High-Tech Streets

Pathways to new information are fast becoming as important to the fight for livable streets as the concrete and curbs that shape spaces for bikes, buses and pedestrians.

On an unseasonably warm april morning, Reclaim rode across the Williamsburg Bridge bicycle and pedestrian path with Transportation Alternatives IT Director Mike Infranco. The path was packed with bike commuters, Hasidic women out for their morning constitutional and runners of all abilities. That muted red span across the East River felt more like a neighborhood than a bridge.

"The funny thing is, even though the City finished construction on this path in 2002, in some ways it didn't fully exist until last year," said Infranco. "You could ride on it, but if you called 311 to report a pothole or patches of ice, they had no way of taking your complaint. There was no Williamsburg Bridge bike path in virtual New York."

Systems like 311 work by pairing a complaint or piece of information with a City agency that can do something about it. But if that information doesn't dovetail with the forms in front of a 311 operator, or there's no government office connected to that type of issue, the system breaks down. The complaint winds up in limbo.

In the case of the Williamsburg Bridge path, there was a longstanding problem: as big as it is, it doesn't have a street address. Pothole crews and sanitation vehicles are deployed to the closest possible street address, a protocol in which a bridge path above the East River does not compute.

In 2009, T.A. sat down with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) with a laundry list of issues and worked with the agency to develop new forms that could collect information on bridge path and greenway conditions and funnel it to the Department of Transportation and Department of Sanitation, where patch crews, snow plows and salt trucks could be sent out in response, keeping thousands of non-motorized commuters safe and miles of infrastructure in good shape.

For an advocacy organization that usually measures success in miles of bike lanes and acres of pedestrian plazas, changing an entry form on 311 was an inconspicuous but important victory that led to real-world changes as obvious as ice removal or a pot-hole-free surface. Increasingly, this kind of tech-driven change is reshaping our city.

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Online entrepreneurs dubbed New York City "Silicon Alley" ages ago. Scores of talented programmers and software developers call the five boroughs home, and the City eagerly promotes the tech industry. The convergence of these factors has made for fertile ground. DoITT's recent "NYC Big Apps" competition put huge chunks of municipal data at the disposal of innovators, challenging them to develop new applications to streamline City services and open up information to the public. Among the 13 winners announced in February were a subway station-finder, a tool to submit feedback on taxi drivers, a bike rack locator and an app that identifies a user's elected officials based on address.

Taking data sets out of their silos and putting them into intelligible and useful formats has become the bread-and-butter of e-advocates hoping to democratize information. In 2004, T.A. put the crash records of 12,000 signalized intersections in public view for the first time when it launched CrashStat.org. Suddenly, instead of filing a lengthy Freedom of Information Request to the New York State Department of Transportation, any resident could go online in seconds to validate their own impressions about dangerous streets. And armed with that information, they could take on the experts and make the case for speed humps, traffic calming and bike lanes.

CrashStat 2.1 launched this April, adding in new features like crash summaries for different districts, more seamless navigation, the ability to link and email crash maps, and the most recent publicly available data through 2008. And these mapping tools are getting more sophisticated. Using CrashStat 2.1 data, T.A. has started modeling the risk of a crash occurring.

But there's a missing piece between the mere availability of data--however useful it may be--and effecting actual change on our streets. And that's where the next great surge of technology is headed.

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Back in 2008, the Department of Transportation changed its procedures for submitting curbside bike rack requests. Instead of individuals calling 311 or completing a form on the Internet, the DOT would only take bulk requests from community boards. This change enabled the DOT to install racks more efficiently, but it also meant that anyone hoping for a bike rack had to take it to a community board and then hope their request eventually found its way to the DOT.

Dissatisfied with these layers of bureaucracy, T.A.'s Brooklyn Committee created FixCity.org with the help of The Open Planning Project--the engine behind StreetsBlog and StreetFilms. Firmly believing that bikers know best, they hoped to "crowdsource" the requests for bike racks. The program uses the DOT's criteria for installing a bike rack and allows passersby to snap a picture with a smart phone, enter an address and send a request to their community board. As an added feature, FixCity allows everyone to see all the racks submitted and "heart" the ones they support, which results in a prioritized list based on popular demand.

The project started in North Brooklyn in the summer of 2009. Williamsburg's perennial shortage of bike parking meant lots of customers from the get-go. Brooklyn Committee volunteers and Neighbors Allied for Good Growth provided the eyes and ears to scout the neighborhood for locations. So far, 300 rack requests have been submitted through the program with installation soon to follow.

"The crowdsourcing phenomenon changes everything," said Wendy Brawer, founder and Executive Director of Green Maps. "It has a lot of validity. It reaches media and decision makers. It allows people to be active even though they might not realize. They're literally creating the change they want to see."

Brawer knows this lesson well. Back in 1995, she registered greenmap.org and began combining the power of maps with the communications reach of the internet. In the 15 years that followed, GreenMap has expanded to include 650 projects in 55 countries – many of them crowdsourced. And their 2009 mash-up with GoogleMaps has thrown the door wide open. Cities like Tokyo are now using GreenMap to develop official bicycle master plans based on the feedback and selections of GreenMap users.

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About the same time groups like T.A. began trading their wheat paste and handbills for e-faxes and email, government services began migrating online as well. But not everyone has followed.

"The potential democratizing force of the Internet is astounding, but we're not there yet," says Joshua Breitbart, Senior Policy Fellow at People's Production House, a community media organization that advocates for increased access to the internet for low-income and immigrant New Yorkers. "If you have to go to City Hall to make a change, at least everybody has access to the subway to get there. But we have very clear data about who does and doesn't have access to the virtual City Hall."

Fewer than half of New York City households have broadband internet access, according to a 2008 study commissioned by the City. And among New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) households, that figure falls to roughly a quarter of households--lower than that of rural America. That's a huge swath of the population that's not a part of what is fast-becoming the dominant means of interaction with municipal services and community organizing. "To the extent that we're creating a virtual city of municipal services and a new public sphere, we need to make sure that it's true to the NYC that exists in reality," says Breitbart.

If the internet becomes the dominant means of organizing behind bike lane projects, or getting a broken streetlight fixed, then many parts of New York City--the parts that traditionally have difficulty accessing those services to begin with--will remain disconnected. And that is why advocates and developers are increasingly looking to mobile phones, which are much more widespread than broadband internet, to bridge the digital divide.

This summer, Transportation Alternatives will take to the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx as part of a new campaign that will harness the frustration of bus and subway riders into meaningful political action. T.A. organizers will connect with straphangers at bus stops and subway stations, building new contact lists and plugging riders into upcoming events, rallies and petitions. And in a first for T.A, we will employ mobile phone-based actions and alerts. As riders sign up, they'll start receiving text messages that will take the place of traditional e-mail outreach. The goal of the effort is to open up our advocacy to communities beyond the reach of traditional communications.

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Though truly democratized information, real public access and click-and-fix reporting is still a long way off, at the rate these changes are happening, we'll be in a new age of technology and advocacy very soon.

It was only a few years ago that Times Square was clogged with cars and protected bike lanes were pie-in-the-sky, or that the internet was the exclusive realm of scientists and government operators, which ought to be heartening for people like Breitbart, who rightly believes, "When we have an online population that actually reflects the community in the city then we'll have an explosion of creativity." To which we'd add: and public spaces and infrastructure that reflect the real needs, wants and attitudes of New Yorkers.