Used well, it could serve as a powerful example of a city's ability to mine the collective knowledge of its residents for good.

Ask any New Yorker about unsafe conditions on the city's streets. Go ahead, ask.

You might want to sit down. This is going to take a while.

New York City's streets are some of the most heavily used public spaces in the nation. A lot of the time, the swirling mass of users share space remarkably well. Every second in New York, it sometimes seems, a thousand people just barely miss colliding, thanks to a finely honed sense of self-preservation and spatial awareness.

The dark side is that sometimes, they do collide. These famously chaotic and contested streets are often life-threatening. Drivers routinely drive well over the 30 mph speed limit, run red lights, and fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.  Pedestrians step out into traffic, sometimes without looking at what's coming their way. Bicyclists ride the wrong way up one-way streets.

In recent years, the city has begun to address the problem, mainly through design solutions like better bike infrastructure, pedestrian refuges, and crosswalk countdown clocks. Still, last year, 286 New Yorkers died in traffic crashes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed almost as soon as he was sworn into office in January to pursue an initiative called Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities through a combination of design, enforcement, and education.

A new tool in the Vision Zero effort was unveiled earlier this week: a map of the city on which people can log their observations and complaints about chronically unsafe conditions. The map offers a menu of icons including red-light running, double-parking, failure to yield, and speeding, and allows users to plot them on a map of the city’s streets. Sites where pedestrian fatalities have occurred since 2009 are marked, and the most dangerous streets in each borough for people on foot are colored red.

The map, a joint project of DOT, the NYPD, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, has only been live for a couple of days. Already, it is speckled with dozens of multicolored dots indicating problem areas. (Full disclosure: The map was designed by OpenPlans, a nonprofit affiliated with Streetsblog, where I worked several years ago.)

Some examples from the first couple of days of input on the map:

  • From Lower Manhattan: “Cars coming across Canal from Church Street do not yield to pedestrians. Traffic officers directing traffic here during the evening rush do nothing to prevent this. Heavy traffic congestion causes poor visibility for pedestrians and drivers."
  • From Union Turnpike in Queens: “People drive too fast, and there's only one narrow sidewalk. Pedestrians need more options!"
  • From Red Hook in Brooklyn: “There are very few crosswalks or traffic lights on Van Brunt Street. When combined with widespread speeding of cars, buses, and large trucks, pedestrians struggle to cross the road and almost always have to run."
  • From St. George on Staten Island: “Police regularly block the road, crosswalks, fire hydrants, no parking zones, metered parking spaces, bus stops and spaces reserved for school buses to safely drop off children at the SI Museum."
  • From Riverdale Avenue in the Bronx: “Poor visibility due to the retaining wall is combined with multiple turning movements to create a truly dangerous crossing. It connects a popular public park with the access to the 1 train, so it is heavily used by pedestrians of all ages.”

On the right hand side of the site, you can see the comments rolling in at a steady clip. They provide a detailed, granular view of the city’s block-by-block traffic hazards as seen by the people who navigate those intersections. It’s a level of information that would be hard to collect any other way.

The site’s “about” page promises, “Your knowledge will be used to create a traffic safety plan for each borough that will describe how to make each borough’s streets safer for everyone, whether walking, biking or driving.”

If (and only if) the city follows through on that idea, the map could do more than get us closer to zero traffic deaths. It could serve as a powerful example of a city's ability to mine the collective knowledge of its residents, and use that data to make a better place.

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