Alumni Spotlight: How Allvision is helping NYCDOT cut congestion at the curb
In the spring of 2020, the Transit Tech Lab completed its second annual transit innovation program. Through the pandemic, eight companies worked closely with transit agencies across New York and New Jersey to present solutions to improve accessibility or traffic congestion for millions of commuters.
Allvision was selected to help inventory curb infrastructure and monitor the street parking behavior of both commercial and noncommercial vehicles. In partnership with the NYC Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), Allvision defined a scope of work and framework which will enable the agency to digitally manage, monitor and analyze activity on select curbs and streets in New York City.
We spoke with Allvision CEO Aaron Morris to discuss his experience in the Transit Tech Lab, working with the NYCDOT and the potential use cases for geospatial data in New York City.
Allvision is a 2020 graduate of the Transit Tech Lab’s Curb & Accessibility Challenge. Tell us about what your company does and its role in smart urban mobility.
Allvision creates high-definition digital maps to help cities and government agencies plan and optimize the use of street, parking, and curb spaces. What we do is a fundamental layer in digital mapping: we take LIDAR sensor data and translate it into maps to create an analysis of urban infrastructure. We gather data from our mapping partners and use our processing model to inventory assets at the curb — such as telephone poles, streetlights and parking meters — to help inform efficient planning and routing around curb spaces.
Digital maps like Google Street View have changed how people navigate the world, and Allvision is the next step in that transformation to smart city applications. To do that effectively, we need higher resolution maps of the roads, sidewalks and infrastructure, and we’re able to provide precise visual insight into what’s happening at the curb. This digital inventory makes Allvision an asset for transit agencies who want to analyze and improve how the curb is being used.
The curb is very limited real estate that is in constant demand — you can’t make more of it. From parking and restaurant sidewalk seating to micro-mobility, including scooters, bikes, and ridesharing, it comes down to cities managing curb spaces better and using available data to inform future planning, increase flexibility and promote faster decision-making.
Why did you decide to apply to the Transit Tech Lab?
We were invited to apply, and when we thought about the program, we figured, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Allvision is based in Pittsburgh and working with New York City was attractive from a scale perspective. We’d been building out platforms and working with the cities of Pittsburgh, Eugene and Grand Rapids, which are good mid-size cities. But to really test a platform at scale, there’s no better place than New York to validate your work.
For a company at the size and stage we are, getting to the NYCDOT just by knocking on doors would have been extremely difficult. We recognized that participating in the Transit Tech Lab would put us in front of every major New York transit agency in town, and that opportunity was extremely important to us.
We were also drawn to New York from an innovation and operations perspective. Many other cities look at New York as an example of what they should be doing. So, having a presence in New York and being able to say that we’re working with the city and highlight the things we’re doing has been incredibly valuable to us. Since completing the Lab, we’ve partnered with Esri, a leader in geographic information system software, and now offer our AIGIS asset mapping solution on the Esri marketplace.
During the Lab, you were selected to work with the New York Department of Transportation (NYCDOT). What problem did you help the agency solve?
Allvision was selected for the Curb Coordination challenge, which sought solutions to help to reduce traffic on New York City streets by improving coordination at the curb. For our Transit Tech Lab pilot, our team was tasked to build a digital map of the curb and then analyze how it was being used.
To efficiently manage the curb, you need to know who is using the curb and when, but also understand the existing infrastructure: where the sidewalks are, the fire hydrants, the signage that shows what areas are zoned for delivery, ADA accessibility or other uses. The NYCDOT has all this infrastructure that identifies how the curb should be used, but it needed to be better documented and easier for its team to access. And up till now, much of this data was collected by “feet-on-the-street,” people manually tracking this information. That method is not only time-consuming but also challenging to do on a large scale. The benefit of a vehicle-based sensor approach is that it’s fast, scalable, and accurate.
Can you share key benefits the NYCDOT realized because of using your technology?
The pilot was set up to explore potential use cases and the types of insights our platform could reveal, as well as to identify problem areas. To start with, we developed a deep catalog of locations where infrastructure had yet to be digitized. By creating this inventory, we were able to bring visibility to the current state of the curb.
At the start of the program, the NYCDOT was particularly focused on street parking. However, due to the pandemic, commuting behavior changed drastically. People began driving less, and parking was less of an issue, but suddenly public transportation became extremely important, mainly bus stops. So, we adjusted our pilot’s focus and began exploring accessibility at bus stops.
“Up till now, much of this data was collected by “feet-on-the-street,” people manually tracking this information. That method is not only time-consuming but also challenging to do on a large scale. The benefit of a vehicle-based sensor approach is that it’s fast, scalable, and accurate.”
There are approximately 15,000 bus stops throughout the city, and you can imagine if you need to manually go to each one and log which ones are compliant and accessible. We created maps of two sections in the city: a small portion of Staten Island and another portion in the Bronx to compare different behaviors in those areas.
After harnessing this data, we put it in one place where it’s visible and accessible to the agency, allowing NYCDOT to better plan and analyze traffic flow at the curb. It will also give insight into commuter behavior to inform decisions such as determining street parking rates and congestion pricing.
What is your biggest lesson learned through your experience participating in the Transit Tech Lab and what advice would you give to an entrepreneur interested in applying to the program?
The most important lesson for us has been learning firsthand how procurement works within a large government agency.
We’d been told that working with the government can be a lengthy process, but we had no idea of all the complexities that go along with it. Initially, we thought it would be like any other company: they’ll like our product, sign a purchase order and we’ll get to work. But this guided experience with the help of the team at the Transit Tech Lab opened our eyes to the government procurement process, which has helped us figure out strategies for the future as a small company collaborating with larger organizations and city agencies.
We also had to listen to the needs of the customer and show that we were willing to be flexible. We already had a platform in place that we knew would help solve this problem for New York City. But as we interacted with NYCDOT, we realized we had to adjust the assumptions we’d made about what the customer wanted. We made tweaks along the way and NYCDOT was happy to sit down, review what we presented and give us guidance.
That high level of engagement and access to our customer was very beneficial and allowed us to produce a product that met their needs. From our perspective, being willing to respond to feedback makes all the difference in laying the groundwork for future collaboration opportunities.
What does the future of smart urban mobility look like for New York City?
The potential is great. An ideal smart city at this stage would establish an opportunity to explore what is possible. And what we provide is a must: high-definition digital maps displaying infrastructure of the physical world. This provides the baseline tool necessary to leverage 5G and access near real-time data, enabling a more informed and responsive city.
Looking ahead, I’m excited about what’s possible with augmented reality, virtual reality, robotic delivery and more. All those technologies depend on the existence of a digital map — it must be there first. And that’s what we’re focused on at Allvision. We’ve got a foot in two camps: a foot in today, helping cities manage their infrastructure and helping community residents get around better; and a foot in tomorrow, providing a platform on which all kinds of future innovators and entrepreneurs can come and build.