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Posts tagged as “Transportation”

Durham transportation study using location data mined from devices in purses, pockets and cars

On a mission to improve transportation downtown, Durham officials are experimenting with an emerging method to trace where and how people move.

They are buying location data harvested from smartphones and navigation devices.

Many owners of those devices are likely unaware that their movements create such data or that it is collected and sold to help a city eager to unclog its downtown.

In November 2018 the city announced Move Durham, a study to analyze today’s transportation downtown, forecast future needs and suggest how to keep people moving with vehicles, public transit, bikes and on foot.

Move Durham, funded with $400,000 in multiple grants, is contracting with StreetLight Data of California to buy data originating with GPS systems and potentially hundreds of smartphone apps, including weather, dating and exercise software.

Move Durham is evaluating ways to encourage transportation beyond cars and trucks, including cycling. (Photos by Katie Nelson)

StreetLight Data offers cities a quick way to monitor movement. The California company buys location data originating from smartphone apps and in-car navigation devices to track travel patterns, giving cities and developers the opportunity to see up-to-date, highly specific travel information.

As of July 2018, Streetlight Data reported that it collects and processes location records from more than 65 million adults in the U.S. and Canada. It can show where people start and end trips and how fast they moved — a good indication of whether they walked, biked or drove.

That’s especially useful in a city that is rapidly changing, said Ellen Beckmann, a Durham senior transportation planner who leads the Move Durham project. Durham adds 11 new residents every day, main roads get jammed downtown, accidents are more common and residents are complaining.

“Having information like this that’s quicker and more up-to-date is very useful,” Beckmann said.

A Duke privacy expert expressed some concern about the data collection process used by the location-data industry.

Apps and GPS systems don’t make it obvious that they both collect and sell the location data they capture, said Jolynn Dellinger, a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School who specializes in data privacy issues.

Most users “don’t know how much a phone can collect on them,” she said. And there are currently no laws governing what private companies like StreetLight can do with the location data after they purchase it, Dellinger added.

Alta Planning and Design — a transportation firm that specializes in streamlining city travel— favored hiring StreetLight Data. After winning a public contract to collect and analyze data for the city, Alta staff realized that using traditional traffic counters would take too long and was inefficient, according to Jennifer Baldwin, a senior planning associate with Alta.

For $30,000, the city will have access to StreetLight’s services for six months. During this time, the city will have access to data from almost seven years ago and as recent as weeks ago, Baldwin said.

While those working on the project initially were concerned about privacy issues with such data, Baldwin said she was reassured that individuals’ privacy would be secured by StreetLight’s data protection policies. To safeguard personal information, StreetLight Data purchases anonymized records, which replaces names with random strings of digits.

StreetLight Data buys location data from companies that obtain it from owners of smartphone apps and other sources that can capture where their users move throughout their days.

On StreetLight Data’s website, the company does note that it can associate a “likely home location” to a device, even linking “income distribution” and other demographic factors to a person’s phone.

That said, data provided to Durham will not include a view of individual homes, said Kaleb Osagie, a StreetLight sales representative. If a user wants to see data from a zone with only one house, “the platform will let you know that this project is too specific,” Osagie said.

StreetLight buys location data from separate companies, Cuebiq and INRIX. Cuebiq purchases location data from smartphone apps, and INRIX gets that same information from GPS devices like Google Maps or Garmin, according to StreetLight Data’s website.

Durham needs a transportation study due to recent growth downtown, says Move Durham’s website. That includes more than $1.2 billion of investment since 2000.

That resulting building boom has made parking tougher and more expensive, which may make  park-and-ride lots and bus transit service potentially more attractive. At the same time, central Durham residents are asking for more walking routes, room for bicycles and less traffic through residential areas.

In Phase 1, Move Durham circulated surveys and staged community meetings to hear what problems people were experiencing as they  move around downtown.

The project has only just begun to use StreetLight data, Baldwin said. The data will become more helpful during Phase 2 of the Move Durham project, where analysts will narrow their focus to problem routes that the public helped identify.

That’s when Durham will get into the “nitty gritty” of the data, she said.

GoTriangle hosts public meeting for light rail feedback

GoTriangle is inviting members of the community to comment on proposed changes to the plan for a  light rail system that it plans to begin constructing in 2020.

According to GoTriangle officials, the changes reflect a Federal Transit Administration review and public feedback suggesting frustration with certain aspects of the the light rail’s initial design.

The system will run through Durham and Orange Counties’ with the goal of connecting Durham and Chapel Hill and providing “about 24,000 trips a day to residents and commuters connecting to jobs, education and healthcare.” In August, the Durham County Board of Commissioners voted to fill a $57.6 million state funding gap for the project, a decision that brought about criticism from many who believe it to be a bad use of taxpayer dollars.

The preliminary design plans presented publicly by GoTriangle in April also earned pushback from the public. In July, a local urban design group named Durham Area Designers penned a letter to the company’s board “critiquing both station aesthetics and the transparency of the process.”

Now, GoTriangle has presented its plans and proposed changes in a detailed “online meeting” that allows users to add comments to any section. The site will be open for feedback until Nov. 30, and there will also be a public meeting held on Nov. 19 in which people can go inspect the designs in person and offer their critique. Two other public meetings took place earlier this month.

The new changes are “meant to keep project costs in line, provide better pedestrian and bike access, and get the most benefit from future station-area development.” Some of them would affect the entire system, such as the incorporation of smaller station platforms that serves two train cars rather than three.

Other adjustments address problem spots at specific stations caused by parking lots and rail segments, such as the switch to a single-track bridge across New Hope Creek.

Durham tries to break up the love affair between commuters and their cars

In front of the entrance to Duke University Hospital on Erwin Road, Lynn Brandon stood with her daughter late one afternoon, waiting for the bus after a long day of work at the hospital. Brandon has a car, but chooses to ride the bus for one simple reason: “Convenience.” She doesn’t have to worry about parking, and the No. 11 bus takes her straight home.

Darius Brown, another Durhamite waiting at the stop, was using the bus that day because his car was in the shop. “Otherwise, I’d never take the bus for any reason,” he said.

Durham transit officials would love to lure more riders like Brandon and Brown. According to results from the 2017 GoDurham passenger survey, 63 percent of GoDurham riders do not have vehicles in their household. By increasing the number of riders who could use their own cars, the city’s transit agency reduces the number of cars that need parking and other services.

“Of course we want to respect the people who are already riding our buses, but we also want ridership to be more diverse,” said Anne Phillips, who handles the city’s Transportation Demand Management program. “The cost of land in Durham is going up, and it’s more expensive to make parking lots and infrastructure for cars.”

One strategy: working with employers to provide incentives to employees to ride the bus more by offering benefits such as a discounted GoPass and educating people on how the GoDurham system operates throughout the city.

“We want commuters to not depend on their car, especially those who work downtown,” she said.

What’s the deal with Seattle?

It’s difficult to separate commuters and their cars, said Steven Polein,director of urban mobility research at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation. In fact, car ownership has gone up in recent years and use of public transit has declined.

“Cars have become very affordable with interest rates, so a lot of transit people are leaving it and we’ve seen a pretty significant decline pretty much all across the country with very few exceptions,” he said. “Auto availability is at its highest level, and if people have a vehicle they’re dramatically less likely to use public transportation.”

Survey results show that 68 percent of bus riders use GoDurham to get to work, and 75 percent make less than $24,999 a year.

Polein said improvements to transit systems don’t necessarily get more people to ride. “Transit is doing what it can to stay in the game. A number of systems are making efforts to speed up bus service, increase frequency, or lower the number of stops, making them more attractive,” he said. “But the reality is, unless you have intense development (that drives up the cost of parking and congestion), it’s a challenging competition.”

Ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft have also captured the ridership of a “non-trivial share of folks” who would otherwise have used public transit, according to Polein. Environmental factors can play a factor as well: Some cities like Washington have systems with severe maintenance issues, while San Francisco has chronic problems with homelessness and unsanitary conditions that deter people from using the buses.

One city that has beaten the odds is Seattle, which enjoyed such an incredible jump in bus ridership between 2010 and 2014 that, according to CityLab, “at its peak in 2015 around 78,000 people, or about one in five Seattle workers, rode the bus to work.”

Seattle has an urban environment that’s perfect to encourage bus ridership, with very congested roads and not enough parking in many of its central downtown areas. The city also “implemented substantial increases in bus service as they planned long-term investments in light rail lines,” according to StreetsBlog USA. The Seattle Department of Transportation funded repairs for traffic-heavy routes and inefficient bus stops that had been causing problems.

Seattle voters showed they were willing to pitch in. In 2014, voters approved a measure that increased the sales tax and implemented a vehicle license fee in order to raise about $45 million annually for transit.

 

Providing more incentives

GoDurham wants more employers to provide workers with incentives to ride the bus.

Duke University is the largest GoPass provider in Durham. It offers a GoPass card to all its students for free, and “eligible faculty and staff” can buy one for $25. The card “is a free transit pass offered to employees and tenants by the employer… Tenants and employees ride for free for one year on all transit routes in the Triangle with any agency.” Other Durham employers that provide GoPasses include American Underground, Suntrust, the ad agency McKinney, and the City of Durham.

GoTriangle hosts the Golder Modes Awards each year in order to “recognize companies, organizations and people who best use their resources to influence Triangle employees and university students to pursue smart commuting options.”

Last year, one of the winners was Christi Turner, Facilities Operations Program Facilitator at Red Hat, a software development company, in downtown Raleigh. Red Hat provides GoPasses to its employees, as well as a bike-share program, and it also organizes R line events that encourage coworkers to get comfortable with riding the bus.

Another winner was the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which got recognized for its “efforts toward improving air quality and reducing congestion in the Triangle region” using a tremendously successful bike share program that encouraged employees to take breaks and bike around the neighborhood.

But Polein is skeptical whether benefits like these actually encourage more people to ride. “Customers generally require a very high-quality level of service,” he said. “They want it to be speedy, safe, modern, convenient, and flexible, and even then, it may not be enough.”

Photo by Katie Nelson

City wins $1 million Bloomberg grant to encourage alternatives to driving

Durham’s efforts to encourage commuters to find alternatives to their cars have won the city $1 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The Durham Mayors Challenge Team has been working on a pilot program since the city was selected as one of 35 finalists in the U.S. Mayors Challenge in February. The program worked with 1,586 downtown employees to encourage “new modes and routes for downtown commuters and introducing health, money and time benefits of not driving a car.”

The project included a planning tool that provided commuters with personalized routes and, mapped options for stops, time comparisons, and benefits. The employees who used the tool were 12 percent more likely to use alternative transportation over driving alone.

The city also used a GoDurham bus lottery, which turned riding the bus into a friendly competition. Commuters who played the game reported using alternative transport 19 percent more, and “reported a higher level of happiness and lower levels of stress” throughout the pilot.

Funding for this “test and learn” phase, which lasted 6 months, came from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which provided each of the 35 finalists with $100,000 in grants as well as technical support.

Now, with the $1 million prize, Durham will begin implementing these programs in order to tackle its more significant mobility  problems: “The city’s parking capacity and budget for street-maintenance can’t keep pace with residents’ dependency on single-occupancy vehicles, negatively affecting more than 34,000 downtown employees.”

The city’s goal is to reduce the number of cars in downtown Durham by 5 percent, about 800 vehicles, to reduce the demand on parking and local roads.

Cyclists worry that new Durham plan is just paint

The city of Durham is planning 10 miles of new bike lanes, but some cyclists are concerned the city is simply painting new lines and not providing them with enough protection.

“More bike lanes are going to incentivize new bikers, which is great, but many of them won’t be prepared for conflict zones,” said Landis Masnor, chair of Bike Durham, at a public meeting Saturday.

On posters at the meeting, Post-it notes were used to mark areas where cyclists want more protection.

Bike Durham is an advocacy group for affordable transportation and bicycle safety. The group sent several representatives to the meeting, which sought input on the proposed bike lanes.

“Our goal with this project is to fill out gaps in the network,” said Bryan Poole, a bicycle and pedestrian transportation planner for the city. “We’re expecting bike advocates to come, look at our plans and tell us their personal concerns.”

Many cyclists said painted lines aren’t enough and that they were worried about the lack of physical barriers such as plants or poles separating them from cars. But Chris Allen, an engineer with Alta Planning & Design, a city consultant, said the funding for this particular project is limited to painting bike lanes.

“We’re using peoples’ input to decide where to cut back on street parking, to allow for a buffered bike lane and more space for bikers,” he said. “But we’re limited to the width of existing lanes.”

Cyclists at the meeting kept pointing out areas where they wanted some kind of divider to separate them from cars.

Masnor pointed out one stretch of road on Stadium Drive just south of Kirkwood Drive that forces bikers from their own lane onto a “sharrow,” a marking on the street that signals bikers and cars can share the lane.

“So you get used to biking protected in your own lane, and then suddenly it’s gone and you’re sharing the road with cars,” he said. “It’s incredibly dangerous.”

Studies have found that sharrows don’t necessarily reduce crashes, despite still being a popular and affordable choice for cities looking to improve their infrastructure.

“More people are riding bikes in Durham. We need to be asking, is bad infrastructure going to cost people’s lives?” said David Bradway, a devoted cyclist and member of Bike Durham.

Bradway bikes daily from his home to Duke University’s campus with his daughter, and he is concerned about how well Duke and the city of Durham address bikers’ safety.

City officials say they are trying. Last year, the City Council adopted the Vision Zero Durham Resolution, a “commitment to eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries on Durham roadways.”