This won’t come as a surprise to many of you. But I recently attended a community meeting where someone was advocating for adding new lanes to a particular road. Their argument was that traffic congestion is forcing too many cars to sit needlessly idle and that that is bad for the environment. The proposed solution of adding new lanes would get traffic moving, reduce idling pollution, and therefore be overall better for the environment.
I disagree entirely.
But transportation planning seems to be one of those things that many people feel is intuitive. It’s one of those things where people feel confident saying, “I know how to fix this. We just need to do this.” But the reality is that cities are incredibly complex organisms and it’s not always obvious what should be done. So I think that a big part of making our cities better comes down to having much better data. And that’s why I’m very intrigued by the work that startup Viva, and others, are doing.
Viva uses small street-light mounted cameras and machine learning to track urban mobility (see image above). Currently they track 9 different modes: pedestrian, bicycle, e-scooter, motorcycle, car, van, light truck, semi-truck, and bus. And after they collect this data, the relevant information is extracted and then everything else is deleted for privacy reasons. There are also plans to make this data openly available to the public so that people can use it and/or build on top of it.
Obviously this is still going to raise privacy concerns and that is something that will need to be carefully addressed. But I do think that the data from a platform like this is going to be invaluable for cities. Among many other things, it will help us to better allocate space among the various modes and design much safer streets. Hopefully it can also help to take some of the politics out of these sorts of decisions: “Here’s the data. Take a look.”
Viva currently has 1,000 sensors already installed in London (where they are being used to evaluate the impacts of congestion pricing), and about half a dozen in New York. So it’ll be interesting to see what this leads to. And who knows, maybe it will actually turn us all into amateur transportation planners. We’ll certainly have access to a lot more data.
For more information on Viva, here’s their website.