What Can Taxi Data Tell Us About NYC Streets?

Taxis_1_AM_Saturday.pngThe average density of taxi pick-ups at 1 a.m. on Saturdays in 2009. The most rides originated from the Meatpacking District and the Lower East Side. Image: NYT.

When New York City installed GPS units in its taxi fleet in 2007, it began an ambitious initiative to gather information about how traffic functions. Over the last couple of weeks, the reams of taxi GPS data collected by NYCDOT received some major play from the Times, which ran stories on the intersections with the most cab hails, the days with the worst traffic, and cabbies overcharging their fares. The data is so rich, you could probably mine it for a few dozen more stories. 

So we wondered, how can this trove of information be used to help pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders?

We know that the city has already used this resource to measure the effects of street transformations. Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Khan cited average vehicle speeds calculated from the GPS data when they announced the new pedestrian plazas Broadway would be permanent.

What else can this information do? We asked some of our local transportation experts and advocates about their ideas. Here’s what they told us.

"Gridlock" Sam Schwartz, former deputy DOT commish
"One possible use of the taxi data is to identify clusters of origins and destinations where it can be demonstrated that walking travel times are competitive or can be made competitive to taxi travel times. Then the city can try to make those walking trips more inviting with street designs, lighting, policing, changing signal timing to speed the walking trip, etc. Next, the city should publicize the competitiveness of walking for these trips."

Jessie Singer, Transportation Alternatives Traffic Safety Campaign Manager
The data could be used to find out how street infrastructure affects vehicle speeds. For instance, measuring "average travel speed on streets with bike lanes versus streets without."

Charles Komanoff, transportation analyst
"For some future refinements, it would be really
helpful from a social
standpoint to be able to measure instantaneous taxi speeds, not just
averages, to be able to see in which parts of the city and at which
times of day, taxis are exceeding the 30 mph speed limits and therefore
endangering other people on the road."

Frank Hebbert, Regional Plan Association Associate Planner
"Above all else, make it publicly available. The best result for the city would be to release anonymized data — that will spur all sorts of analysis and re-use with tangible economic benefit, beyond anything DOT alone can afford."

Rob Freudenberg, RPA Senior Planner for Long Island
"How about comparing taxi routes to existing subway routes? Do most taxi trips line up with existing lines or are they filling in gaps? Are they faster, slower, etc.?"

Streetsman, Streetsblog commenter, on the heat map of taxi pick-ups
"That NYTimes Taxi GPS graphic reads as a map of times and places where public transportation, particularly surface transportation, is sorely lacking. If there were frequent, highly visible buses running directly between nightlife destinations and transit hubs we wouldn’t need so many taxis clogging the streets."

Larry Littlefield, occasional Streetsblog commenter, also on the heat map
"These areas are far enough from the subway that it is not worth the hassle, but the walk to the CBD is too long. The bus is too slow, so cabs are shared for those who can afford it. But bicycles are ideal at that distance."

We have a request in with NYCDOT to see how else they plan to use this unparalleled window onto traffic behavior. If you have more ideas, tell us about them in the comments. 

  • Ian Turner

    More refined driving times in e.g. Google Maps makes it easier to make a comparison between modes.

  • Andy

    I do like the Google maps Transit feature that shows a cost comparison. I’d love to see a feature where you can look at several options in terms of time and money, to decide which to use. If walking is just a few minutes longer than a taxi or bus and free, more people might consider that. Consequently, planners might realize the priority of walking and biking space instead of over-accommodating for cars.

  • Glenn

    Taxi usage, even in Manhattan, would be swamped by bus and subway ridership.

    A mash-up of taxi, private auto, mass transit and walking/biking mode share by location of start trip would be a great next step.

  • How about putting taxi stands at the busiest pickup points to reduce the amount of taxis wandering around looking for fares?

  • Seth

    Bike lanes at Greenwich and 14th street? I love riding my bike, but somehow putting drunk people from New Jersey on bikes on a cobblestone street on a Saturday night doesn’t seem ideal…

  • Ed

    Is this data available for public use? If not, it should be!

    Thanks

  • Streetsman

    When I was in Frieburg, Germany – a city seen as a model for sustainable transportation – I remember going out on the weekend to find hordes of tipsy teenagers flocking onto buses and streetcars that ran frequently around nightlife destinations. I can’t say it was exactly a “beautiful” scene, but those teenagers were going to be out partying anyway and having them taking buses was far better than having streets jammed with taxis darting all over the place or, god forbid – drunk teens driving. They really know how important convenient and dependable surface transit is over there.

  • lee

    cross-reference with weather reports, show the best place to hail a cab when it’s raining.

  • Bystander

    Design Trust for Public Space did a similar analysis in 2007:

    http://www.designtrust.org/publications/publication_07roadsfwd.html

    Look at maps on page 125 for example.

  • Tacony Palmyra

    The taxi data at 1am on a Saturday night tells us that:

    1) A lot of both B&T and city residents are still largely afraid of the subway after midnight.

    2) The MTA’s predilection for ridiculous service disruptions due to all the track work at this hour doesn’t make things better.

    3) A lot of women wear footwear on a Saturday night that makes even an avenue too far to walk to the bus or subway.

    4) The MTA really should just run a bus route that circulates between Port Authority, Penn Station, and the Meatpacking District on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, and promote it as such. I know, the A/C/E is right there, but as per above, the walk from 8th to 9th Ave is uncomfortable in 5 inch heels. A similar East Side nightlife circulator could run from Grand Central and Union Square to the LES. Run them frequently enough and promote them as a solution to high cab fares and they’d do very well, I’d imagine.

  • Danny G

    Tacony,

    I think the bus that you’re imagining is not run by the MTA, but instead has soft seats, reggae music, a laserlight show, and serves alcohol. Imagine the lovechild of the dollar van and party bus, and if you can run them every 15 minutes between 10pm and 2am, you’ve got a viable business model.

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