Congress is actually getting work done this week, with the Senate poised to approve a $56.5 billion transportation and housing bill. Their timing couldn’t be better.
While lawmakers work out the details, policy wonks are celebrating National Transportation Week, business and labor leaders are rallying for Infrastructure Week and thousands of Americans will ditch their cars for Bike To Work Day.
Yes, there are festivities aplenty, but don’t count on cake and ice cream. This is about money.
More precisely, it’s about a critical lack of money to repair crumbling bridges, upgrade overburdened transit and adapt outdated road and power grids to serve a changing society and advance environmental stewardship.
Even if Congress passes the transportation funding bill, it will be only a start. That’s why cities and private enterprise are looking for innovative, low-cost ways to fix things on their own.
Sharing the Road
Take bike commuting. Cities worldwide are taking part in Bike to Work Week, an annual event that began in Europe, advocating for more cyclist-friendly cities.
It’s working. Bike commuting more than doubled between 2001 and 2009, reducing traffic and putting people in a better mood. If more people walked or biked more often, public health would reap dividends, too.
As more people share the road, however, safety has become a top concern. Traffic collisions continue to be a leading cause of death for the youngest and oldest among us. As more modes of transit compete for street space, cities need to design bike lanes, bus stops and crosswalks with safety in mind.
To do that, local planners, businesses, universities and nonprofits are taking matters into their own hands and coming up with innovative solutions. More than 20 cities, including Minneapolis, Boston, and Seattle, have joined behind MetroLab Network, a coalition that’s developing and deploying projects to improve urban infrastructure and environmental sustainability.
Data to the Rescue
Using data to solve problems is commonplace at private companies, including Redfin, but the approach is underutilized at the civic level.
DataKind, a nonprofit dedicated to harnessing the power of data in the service of humanity, aims to bridge this gap by connecting city transportation officials with data scientists in private enterprise.
Last week, I and other data scientists attended a DataDive hosted by DataKind and Microsoft with officials from the Seattle Department of Transportation. Our task was to find ways to understand traffic patterns and predict collisions, part of an effort led by Vision Zero. We were able to estimate and map traffic volumes using techniques never before used by SDOT and did some early estimation of which intersections posed greater risk to pedestrians.
Data is a cost-effective approach, but without more private-sector involvement and public education, mass amounts of information can sit unused on city hard drives.
The White House has backed this and other initiatives, providing more than $160 million to find smarter solutions to big problems. It’s a start.