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Massachusetts Cities Tackle Pedestrian Safety with Data

Cambridge and Somerville are investing in traffic analytics technology to assess how and why pedestrians and cyclists are under increasing risk of an accident on their streets and what can be done to improve safety.

Cities in the greater Boston area want to eliminate pedestrian deaths and they are taking a data analytics approach to achieve their goal. 

A much-traveled corridor linking Cambridge and Somerville will receive high-tech traffic analytics to understand the risk cars, buses and other vehicles pose to pedestrians and cyclists as they use the street. Traffic officials will use the data to experiment with interventions to help make the street safer.

The nonprofit technology developer Draper will lead a pilot project to study the safety of the corridor linking Central Square in Cambridge with Union Square in Somerville, using traffic analytics technology by Miovision, a Canada-based firm.

“The idea is to quantify the pedestrian’s risk, as they cross the road, and do that all day long — thousands of pedestrians, thousands of cars, thousands of interactions per day. And tally up, at that intersection, what is the risk-profile for the pedestrian,” said Peter Miraglia, energy and environment lead for global challenges at Draper. "Then you could do an intervention. Maybe you could change the signal, add additional time for the pedestrian to cross. Maybe get fewer interactions that way,” he added.

Part of the project's aim is understanding the risk assessment of a pedestrian, both on the sidewalks as well as crossing a street, and how street crossing infrastructure, traffic volume and other factors might affect that risk.

Like many cities, the streets in Cambridge and Somerville are getting more crowded, and it’s not just cars using them. Research has shown that the number of cyclists on the streets of Cambridge tripled from 2002 to 2012. Both Cambridge and Somerville — as well as Boston — have adopted Vision Zero philosophies, which aim to eliminate traffic and pedestrian fatalities.

“In Somerville, we take great pride in our data-driven approach to public policy,” said Brad Rawson, Somerville’s director of Transportation and Infrastructure, in a statement. “The City has a well-established program for counting people on foot, people on bikes, motor vehicle traffic and traffic crashes, but we have identified a need to improve the way we track near-miss incidents.”

The project, set to launch in July, will analyze the risk exposure to pedestrians, based on any number of factors such as time of day, speed of vehicles, weather and other metrics.

“For example, the risk may increase slightly more if the motorist is yielding to a pedestrian even though the pedestrian has a signal that it is safe to walk,” Miraglia told Government Technology in a follow-up email. “The risk would increase further if the pedestrian or motorist are not compliant with the signal. All of this information is collected over thousands of pedestrians and motorists over weeks to months so that risk can be quantified and trended, particularly before and after a safety intervention.”

Vision Zero has become a major goal for many large cities as the number of pedestrian deaths continues to rise. More than 6,200 pedestrians were killed by motorists in 2018, up 7 percent from 2017, according to a recent report by the Governors Highway Safety Association.

“In contrast with national statistics, pedestrians consistently comprise over half of traffic deaths on San Francisco’s streets,” said Megan Wier, director for Health, Equity and Sustainability at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and who co-chairs the San Francisco Vision Zero Task Force.

In 2018, San Francisco experienced 23 traffic-related fatalities, up 15 percent from the year before, according to the city’s Vision Zero annual report. The city has adopted “a data-driven, evidence-based approach to eliminating traffic deaths, including people walking on our streets,” said Wier.

“When something bad happens, you have to sort of look backward and investigate,” said Miraglia. “It takes time. It takes resources to learn. And our project is really looking forward, to say, look, we can capture all this stuff before it happens. And lets just reduce the timeline it’s going to take to learn how to get these roads in shape.”

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 Yreka, Calif.

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