Data Driven: New Program to Fix New York City's Streets

The Department of Transportation wants to help New York City motorists do a better job watching how they drive. And the DOT wants to watch, too.
The agency will launch a federally funded pilot program this fall to equip up to 500 city motorists with transmitters that collect data from their car's onboard computers. The data will flow to certain smartphone apps, supplying drivers with statistics on everything from gas mileage to the average speeds at which they move through city traffic.
The DOT will be able to monitor the same driver data, to evaluate how and where cars are moving through the city in a new way. The DOT could analyze the data to find specific problems that plague specific streets.
"It will create a revolutionary new set of metrics for us in managing the streets," said Bruce Schaller, the DOT's deputy commissioner for traffic and planning.
Currently, the agency is often dependent on cruder measures to get a sense of which streets are dangerous. "Crash data are very useful but there's sort of an irony, because we'd have better data if we had more crashes," Mr. Schaller said.
With the pilot program, the DOT hopes to comb through data to detect, for instance, a stretch of road in which many drivers have had to slam on the brakes or swerve out of the way of a collision.
"It's a new way of seeing the streets," Mr. Schaller said.
DOT officials said, though, that the main component of the pilot program will be to help drivers understand their own behavior better—and potentially help motorists reduce gas use by finding less congested streets and reduce insurance costs by encouraging people to drive safely.
Similar services are growing rapidly, city officials said, especially in the insurance industry. In February, the DOT announced the launch of new offerings from Progressive and Allstate that use data from onboard computers to adjust insurance rates according to how frequently—and how safely—drivers drive.
Nine app companies—their identities were not immediately made public—have expressed interest in partnering with the DOT, Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said. In exchange, the companies will share user data on how participating drivers are getting around. The data will be provided in the aggregate and will be anonymized, so it won't reveal drivers' identities, Mr. Schaller said.
The DOT won a $1 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration to launch the enrollment effort this fall. The DOT plans outreach events in car-centric areas of the city, like outer Brooklyn and Queens, to sign up drivers. An agency spokesman said the DOT could also target recruitment areas at businesses where many workers already drive.
Officials said the program is the first of its kind, and that they hope to make it grow in upcoming years.
The car computer data is already being collected. Every new car produced since 1996 has been required to have an onboard diagnostic computer and accompanying data port—a socket usually situated below the dashboard or near the steering column, familiar to anyone who has seen a mechanic plug a cord into a car that is being serviced.
In recent years, devices have proliferated that enable drivers to make use of that engine data, from checking one's own "check engine" light to keeping track of how much fuel is being used.
Ms. Sadik-Khan said the DOT is encouraging drivers to monitor their own behavior and potentially save money in the process by slowing down and exercising greater care behind the wheel. That can reduce insurance premiums and save gas, among other benefits.
"It's money in your pocket and it's making the streets safer," she said.
Sarah Kaufman, a researcher at the Rudin Center for Transportation and Management at New York University, said the DOT may also have to overcome some privacy worries, even though the data is to be collected anonymously, she said.
And the resulting information might not tell analysts much that they don't already know, she said. "As a matter of driving in New York City, you're going to accelerate quickly and brake quickly, because that's how New Yorkers drive," she said. "You don't need this to know that Canal Street is a parking lot most of the time."
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