Car-centric data encourages car-centric transportation planning

We often discuss the role of data in the transportation industry, especially how advocates are using it and new technologies to improve non-drive-alone transportation options. But Joe Cortwright, over at City Observatory, recently made a key point about data: the vast majority of new technology-driven transportation data is focused on making it easier to drive.

The movement towards the development of “smart cities” largely emphasizes connected solutions for traffic flow and signal prioritization, but fails to capture the kinds of solutions that would improve conditions for biking and walking. As Cortwright notes:

As the old adage goes: If you don’t count it, it doesn’t count. That premise becomes vastly more important the more we define problems in big-data terms. New technology promises to provide a firehose of data about cars, car travel, car delay, and roadways—but not nearly as much about people. This is a serious omission, and should give us pause about the application of “smart” principles to cities and transportation planning.

A prominent example is also visible in this widely-shared video from MIT, which envisions a connected transportation system in which autonomous cars can communicate turns with each other, negating the need for stoplights. Connected vehicles offers a lot in terms of minimizing congestion, but the demonstration – based on a Boston intersection with two bike lanes – notably excludes people walking, biking, or taking transit.

The issue, too, is two-fold, since much of the data that informs walking and biking behaviors is qualitative, and thus more difficult to record, analyze, and communicate. Cortwright again:

Large parts of most American cities, and especially their suburbs, constitute vast swaths of hostile territory to people traveling on foot. Either destinations are too spread out, or there just aren’t sidewalks or crosswalks to support safely walking from point to point. Moreover, walking is so uncommon that drivers have become conditioned to behave as if pedestrians don’t exist, making streets even more foreboding.

From the standpoint of the data-reliant transportation engineer, the problems encountered by Dorantes, Yearsley, and Tektel are invisible – and therefore “nonexistent.” Because we lack the conventional metrics to define and measure, for example, the hardships of walking, we don’t design and enforce solutions or adopt targeted public policies.

There’s still much to be learned about how people drive from sensors and connected vehicles. The key challenge, though, is to find ways to include and prioritize multimodal considerations as new technologies improve our ability to gather transportation data.

Read the full article on City Observatory here.

Photo: Traffic in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,

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