar absolute number as New York (just over 1,000) but a higher relative percentage of trips? That would make sense to me intuitively: NYC is full of cabs and rich people who don’t mind spending extra for individual transportation, whereas Vienna’s first district (inner downtown) is mostly closed off to cars in the first place and there’s very little reason to hail a cab even elsewhere when you can take a streetcar or subway instead.


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