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StreetLight Data Opens Office in Canada, Eyes Border Traffic

StreetLight Data, the big-data and traffic-analytics firm, has identified congested border crossings between the United States and Canada as possible areas where improved planning could mitigate traffic.

by / July 26, 2019
The Canadian-U.S. boundary near Blaine, Wash. Shutterstock

Congested border crossings between the United States and Canada might soon be mitigated with advanced traffic analytics using real-time data gleaned from mobile and other devices.

StreetLight Data, a U.S. traffic analysis firm whose expertise has been used by numerous cities, transit agencies and others in the United States, has branched out into the Canadian market. StreetLight Data is also eyeing border crossings as a potential choke point where improved data analysis could lead to a smoother flow of traffic.

Some of the biggest opportunities for a smoother transition across the border could be in the freight sector, said Laura Schewel, CEO of StreetLight Data.

“That’s where there are some of the most absurd inefficiencies,” she added. “And it’s a little easier to redirect freight trucks.”

Schewel said large freight trucks are far different from tourists or casual visitors across the border, and that the easy movement of goods over the line is an issue both countries would like to see improved. 

StreetLight Data recently released its Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) metrics for Canada on its StreetLight InSight platform, which provides on-demand traffic volume and flow for more than 4.5 million miles of U.S. and Canadian roadways in 2017 and 2018. The data is used crucially by city and transportation planners to understand how residents and visitors are moving through regions where improvements should be focused.

The company has already signed several deals with new Canadian clients and opened a satellite office in Vancouver, British Columbia, with four staff members.

“We see it as a great market. The community is very transportation-aware. The cities get why planning is important,” said Schewel. "We’re selling to cities, we’re selling to provinces and there’s a number of engineering and design firms where we’re working on special specific projects with up there."

Even though Canada may seem like a natural path of evolution for StreetLight Data Schewel noted that it also presents challenges along with the opportunities.

For starters, StreetLight Data depends heavily on the vast troves of granular information collected by the U.S. Census — information that is free of cost.

“Canada’s Census is not freely available,” Schewel noted. “You have to pay for it. And now that we’re a decently sized company, we can, and that was fine. … But as a little startup five years ago, we couldn’t have done what we did without the excellent data — excellent free data — of the U.S. Census. That was one of the reasons it took us a while to go into Canada.”

Also, analyzing transportation in Canada is largely an exercise in analyzing development patterns in the country. Generally, cities there are densely populated with many residents turning to public transit at higher levels than most U.S. cities. Areas outside of Canadian cities, meanwhile, are sparsely populated.

“So we had to adjust and recalibrate a lot of our analytics to deal with that different sort of balance of land use. That was one of the more interesting challenges,” said Schewel.

Canada is also subject to extreme weather — particularly in the winter months. This scenario is one that benefits from big data.

“One of the benefits of big data, compared to traditional data,” Schewel said, “is you can have persistent measurement. You can measure 365 days a year. And the benefit of that goes up, the more seasonal behavior you see. So the more extreme your climate, the bigger the benefit of big data.”

StreetLight Data is also eyeing opportunities to partner with government and other entities on the U.S. southern border with Mexico.

“This year we delivered a couple projects for southern border states about congestion at the border. And we are in the process of closing some special deals for Mexican engineering firms solely within Mexico,” said Schewel. Given the highly politicized nature of the southern border and the federal government’s focus on stemming migration, however, she also warned that traffic analytics may be sidelined.

“I’m not sure transportation planning is the biggest lever right now,” said Schewel. 

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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