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Using GPS, New York City gains insight on taxi cab activity

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New York City's more than 13,000 taxi cabs now transmit location data to the city using GPS. What the city has learned from this data may surprise you.

When New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission first implemented global positioning satellite systems in the city's more than 13,000 yellow taxi cabs, drivers were irate: how dare their employer track their movements during a day's shift?

That knee-jerk feeling may have since subsided a bit, but those GPS modules are now revealing their true value: aggregated insight into how and where taxi cabs operate.

In fact, the most popular street corners to catch a yellow cab in Manhattan can now be pinpointed at any hour of any day of the week.

By crunching data for more than 90 million trips tracked by the city, we now know that:

  • On a Saturday at 11 p.m., it is easier to hail a cab on the Lower East Side (bars, nightclubs) than at Grand Central Terminal.
  • On a Monday at 9 a.m., Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central are the most popular pickup locations. Second place: York Avenue at 72nd Street, on the Upper East Side. Third Place: Tenth Avenue at 43rd St. in Hell's Kitchen.
  • Commuters who live in moneyed destinations far from public transportation are indeed hailing more cabs than the rest of the city, such as along 10th and 11th Avenues in Midtown or farther uptown in Yorkville.
  • At 3 a.m. on a Sunday (late late Saturday night), the most popular place to hail a cab is at 10th Avenue and 27th Street, in club- and bar-heavy Chelsea.

All that insight is culled from a New York Times article summarizing the collected data.

New York-based software analytics firm Sense Networks crunched the data for the city, examining the first six months of 2009. (Its free mobile application ,called CabSense, was released this week for iPhones and Android phones.)

All this data has given pedestrians, commuters and city officials much more insight into the inner workings of the city.

  • If you're a pedestrian, you know where to hail a cab.
  • If you're a commuter, you know which intersections to avoid crossing through.
  • If you're a city official, you know where to widen streets or sidewalks or address other infrastructure issues, such as where to demarcate congestion pricing schemes.

And it's all backed by hard numbers.

Obviously, the trends also hint at socioeconomic aspects as well. Taxis on the moneyed Upper West Side picked up almost 90 times as many rides as cabs farther uptown in blue collar Washington Heights, even though they're along the same subway line.

On Tuesdays at 5 p.m., Lexington Avenue at 60th Street is the most common corner for cab hails after Penn Station. Why is it three times more popular than a corner one block north at 61st Street?

Easy: There's a Bloomingdale's department store exit there.

Once the New York begins to leverage this data, it will be able to build a smarter infrastructure and alleviate bottlenecks, informed by this intelligence.

And the project is showing other cities what they could learn by implementing sensors and other technology in their metropolises.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure