Street-Level Images for Better Public Transportation in Latin America

In Latin America’s rapidly growing cities, policymakers have struggled to keep up with changes in public transportation—especially around private services that have developed spontaneously for decades. With tools like Mapillary, communities have the ability to help collect the data that highlights their own experiences and needs, allowing their governments to develop regulations that can ultimately make for safer and more environmentally friendly transportation systems.

More than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, presenting a big challenge for urban policymakers when it comes to social and environmental issues. One of the challenges, central to everyday life and then economic dynamics, is public transportation.

Africa, Latin America, and Asia are examples of areas where the ultra-rapid growth of cities has lead to difficulties in planning public transportation. It is common in these places for private vehicle transportation services (cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles) to operate without regulation—usually due to a lack of service from the government. This unregulated transportation system affects user safety, results in high travel costs, adds to general traffic in cities, leaves needy areas out of access, and also represents one of the greatest sources of air pollution in cities.

One of the first technical obstacles for governments that want to start regulating spontaneous transportation in their cities is the lack of data on what already exists. It is not known exactly where the routes operate, how many vehicles are out there, the frequency and cost of this type of travel, and how they are organized. The development of surveys to study these factors presents a high cost to governments—in addition to the already present opposition and mistrust of this sector.

The creation of data in a participatory, community way, has great potential to help people to move more easily and for governments to start a planning cycle of this transportation system. From the knowledge of participatory mapping by Openstreetmap and various universities, an open-source initiative has appeared to help more cities create useful data on their transportation networks.

DigitalTransport4Africa, followed by DATUM (Datos abiertos de transporte urbano y movilidad or "Open data on urban transport and mobility,” in English) in Latin America and the Caribbean, were created as an institutional initiative between MIT, Columbia University and WRI, IDB, Mastercard. These initiatives are platforms as well as communities of organizations and people that have led participatory mapping of unstructured transportation networks. Various open-source communities such as Openstreetmap, Ciudata, Codeando Xalapa have participated in its concept, design, and implementation.

Participatory mapping in practice

Scattered participatory mapping initiatives of transport were investigated by DATUM and a mapping pilot was developed. The objective of this pilot was to achieve comprehensive coverage of the city's transportation system in terms of time and data quality. Among these collaborative initiatives is Codeando Xalapa, an association that developed the Mapmap app to map a system with GTFS specification. Mapmap was used for a pilot in Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic where the institutions involved participated with local actors to produce and process data from the city's entire transportation system. Additionally, street-level sequences with Mapillary were captured along the transport routes to allow future safety and infrastructure audits.

Complementary methods of data collection were used to assess the quality of connection and transport from public space in Santiago de los Caballeros, in particular for people with disabilities and for women. Imagery was collected using Mapillary with MapeoSantiago, adapting the methods developed by Ciudata (CallesVioletas/PurpleStreets and Mapeaton) and extracting data from these qualitative exercises. This approach was tested in other exercises in Mexico City through an audit of public space and transportation with a gender perspective (WRI-ITDP-World Bank) showing that public space audits can be realized directly in the streets, or in an alternative way, using Mapillary images.

To complete a detailed evaluation of the urban environment, new street-level sequences were collected to complement the existing sequences on Mapillary. Using a list of criteria based on strategies developed in work on reducing gender-based violence in urban space, we were able to calculate the level of security and comfort of the public space for the daily mobility of women and the people they care for. This type of audit can be done by professional pollsters or as a training exercise for careers related to urban planning and urban design—as was the case in Santiago de los Caballeros. Performing the audits teaches to develop a fine and critical look on our space, which is part of a sensitive urban design skill to transmit.

Based on tests carried out in Mexico City, the pilot project was expanded in the city of Santiago de los Caballeros, on the core part of the transportation system.

Audit tools are checklists of observations to be made on the street where each item is rated according to whether it exists, exists but in poor condition, or is missing. When using Mapillary images as an observation base, the visible elements in each image are rated and counted. Some examples include:

  • Is a sidewalk wide enough and with a good enough surface for any type of person, with any type of shoes, to walk comfortably?
  • Do the conditions (surface slope, holes, etc.) allow or prevent a quick walk or run?
  • Is there a wheelchair ramp, and what condition is it in?
  • Are there visual obstacles that contribute to a general sense of danger?

In the end, the elements of each space are worth negative or positive points, depending on whether they help or complicate our movement and security. This information becomes the material that forms a diagnosis to work with local authorities, to guide and classify both the work of public space maintenance, design or redesign, and public safety.

Map showing an index of public safety scores Audit results are presented to local authorities as gridded maps showing the total index score for each area—helping to guide urban planning projects.

Moving forward

Following the different exercises developed using Mapillary as a method of diagnosis of the urban and non urban space by the citizens (see #mapeaton about accessibility, #callesvioletas about women perception of safety, #PerformanceDelCaminar about disappeared people’s last walk), this exercise demonstrates how Mapillary can support a variety of projects in different ways.

Given the worrying insecurity in Latin America for the development of women, initiatives like this project have a strong potential to alert and guide urban public policies. In addition to this participatory method of evaluating urban spaces, we will continue to experience spatial indexes that show the kindness of space for women from a combination of public and collaborative data sources.

/ Céline Jacquin, Ciudata & Geochicas coordinator

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