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Facts or feelings: How NYC found truth in data

This information provided by Smart Cities Council North America.

It’s easy to be swayed by anecdotes. If someone makes an impassioned plea based on a personal experience, it’s easy to give that view a strong weighting, especially in the absence of strong overall data.

New York City’s Car Free Earth Day provides a great lesson in how you can pull together a variety of data sources to measure the true impact of your initiatives. Even with the most well-meaning plans, there can be negative consequences. Closing parts of the city to cars certainly inconveniences people who live in neighborhoods where the transit access isn’t robust.

But what is the real impact? As you’ll read below, Council Partner Cubic Transportation Systems devised a comprehensive strategy to get to the truth. From bike rentals to transit ridership to retail sales, it’s a great lesson in how you can find answers by examining the data that’s all around you. — Kevin Ebi


By Cubic Transportation Systems

Car Free Earth Day is a New York City (NYC) initiative encouraging drivers to choose alternative means of moving about the city.  For the April 22, 2016 event, Cubic Transportation and Mastercard Advisors joined forces to measure outcomes, resulting in an Impact Assessment on Transportation Modal Choice and Retail Activity.

The goal of Car Free Earth Day is to reduce single-occupancy vehicle use and inspire conversations around today’s environmental issues. To achieve this goal, various programs were implemented, including closing several NYC streets, reducing public employee vehicle use, and encouraging alternative modes of transportation – for just one day of the year.

In 2016 MTA subway ridership, as measured by turnstile counts, demonstrated an overall increase (estimated 30,000) in rides across the network as compared to other Fridays prior to and post event. While some subway stations recorded a decrease or no significant change in ridership, the majority of MTA stations experienced increased ridership. The ridership increases in those stations were greater in magnitude than in the stations with decreased ridership.  

The Citi Bike system also experienced increased demand, as measured by trip counts, by almost 50 trips per station. The number of available docks increased while the number of available bicycles decreased, indicating a larger proportion of bicycles were in use on Earth Day when compared to prior and subsequent Fridays. In conclusion, bike share seemed to be an alternative transportation mode versus driving.  

The increased MTA subway ridership and Citi Bike usage were unlikely to have been influenced by favorable weather, as the predictive models used in the analyses controlled for weather using multiple measures.

The impact to brick-and-mortar store sales was assessed by using Mastercard transaction data to determine if stores proximate to Earth Day street closures saw an increase, decrease, or no change in store revenues when compared to prior and subsequent Fridays. The analysis suggests there was no impact to store sales by Earth Day, despite road closures. The changes in ridership, travel mode availability, and traveler behavior did not disrupt normal economic activity and purchasing behavior according to this measure. Therefore, the lack of change is interpreted as a positive result.

The Car Free Earth Day initiative successfully contributed to traveler modal shift and an overall increase in ridership using public and third-party services (subway and bike share), with no adverse effects to retail activity in the study area.

With the benefit of more detailed analysis and additional data sets, the link between the Earth Day initiative and changes to traveler and consumer behavior can be determined with a higher degree of certainty. Indeed, the data sets and analytics underlying this assessment provide a useful starting point for multiple approaches to tracking modal and traveler behavior shift in the future.

The report can be downloaded at: http://www.cubic.com/Transportation/Solutions/Analytics