Microchip Off the Old City Block: NYC DOT Embraces Technology

Microchip Off the Old City Block: NYC DOT Embraces Technology

February 10, 2012 at 4:00 am

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City is fast becoming a tech-centric and data driven metropolis. From the push for an applied sciences tech campus, to the support of media and technology start-ups, the Big Apple circa 2012 is making a play to become a new hub for technological innovation.

This vehicle queuing sensor is one of many installed by the DOT that helps monitor traffic, and address problems, in real time. Photo courtesy of NYC DOT.

But beyond expanding the private sector, city government is also using technology to improve service. And one agency in particular is relying on it to modernize and adapt for the future: the Department of Transportation.

“We have worked hard to bring technology to the streets,” DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan told MetroFocus. “We’re no longer at a point to use concrete, asphalt and steel [to move forward]. We need to use technology.”

The DOT has spent $296 million on advances in traffic signal technology alone in the past four years, an amount Sadik-Khan calls a small sum, especially compared to the $4.3 billion road and bridge program.

Take a look at some of the recent technology-driven initiatives at DOT with MetroFocus:

Traffic Sensors and Cameras 
Currently in place in Midtown Manhattan, from Second to Sixth avenues and 42nd to 57th streets.

Mayor Bloomberg is a data driven mayor. He has no patience for inefficiency. He wants innovation.

In order to alleviate traffic woes, in July the DOT began using high-tech microwave motion sensors, EZ-Pass readers and cameras in Midtown traffic hot-spots. The sensors, attached to poles, wirelessly send information about traffic jams and accidents to engineers in Long Island City, who from there can adjust traffic light patterns in real time.

“We want to understand exactly what’s going on in Midtown,” said Sadik-Khan. With the sensors, she added, “We can hold the green light longer.”

Red light cameras and bus lane cameras have also been deployed.

Parking Sensors
Pilot program currently in effect in the Bronx

This sensor, about the size of a hockey puck, is part of a pilot program in the Bronx that will send signals to your smartphone if a parking spot is available. Photo courtesy of NYC DOT.

In January, 177 sensors the size of thick hockey pucks were installed in the pavement on East 187th Street in the Belmont section of the Bronx. The pilot program is designed to let people know where there is available parking. If a spot is empty, a signal is sent to the smartphone database. The sensors have to make it through a winter of snow (if we ever get any) and salt before the city will build the free smartphone app.

“This [not finding parking] is something every driver can relate to,” said Sadik-Khan. “If it works we have the potential to ease congestion and more importantly reduce the time people spend cruising looking for parking, which leads to congestion.”

Already in place in yellow cabs, coming to bike share this summer

DOT has been using a GPS (global positioning system) for years. It was installed on all 13,000 of the city’s yellow cabs, and plans are in place to use it in the city’s bike share program, which begins this summer. GPS is used to track where cabs — and bikes — are in highest demand, which is very valuable information, said Sadik-Khan.

The new DOT sponsored bike share program hits NYC in the Summer of 2012. The bikes will each be enabled with GPS tracking. Photo courtesy of NYC DOT.

The Daily Pothole Tumblr
Already in place, updated almost daily

Technology is also being used by the DOT to increase transparency. The Daily Pothole Tumblr blog lets people know that the DOT is at work “defeating potholes,” sometimes as many as 1,876 a day, as on Jan. 30.

Interactive Street Conditions Map

The City Council passed the Transparency in Paving Streets (TIPS) legislation in early January, which requires the DOT to post on its website current information on road conditions. Information to be on the map includes how a street’s condition is rated by the DOT, and the last time it was paved. Sadik-Khan said she welcomes the challenge of keeping the map up to date.

“It supports the work we are already doing, so it’s great,” she said. “Information is power.”

Pedestrian Countdown Signals
Already in place, more on the way

Last spring, the DOT began installing timed countdown signals at busy intersections — and those with a history of pedestrian crashes — around the city. The 1,100 crosswalk signals tell pedestrians exactly how many seconds they have to cross the street before the light turns green. In December, Bloomberg announced that in 2011 the city experienced the lowest number of traffic fatalities in a century, which Sadik-Khan says is partially due to the installation of countdown signals.

Last spring, the DOT began installing pedestrian countdown signals at busy intersections and those with a history of traffic fatalities or accidents. Flickr/Peds.org

Embracing Open Source Data

Partnering with tech start-ups and digital entrepreneurs to build products that make the city work better helps the DOT move forward, says Sadik-Khan. Because the city strives to provide data to technologically inclined citizens, she says, apps for smartphones are often developed with information from the DOT.

The “Can I Park Here?” app, for example, tells people where in the city they can park their cars, using the DOT’s parking database.

“It’s exciting to see all the development happening around data,” said Sadik-Khan. “That innovation will help to continue to transform the agency.”

The NYC Big Apps competition, which on Tuesday closed the submission period for the third year, also encourages the development of apps that use data made available by the city, like sanitation collection amounts and school attendance and enrollment statistics. Winners of the competition this year will take home between $2,000 and $10,000.

How Tech-Savvy Is NYC Compared to Other Cities?

Two other East Coast cities, Boston and Washington D.C., have also been using technology to improve service. Both cities boast pedestrian countdown signals and GPS enabled bike share programs. All Boston cabs feature GPS, and Washington D.C. may soon be next. Both cities are also in the parking sensor game — a pilot program launched in Boston in Nov. 2011 and in D.C. in Jan. 2011.

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has teamed up with independent developers to develop smartphone apps, and in D.C., many smartphone apps exist to help Metro users answer the question, “Where’s my train?”

But microwave motion traffic sensors are largely unique to New York City. And neither Boston nor Washington D.C. have a pothole tracking Tumblr.

For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.