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How the Supercomputer in Our Pockets Can Help With Road Redesign

The combination of the gyroscope, GPS and accelerometer in all smartphones turns them into really powerful sensors.

Public perception may not be the most accurate measurement when assessing a project's effectiveness. After a massive street redesign project, for instance, residents may complain that parking has been affected or traffic is now slower.

So getting large amounts of high-quality data to city planners so they can objectively judge a project's true effectiveness is of the utmost importance. And the San Francisco Bay area's increasing population has forced city officials to think about new ways to accommodate the influx — especially in San Francisco and Oakland, both of which have recently pursued "road diet" projects, which are essentially creating bus- and bike-only lanes to alleviate congestion and create a safer environment for cyclists and pedestrians.

“Something I have been trying to emphasize with staff is the importance of collecting data and talking about performance,” said Jeff Tumlin, interim director of the Oakland Department of Transportation (OakDOT), which formed last summer, and was charged with improving mobility in the rapidly growing city while aligning transportation projects with the city’s values on equity.

The problem with gathering comprehensive road use data is the labor intensive process required. When determining the effectiveness of the bike-only lanes on Telegraph Avenue, Tumlin said that “most of the data was super old fashioned, hand collected. Sometimes the most effective way of measuring traffic is to send interns out with clipboards.”

And from that data-gathering project, Tumlin realized that the city shouldn't do any bike projects anymore. "What we should do is street projects.”

San Francisco shares a similar philosophy. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) "takes a holistic look at the street when designing not just for transit, but bikes and pedestrians,” said Michael Rhodes, a transit planner with the agency.

San Francisco recently completed its 14 Mission Rapid Project, which created a bus-only lane through a long stretch on Mission Street. Before the road redesign, lanes were nine-and-a-half feet wide, while the city buses were 10-and-a-half-feet wide, mirror-to-mirror, according to SFMTA Program Manager Sean Kennedy. This led to huge levels of side-swipe accidents and delays in bus service.

“Mission Street is the No. 1 location in the city for accidents,” Kennedy said. “Twenty percent of weekly accidents were occurring in this corridor.”

And in judging the effectiveness of this project, the agency had an additional tool at its disposal.

“We all have supercomputers in our pocket,” said Noah Budnick, director of public policy and government affairs for Zendrive, a company that provides software to track driving data through users’ phones. The “combination of the gyroscope, GPS and accelerometer in all our phones turns these phones into really powerful sensors.”

Traditionally, the SFMTA would rely on collision data and count the amount of vehicles that would pass through intersections to judge how traffic and safety has improved. Through the Zendrive software, which works in the background and measures rapid acceleration, hard braking, phone usage and excessive speeding, the company can measure the behavior of specific drivers and understand where problem areas are.

The company released a report that analyzed more than 1 million miles of driver data on the Mission Street corridor before, during and after the construction. By tracking the data in individual vehicles, the SFMTA was able to recognize exactly where and how the project improved congestion.

“There was a 16% average reduction in risky events per 1,000 trips along the impacted corridor post-implementation vs. pre-implementation,” according to the report.

zendrive-mission-street-study-3.jpgSource: Data Study: A Bus Project, A Heated Public, And a Safer Street. Click image to enlarge.

The study, which was done for free by Zendrive, shows how much data can be extracted from drivers’ phones and how it can be used to better redesign streets to improve road safety.

The Zendrive data is collected through partnerships with other apps that are used in professional fleet businesses. Once the data is aggregated and anonymized, it is collected and analyzed by Zendrive, which will then work with cities and municipalities to provide the data and help them better understand drivers’ behavior on streets.

Safety, which is the ultimate goal for all transportation agencies, has improved for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians through the implementation of nontraditional vehicle lanes.

“This is why data is so important to us,” Tumlin said. “It's not about the type of infrastructure, it's about are we achieving the outcome?”

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.