1. About this plan & why we need it

About This Plan

This plan sets the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) vision for the emerging transportation information infrastructure and ecosystem.

This plan is built on the information needs of the traveling public: the users of the transportation system. It sets the vision, mission, values, and goals that will guide the department’s policies, projects, initiatives, and technology investments to serve the traveling public, work for the common good, and protect individual privacy.

It sets up principles and a policy framework to guide the actors (organizations and companies) that provide information and information-driven services to the traveling public in Seattle.

By “transportation information,” we mean contextualized digital data about transportation that is processed, stored, or transmitted primarily by electronic means (but the information may be displayed in non-electronic formats).
By “transportation information infrastructure,” we mean the combined physical, digital, organizational and institutional components that allow us to collect and deliver transportation information to the traveling public. This includes the policies, projects, initiatives, and technology investments that enable SDOT to deliver information where and when it is needed. It includes the capacities and skills our team will need to fulfill our duties. It is infrastructure that we and other actors in the system can build upon.

By “transportation information ecosystem,” we mean the relationships and interactions between SDOT and various actors that deliver information and information-driven services to the traveling public. For example: map companies deliver locations and turn-by-turn directions; transportation network companies deliver ride-hail and vehicle-sharing services or mobility as a service (MaaS[1]); and, freight and courier companies deliver goods on demand. Many actors in the ecosystem also collect information about travelers and their travel behaviors. This information may be exchanged, sold, or resold to other actors.

Figure 1: Categories of Innovation

Innovations and Emerging Technologies

The transportation technology space is changing rapidly. The changes are built on three kinds of innovation: a) new travel modes; b) new types of vehicles; and, c) and new ways information is gathered, transmitted, processed, received and analyzed.

Most departments of transportation are concerned with the first two kinds of innovation (a & b) with good reason. The public sector needs to be ready. Various companies have been testing autonomous vehicles (AVs), drones, air taxis, and micro-freight robots and will soon bring them to scale serving the streets (and skies) of cities everywhere. Cities need to be ready (or need to catch up) with the necessary policies, regulations, rules, permits, road and sidewalk designs, and other physical infrastructure for these new travel modes and vehicles.

The systems that power these new vehicles and modes will depend on a scaffolding of information —i.e. “the information infrastructure”—of digital maps and real-time geolocation. This kind of infrastructure allows users to “see” where they are on map, to locate where they want to go, and to find a route to there. This infrastructure also allows services to pair users to vehicles, to modes, and to routes.

This plan is concerned with the last kind of innovation (c): how this information is gathered, processed, and delivered. These innovations include new ways for:

a. users and services to receive and transmit information

b. computers to process transportation information

c. system managers to receive, analyze, and transmit information

d. the physical infrastructure itself to receive, store, ​
analyze, and transmit information

 

The infrastructure facilitates and defines how users access the new modes and new vehicles. It is also central to how cities will manage transportation in the future. Which bares the question: as a municipal department of transportation, we are used to managing physical infrastructure—roads, lanes, paint, and signals. How do we manage transportation information?

This plan answers the question above, along with: How do we fulfill our role, as the manager of the city’s transportation network, in this new age of transportation information? What are the values that should guide us? What are the skills and resources we need to engage this ecosystem?

Background and Overview

In late 2017, SDOT released Seattle’s New Mobility Playbook. It was our strategic response to the rapid disruption that was (and has been) upending urban transportation. Our basic stance was that we could not predict what the future of transportation would look like (shared e-scooters were not yet in the market when we released the playbook) but, to stay true to our mission and vision, we needed to ensure that the new transportation technologies would:

“…be shaped by our shared values. We are committed to equity and racial and social justice. We acknowledge that misguided[2] decisions and plans in the last century, particularly in transportation policy and infrastructure, often made life harder for our neighbors who were already at a disadvantage. So, as we embrace new transportation technology, we seek to shape it in a way that ensures our city’s evolving transportation system works better for all of us. We must ensure new mobility puts people first.” (New Mobility Playbook, p. 6)

The playbook outlined five plays:

1. Ensure new mobility delivers a fair and just transportation system for all

2. Enable safer, more active, and people-first uses of the public right of way

3. Reorganize and retool SDOT to manage innovation and data

4. Build new information and data infrastructure so new services can “plug and play”

5. Anticipate, adapt to, and leverage innovative and disruptive transportation technologies

 

Plays 3 and 4 are about SDOT’s internal readiness to engage technology.

As we continued to engage the space of innovations in transportation technology, we realized that—apart from the new services, new vehicles, and the new business models—what was really emerging was a transportation information ecosystem built on real-time location data and ubiquitous wireless access. It is information delivery systems that allow the traveling public to access transportation where and when they need it.

This is, of course, good for the users of these technologies. It makes getting around the city more convenient. But what does it mean for shared civic and community assets? How do we make sure shared assets, community goals and individuals are protected in this new ecosystem when most of the new actors in the system are privately owned and profit-driven?[3]

For example, while ride-hailing may be convenient, it also causes more congestion.[4] Tech companies are also using GPS readings and telematic data to learn more about the behaviors and movements of their customers. Companies sell this data to advertisers, often without the express permission or even awareness of their customers. (They also gather information from people who may not be their customers.) How do we deal with these privacy and surveillance issues?[5]

And what about  the implications for communities of color? And low income households? How do we make sure these technologies are not excluding even further our neighbors who are already under-served[6] and have suffered historical injustice because of transportation decisions? How do we, instead, use these technologies to provide better service and correct past harms?

To fulfill our mission to deliver a transportation system that provides safe and affordable access to places and opportunities in Seattle and our mandate of ensuring the safety of the traveling public, we needed a plan for the information itself.

Figure 2: The Hidden Information Ecosystem

Figure 3: User v System

The Hidden Information Ecosystem

The current information ecosystem hidden from view, and is a set of information exchanges and formal and informal relationships between various actors in the system involved with transportation.  Each of the actors collects, holds and shares information openly or selectively with the other actors in the ecosystem. For example, online map companies have street names and the address and location of establishments or homes (georeferencing) which ride-hail companies use to find routes and directions, etc. Meanwhile, the street names and geometries are usually provided by government agencies responsible for building and maintaining streets.

For the users of the transportation system, the ecosystem, provides information about locations and directions, and of real-time or near real-time events—information they need to make their transportation decisions. The lack of information, information that is incorrect, or information delivered too late affects the person using the transportation system directly. It can change the way they use and experience the system.

All of the users experiences and choices combined shape the system. For example, knowing that the Alaska Way Viaduct was closing and the replacement tunnel would not be open for weeks (along with being informed about options) changed the behavior of enough drivers in Seattle that 90,000 daily car trips on the viaduct “disappeared” from the roads. Many drivers opted to take other modes or routes, or just decided to stay home. The predicted and feared traffic gridlock did not occur.[7]

A person using the transportation system may need information for a specific need at a specific time and, ideally, the actors in the system respond by delivering this information right when it is needed.

However, the information does not flow freely through the system. There is no central repository of ALL transportation information. Each of the actors in the ecosystem holds part of information that users may need.

The information is also gathered, stored and sent out through different software and technology systems. Some systems, like geographic information systems (GIS), work really well for conveying information about the location of fixed objects in space. Some, like geographic positioning systems (GPS) and telemetry systems (telematics), are good for gathering and conveying information about the location of objects that are moving. Still others are better at conveying plans, or time and schedules, or change over time. Moving information across these systems takes effort and energy, especially if the information is collected in one system and needs to be interpreted or translated in another system. See Appendix C for a discussion on data and file types.)

The kind of information collected, how accurate it is, and how often its collected also determines the power the information has to shape the behavior of individual users or of the whole system.

Information that changes quickly and must be updated frequently is information that has less influence on the shape of the system but more influence on the choices of the user. For instance, information about emergencies has direct impacts on the current travel patterns of the public—by roads being closed, or traffic coming to a halt to let emergency response vehicles through—but the impact usually dissipates after the incident is closed.

Information that is collected and produced more slowly, like details of SDOT’s plans and projects, changes less often but has the power to reshape the system as it sets out the shape of the physical infrastructure.

Goal and values shape the system at an even deeper, more fundamental level. It sets out the outcomes the system should seek. It anchors plans and set priorities and directions for the physical infrastructure, for policies, for programs, and for day to day management.[8]

How do people benefit from real-time transportation information?

Researchers at the University of Tennessee and the Georgia Institute of Technology conducted a meta study of studies that looked into the benefits to passengers of having access to real-time transportation information (RTI).  They identified three ways that providing transportation information in real time (through signage at transit stops or through personal devices) benefits users. These are:

  • reductions in passenger wait times
  • reductions in overall travel time due to changes in path choice, and
  • increases in transit use.

They also found that passengers felt safer (perception of personal security) and were more satisfied because they had real-time information. [9]

The lead researcher was asked about where transportation information might be headed. She replied:

“I think it’s that one-stop shop for everything…Information not just for transit but for all these shared modes. If I want to get around without a car…how do I do it? What’s the fastest way? What’s the cheapest way? And I want to do it all from my phone. I want to be able to pay for it. I want to know where the information is. I don’t want to have to sign up for a million different things to know what the cheapest option is. I want to know the cheapest, fastest option right now to get from Point A to Point B any way but my own personal car. If we can get to that point, that would be awesome.”[10]

Figure 4: Transportation information shearing layers[11]

The Purpose of This Plan

This plan frames a set of policy directions, projects, initiatives, and technology investments that will enable SDOT to build out an information infrastructure that will interact with the systems of service providers, while protecting the privacy of individuals and the public good. The frame will help SDOT use and manage information and technology to enhance the safety of the transportation system; and, to make sure the system is resilient and sustainable.

This plan is technology agnostic. It focuses on the information needs of users and system managers, not specific technology solutions.[12]

The projects listed in this plan set user requirements that, in turn, will clarify the business and technology requirements when SDOT builds out or purchases technology or an information system. Given the rapid evolution of technology, especially in the transportation space, this plan is meant to be a living document and will be updated as necessary.

How We Developed This Plan

We developed this plan by starting with users of the transportation system. We came up with a set of 10 traveler personas—fictional but representative members of the people we serve, the traveling public—and built the plan beginning with the information needs of each traveler.

We considered the information needs of these travelers and also what protections they would need in terms of data or information. We wrote these needs as “user stories.” User stories take the form of the following statement:

 

“As a ____ using the transportation system, I need ______ to _______.”

 

The user stories allowed us to identify the necessary responses from the agents in the system in order to deliver on those needs and protections. We validated these user stories, needs, and protections through representative focus groups and ethnographic research. We then took those user stories and turned them into requirements for SDOT and other actors in the system. For example:

User story (need)

As a traveler using the transportation system, I need to know the exact location of transportation options (stations, parking, etc.) relative to my location to be able to get to where I need to go.

SDOT

SDOT needs to provide up-to-date, accurate, geolocated and validated locations of transportation assets and infrastructure (stations, parking, etc.). This should be provided through data feeds or application program interfaces (APIs) so the assets can be represented in maps.

Mobility

Mobility service providers (like Uber and Lyft) should push out, via APIs, the locations of their assets that are available for use (e.g., available bike-shares).

Info

Transportation information service providers (like Google Maps or Waze) should be able to take in data from SDOT and from mobility service providers on the location of transportation assets and infrastructure.

Building on SDOT’s organizational guiding statements—our shared vision, mission, values, and goals—we developed guiding statements for the transportation information infrastructure and ecosystem.

Based on the most pressing societal challenges, we also developed information imperatives and principles. We asked community representatives to determine what protections (in terms of data and information) users would need. We then applied these lenses to an initiative framework that sets out policy directions, projects, and programs that will deliver the requirements, protect the users, and meet their information needs.

How This Plan Is Structured

The plan is organized in six main sections:

SECTION ONE (this section) explains what this plan is, and provides the background, context, and rationale for the plan. It gives a brief view of the current ecosystem.

SECTION TWO sets up the guiding statements – our vision, mission, values, and goals for the ecosystem. It also sets up the information imperatives—information that the system must deliver for the greater good.

SECTION THREE introduces the traveler personas, their needs, and the protections they require. It also discusses the actors—the organizations and companies involved in the ecosystem.

SECTION FOUR discusses the transportation technology stack and presents a brief history of how information technology has changed urban transportation. This section also discusses further frames on equity, privacy, safety and security, and sustainability and resiliency. Frames will guide any SDOT technology investment that delivers transportation information.

SECTION FIVE lays out the information needs of the traveling public based on traveler personas from section three. Shaped by the guiding statements and using those information needs, we developed user requirements for SDOT and the other actors in the ecosystem.

SECTION SIX lays out the information infrastructure framework. It sets out the policy directions and identifies the projects and programs SDOT must implement under this plan. It sets out the new roles and capacities SDOT needs. A final, shorter, section concludes the plan, sets out next steps, and suggests ways that readers of the plan may become involved with its implementation. The plan also contains articles set apart in shaded boxes that provided longer discussions or special insights on particular topics. More details are provided in the appendices.

Footnotes

[1]“Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is the integration of various forms of transport services into a single mobility service accessible on demand.” (maas-alliance.eu)

[2] More than “misguided,” many of the policies were intentionally racist and discriminatory.

[3] This emerging ecosystem is creating new information markets and new institutional arrangements, and is driven by unacknowledged or unchallenged priorities (like value extraction). How does the system decide who gets what service at what price? How does it decide what data is important and how that data can be used?

[4] Bliss, Laura. “How Much Traffic Do Uber and Lyft Cause?” CityLab, 5 August 2019, https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/08/uber-lyft-traffic-congestion-ride-hailing-cities-drivers-vmt/595393/

[5] See: Bliss, Laura. “Let’s Regulate ‘Smart City’ Technology, Too.” CityLab, 12 April 2018, https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/04/regulating-tech-companies-is-also-about-cars-streets-and-cities/557738/.
Also: Corrigan, Jack. “Report: Smart Transportation Systems Pose ‘Profound’ Privacy Risks” Nextgov, 29 May 2019, https://www.nextgov.com/emerging-tech/2019/05/report-smart-transportation-systems-pose-profound-privacy-risks/157343/.

[6] Marshall, Aarian. “The Good and Bad of Ride-Sharing When It Comes to Race.” 11 July 2018, https://www.wired.com/story/race-good-and-bad-ride-share/

[7] Gutman, David. “‘The cars just disappeared’: What happened to the 90,000 cars a day the viaduct carried before it closed?” Seattle Times, 24 January, 2019. Retrieved via https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/the-cars-just-disappeared-what-happened-to-the-90000-cars-a-day-the-viaduct-carried-before-it-closed/

[8] Governance–who sits at the table –is paradoxical in that it could change rapidly with a reconstitution of councils or committees especially if new voices are added. But it could also be slow in that societal conventions and power structures could and do persist over generations.

[9] Candace Brakewood & Kari Watkins (2019) A literature review of the passenger benefits of real-time transit information, Transport Reviews, 39:3, 327-356, DOI: 10.1080/01441647.2018.1472147

[10] Jaffe, Eric. “The real benefits of real-time transit data.” Medium, 15 June, 2018 https://medium.com/sidewalk-talk/the-real-benefits-of-real-time-transit-data-1fee19988b73

[11] “Shearing layers is a concept coined by architect Frank Duffy, which was later elaborated by Stewart Brand in his book, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (Brand, 1994), and refers to buildings as composed of several layers of change. The concept has been adopted by a number of technology vendors to also describe the different layers of systems within an organisation.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shearing_layers

[12] We refrain from prescribing specific technology and data standards unless a specific open standard or technology can reduce the risk of information monopolies.

Need More Information?

This is a draft plan. It was developed by Benjamin de la Pena, Mary Alyce Eugene, Alex Hagenah, and Sam Marshall along with their colleagues from across the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

If you have questions about this plan, please send us email via draft_tiip@seattle.gov.

If you have questions about SDOT, please visit our website at www.seattle.gov/transporation.

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