Maps

Watch New Yorkers Hurry Across Union Square in Real-Time

Placemeter’s live map tracks pedestrian and bike activity in one of the city’s busy intersections.

In week leading up to Winter Storm Jonas, pedestrian activity in Central Park was low. On the Sunday afterward, it jumped back up, as New Yorkers headed there to frolic in the snow. Times Square and Union Square, meanwhile, didn’t see too much of a drop in foot traffic during the blizzard, according to Placemeter, a start-up that uses algorithms to extract data about urban life from video feeds and sensors around the city.

Previously, the company tracked pedestrian movement around the city after it had already taken place. But now the Placemeter team has created a map that makes it possible to do so in real-time for a busy intersection at Union Square. Unlike a graph or a chart showing that activity over time, a real-time map allows people to actually see a flurry of activity as it’s happening, David Fine, the product marketing manager at Placemeter, tells CityLab.

“It gives a visceral sense of what’s happening on the ground,” he says.

The data for this map comes from a camera overlooking the intersection of Broadway and East 17th Street, as well as a few sensors placed around the area. Together these devices count each person walking or biking and detect the direction they’re moving.

In the map, each of these people is represented as a red dot. Through the day, these dots can be seen scurrying across the Broadway and East 17th Street sidewalks, whizzing past in the bike lane, strolling into Chipotle for a bite, or walking into Geox for some shoe shopping.

Thomas Richard and Godfrey Yeung, the former Placemeter interns who created the map, included the total daily count of people passing through each of these spots along with a comparison of that number against a three-week average (in the panel on the right). The Chipotle there, for example, has seen around 64 percent less foot traffic today than that three-week average—possibly because of the news about its food-safety concerns.

Tracking these fluctuations live can be pretty handy for a number of people, Natalie Kunstadter, the content marketing manager at Placemeter, tells CityLab. “A transportation or public transit industry professional might be interested in when the peaks and valleys in activity are so that they can line up their rapid bus transit schedules or optimize subway times,” she says. Retailers can also benefit, she adds, by measuring how many people are walking into their store against how many people are walking by, and adjusting their hours, staff, or advertising strategies accordingly.

Right now, the map is only available for this one intersection. But if it were available for a whole city, it would be a pretty cool way to show walkability in action.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.