There are three groups usually involved with city-scale transportation planning. First are government agencies -- city departments of transportation (DOT), state-level DOTs for some projects, public transit agencies, etc. Sometimes these contract planning or design work out to private consulting companies. Second are local advocacy groups, who help raise awareness about safety issues and vocally push the government to make changes. Third are individual citizens. Once they're engaged by the issue of inadequate cycling infrastructure -- often because of personal experiences or from looking for safe routes for their children to bike to school -- they get involved in a few ways. Many join the advocacy groups, volunteering their time. A few -- Joe Mangan and Pushing the Needle being notable examples -- start directly writing about their vision. And many more spend endless hours debating strangers online on sites like Reddit, Twitter, or the Urbanist blog.
The aim is for A/B Street to engage all of these stakeholders using the same data and software. Engagement strategies so far include meeting people in person (through meetups, community bike ride events, and public talks), posting demos online (using the "wow factor" of the software to grab attention), and networking. The most common problem so far (from the ~3 years of A/B Street work) is simply not hearing back. An individual or group initially finds the project, expresses interest, but disappears after an initial meeting.
Another challenge is deciding what software solutions can best help. A/B Street's focus has jumped all over the place -- traffic simulation, collecting data for traffic signal timing, 15-minute neighborhoods -- because none of the stakeholders clearly express a need for software to solve a particular problem. Few of these groups have much technical expertise in software, so how could they even imagine some far-fetched program that doesn't resemble anything they've used before? In traditional software companies, product managers serve the role of engaging with these groups, learning about their problems, and gathering feedback about possible solutions. The A/B Street team doesn't have resources for that so far.
A barrier to engaging with government agencies is establishing professional credibility. Governments are risk-averse and establish private industry partners slowly. A/B Street is an open source project not seeking any kind of profits, and backed by a few volunteer individuals. This is not something agencies are used to dealing with -- although in the past, Seattle's open data program hosted some hackathons specifically to engage with civic hackers. One workaround is to partner with academic researchers, who have more credibility and some prior relationships with government.
The launch plan for the bike network tool in Seattle includes all of these groups:
- The r/seattlebike subreddit
- publishing an article to Seattle Bike Blog
- The hope is for individual readers of these online communities to try out the software, upload their proposals, and maybe become more involved with widely publishing their ideas. This will help demonstrate the people's visions to the government in a more visual and specific way than what happens now.
- Advocacy groups
- Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, with whom
I've been involved for a while. They're starting an "ungap the map"
campaign, which was one of the original inspirations for this tool's focus.
- The A/B Street team is already involved with one local chapter, the Aurora Reimagined Coalition. We attended a live design workshop in late August and got feedback on the initial prototype of the tool.
- Move Redmond, a similar group for a nearby city. I have some contact with them previously.
- Complete Streets Bellevue, also have prior contact.
- Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, with whom I've been involved for a while. They're starting an "ungap the map" campaign, which was one of the original inspirations for this tool's focus.
- Government entities
- I've met and demonstrated A/B Street to a few people within SDOT, but unfortunately I don't expect any further response from them.
- The Seattle Bike Advisory Board is more likely to be responsive.
- Seattle is about to elect a new mayor and city council in November. All the major candidates mention biking in their platforms, so I'll get in touch.
A/B Street has wound up local TV and newspaper media before. It might be strategic to repeat this for the new software, but I'd like to wait and see how many people use the tool and upload proposals. If there's a strong community response, I think this would merit another story.
There's one exception to the difficulties mentioned previously about getting clear product requirements. Brian Deegan is a cycling planner who does consulting across the UK and whose company has written lots of design manuals. Thanks to Robin, A/B Street has a relationship with Brian, and based on studying a design workshop video by Brian, we've started prototyping a new tool focused on placing modal filters to establish low-traffic neighborhoods. The UK planning scene is currently more focused on this type of intervention than building bike lanes. So, we're planning to pivot and focus on this LTN tool after mid-October. The long-term strategy is to continue building these smaller, focused tools, all leveraging the common A/B Street technical platform. Different regions and situations will demand different planning software.
The A/B Street team has a collaborator at the Arizona State Transportation AI lab. It could be the right time to focus on the currently car-centric Phoenix metro area, with things like the car-free Culdesac community gaining traction.
San Francisco is another high-potential market for the bike tool. They have extreme hills, a very active cycling advocacy group, and a large tech industry workforce likely to be interested in this kind of software. During COVID, they established many slow streets. The A/B Street team has some connections to local advocates here.
Stay tuned for the reaction to the tool's launch and the example Seattle proposal. Ultimately the measurable result is the number of real bike lane projects that reach construction and used A/B Street in some part of the planning or engagement process. In the short term, metrics we'll track are the number of proposals uploaded, the responses on social media, and any new collaborations that're started after launching.
The immediate plans are to launch the tool the week of October 11 to all of the listed Seattle stakeholders. In a few weeks, we'll meet with NYC's TransAlt group. If the initial response in Seattle is quiet, we will launch to San Francisco, after fixing some elevation data issues there.
Roughly whenever we want, we could scale up to more cities. There's always some specialized effort to fix the most egregious OpenStreetMap data quality issues. Getting travel demand data is a common challenge, but it's less important for this bike network tool. The limiting factor to expanding quickly really is time and managing communications with all of the people who will initially be interested -- it's important to balance this with time spent actually working on the software.
The immediate priorities are to polish the tool and finish things that didn't make the deadline:
- draw routes more clearly when unzoomed on large maps
- get the entire Seattle region to easily load on the web
- map out the official Seattle bike master plan as a second example
- add functionality to compare different proposals against each other and the current conditions
- implement the decay curves for mode shift to get predictions better calibrated by research
- consolidate the user flow into just 3 stages: explore, your trips, and proposals
To support rolling out to more cities:
- improve elevation data (switch from SRTM to NASADEM)
- snapping separate cycleways to the main road
There are also more features we could add:
- hover on commercial buildings to summarize what's inside
- showing historic collision data to emphasize the dangers of high-stress roads
- animating cyclists following sample routes before and after, using A/B Street's traffic simulator
- simulating other vehicles nearby to enhance the visualization
- improve routing by allowing bikes to enter/exit buildings from either side of the road
The longer-term vision for A/B Street in general extends beyond just improving the bike network tool and rolling out to more cities.
- low-traffic neighborhood planning
- As mentioned above, we have a promising collaboration to expand an initial prototype to help design LTNs, which are a very active topic across the entire UK. This is probably the highest immediate priority.
- public transit
- a website for organizing proposals
- Although it's now possible to share individual A/B Street proposals by URL, there's no way to browse, upvote, or give feedback on ideas
- more detailed street and intersection design
- A/B Street doesn't let you visualize or edit details like pocket parking, parklets, curb bulbs, or barriers in intersections. This is maybe something we should leave to experts with CAD software, but it could be worth modeling this level of detail too.
- Incorporating a satellite view layer would also be useful to understand changes in context
- more detailed pedestrian simulation
- Telling an effective story about what a new cafe street or public square requires showing people using the space to meet friends, share meals, relax, and play. A/B Street today just simulates people making trips. We'd like to explore crowd simulation and visualization.
- Incorporating census and demographic information
- City planners prioritize changes based on nearby residents' income, age, employment, and other demographic factors. A/B Street could use public data to further measure the impact of changes.
- Modifying land use policies
- Many cities outlaw medium- and high-density housing in most of the city, and force residential and commercial sectors to remain physically distinct. This leads to longer trips, which most likely use cars. We've started exploring this relationship, but there's no way yet to modify the zoning policy for some land parcels and explore possible effects.
- 3D visualization
- Another way to visually communicate changes is with 3D renderings. We could partner with 3D Street and export A/B Street designs to engage the public even better.
In other words, we envision A/B Street growing into a general digital twin platform for exploring different aspects of urban design. We will continue our key differentiators from other projects of remaining open source and geared towards the general public's use.
- connections to government or industry stakeholders who could sponsor the project, provide use cases, etc
- funding (as a way to hire people)
A/B Street has just one full-time software developer, who also plays the role of project manager, marketer, and writer. There are a handful of volunteer UX designers and programmers who sometimes have time to help. To really deliver on the project's ambition, we need more full-time help:
- a visual designer, with particular cartography expertise
- A/B Street's zoomed-in view presents an unprecedented level of detail about each lane on a road. We also simulate individual vehicles and people moving around. Color and design choices are difficult. There's lots of information to display.
- This is vital, because A/B Street's job is to tell stories and sell a vision to people. This is best done visually, not by just presenting data!
- UX designer
- Yuwen served as the project's UX lead for ~1 year and totally transformed the project. We need full-time help here again.
- product manager
- Urban planning is a broad space, and figuring out the most important area to focus on is hard. Requires networking with advocacy groups, city planners, etc across the world and figuring out their problems and ways to help.
- marketing expert
- First use is just helping convince different stakeholders to use and invest in A/B Street
- But perhaps more importantly, somebody who understands how the general public perceives transportation and city changes, and can figure out how to educate and convince people it's beneficial long-term
- software engineers
- A/B Street is both very broadly-scoped (and so just needs lots of help implementing) and tackles some very difficult problems requiring deep focus
- Because of this and the use of Rust, a programming language that has an initial learning curve, it's a difficult project for beginners to contribute to.
A single person may be able to serve multiple roles -- for instance, visual designer, product management, and UX. Or a UX designer who can help with programming.
Say we want to hire one Rust software engineer and one UX designer (who would also help with the cartography and product management roles) for a year. Depending where the employees live, median salaries differ significantly. Glassdoor estimates £42K for a general programmer in London, or $85k for Seattle. Neither the engineer nor designer could be entry-level for a project this complicated.
Becoming a traditional business goes directly against A/B Street's core philosophy. Cities belong to everybody who lives in them, so the planning processes around them should be transparent, accessible to everyone, and any research studies should be reproducible. Open-source software and public data are vital to this. A business exists to generate profit, even if those profits are modest and just meant to sustain the business. The ultimate metric that matters for this project is impact on the real world -- making transportation more environmentally friendly. Therefore, a B-corp or benefit corp might be more appropriate.
One possible direction is consulting. Cities contract the A/B Street team to specialize the software for their immediate needs. All of the work is open source. So effectively they would just define priorities for the project. OpenTripPlanner is an example of open source transportation software funded by different groups as a public good.
Other options are crowd-funding (like Github sponsors) and applying for grants like the Rees Jeffreys road fund.
My time commitment is unknown starting November, so I'm only describing the next few weeks.
- October 11-15
- most of the next steps items: unzoomed drawing, large maps on the web, comparing proposals
- gradually launch Ungap the Map to a Seattle audience
- October 18-22
- mode shift decay curves, NASADEM elevation to support San Francisco and NYC rollout
- continue rapid prototyping of the new low-traffic neighborhood tool
- October 25-29
- simulate nearby vehicles (also needed for the LTN tool)
- respond to feedback from whichever stakeholders respond