Contrary to popular belief, Pittsburgh does not have a monopoly on terrible drivers. They are, in fact, everywhere.
But Pittsburgh pedestrians and cyclists are getting a way to fight back with the new OurStreets app, which debuted for downloading on Saturday, January 11. While it can be used anywhere in the US, OurStreets is working on a partnership that is not yet finalized with BikePGH.
“OurStreets is an app for crowdsourcing of (reporting) dangerous driving behavior, like blocking bike lanes and crosswalks, and also for moving violations like reckless driving, near-miss incidents, like if a pedestrian or cyclist is almost hit by a car,” says Mark Sussman, cofounder of OurStreets. “Additionally, we’re building out functionality to report shared mobility issues, primarily scooters blocking sidewalks.”
The effort began as a project called How’s My Driving? in Washington, D.C., a Twitter bot that lets pedestrians and cyclists tweet out a license plate, and get back a record of unpaid citations from the city’s database. Now, as an app called OurStreets, it covers a lot more ground.
“Our focus is shifting from only dangerous driving behavior to ‘How do we keep the public right-of-way safe and clear for those most vulnerable road users: pedestrians, cyclists, scootists, transit riders, etc.?’” explains Sussman.
The bike vs. car battle is inevitable, but OurStreets hopes to lessen the animosity.
“If you think of a community meeting about street safety that might take away parking (heaven forbid), that conversation gets very heated, very tribal: ‘You cyclists run through red lights!’ ‘You drivers are dangerous!’” says Sussman.
“Instead, we can have a story driven by data. We can say, ‘Listen, this unprotected bike lane does not work. We’ve seen that there are hundreds of violations on it every single day, based on this independent app collecting data.’”
Over time, a picture will emerge of areas in the city where things aren’t working. For instance, in Washington, D.C. there is a block with several fast-casual restaurants with a bike lane running through it. People double-park, jump in and get their food and jump out, constantly blocking the bike lane.
“I looked at our data, and found that five percent of all the bike lane violations that had been submitted for the app were for that one block in D.C.,” says Sussman.
The city responded by moving the bike lane and adding flex posts, among other things.
“Once that new infrastructure was put in, it went to zero,” says Sussman.
The idea is to give cities and advocacy organizations the data they need to make decisions about infrastructure or enforcement.
BikePGH led a project with the app on Oct. 16, with nearly 70 volunteers reporting vehicles that were parking or loading in Pittsburgh bike-only lanes, during morning, lunch and evening rush. They logged 123 violations.
“We can start tracking the problem spots and where dangerous drivers are more common,” says Eric Boerer of BikePGH. “That’s what we’re hoping to get out of the partnership — to pinpoint where the most dangerous activity is, so we can figure out where to dedicate resources. Street design influences how people drive. Often there are infrastructure solutions to common dangerous driving practices.”
OurStreets isn’t designed to pick on specific drivers, no matter how bad.
“That’s not the point,” says Sussman. “It’s not about demonizing drivers, it’s about understanding why these behaviors are happening, and the geographic and date/time context, and how the city can make changes to mitigate these problems. This data has never really been captured before. So it’s very valuable to put it in the context of crash data, citation data and all these other layers that tell us a much more contextualized story about what’s actually happening on our streets.”
Though they’re based in D.C., their choosing to focus on Pittsburgh came about naturally.
“My wife’s from Pittsburgh; my in-laws and brother-in-law are from Pittsburgh,” says Sussman. “I come to Pittsburgh all the time. I see how the city has transformed under Mayor Peduto with all the new protected bike lanes, and the demographics have changed so dramatically over the 10 years I’ve been coming to Pittsburgh. I go on bike rides with my father-in-law whenever I’m there, so I see all the changes in real-time. It felt like a good city to try this out.”