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Starts & Stops

Project digs deep into how pedestrians, motorists, cyclists use Boston spaces

Pedestrians streamed past the stately facade of Suffolk University Law School on Tremont Street near Downtown Crossing last summer.
Pedestrians streamed past the stately facade of Suffolk University Law School on Tremont Street near Downtown Crossing last summer.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File

Elizabeth Christoforetti, a local urban designer, wants to know: Are people hanging out in city parks? Are pedestrians hurriedly rushing by a sidewalk because they feel unsafe? Are more bikers passing by a certain street?

Christoforetti thinks she may have found a way to easily gather that data — and it involves counting a bunch of “blobs” passing by a sidewalk.

With a $35,000 grant from the Knight Prototype Fund, Christoferetti has been installing sensors in downtown Boston to measure how many people pass by a certain block, and how they’re using that space. Footage of people, cars, and bikers caught on the sensor are transformed into life-sized “blobs” on maps that she and her team will be able to analyze.


The project, called Placelet, allows Christoferetti and her team to count all of those shapes to measure how many people are in a place at any given time. But more importantly, she said, they will look into the “relationship between those people-sized blobs, and the car-sized blobs, and the people-sized blobs that are moving fast, which are bicyclists.”

So why does this matter?

For urban planners, such data can help plan the width of sidewalks, the number of parking spots for cars, and lanes for bikers, among other things.

Christoforetti said it is hard to collect accurate, hard data on how people use streets. Sometimes, cities will send someone to stand and count how many pedestrians or bicyclists pass by a certain block, and extrapolate a pattern from that.

But with Placelet, the data should be more accurate and easier to collect and report.

She said her team has been working with Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the Downtown Crossing Business Improvement District to learn more about the patterns of people in the Downtown Crossing area.


Their first trial downtown was plagued with pitfalls, according to Christoforetti. When they placed the sensors at eye-level on buildings or posts, people tore many of them down.

The team will install the next group of sensors in the coming months — and they will place them in harder-to-reach places.

Fewer commuters are driving to work in Boston

Next time you’re stuck in traffic, consider this: If you live in the Boston area and drive to work, statistics show you probably have fewer motorists alongside you.

The US Census Bureau recently released a report from its American Community Survey that analyzes who drives to work.

The survey, taken in 2013, found that the decline in vehicle commuters in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton area was the second-most precipitous drop in the country’s major metropolitan areas.

In 2006, about 78.9 percent of respondents reported that they drove to work. In 2013, that number dropped to 75.6 percent.

The San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward area, another densely populated area that’s quickly growing, was the only metro area that saw more of a decline in car commuting. There, about 73.6 percent of commuters were driving in 2006, but the number is down to 69.8 percent now.

The decline in Boston and San Francisco follows a longer-term trend across the country. According to the survey, between 2000 and 2013, the rate of commuting by car declined from 87.9 percent to 85.8 percent.

But even with the declines, the car is still king: “The survey says the automobile is the predominant commuting mode for all metro areas, even those with comparatively low rates of automobile travel,” the report said.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.