[URBANTH-L]NEWS: An OpenSource Approach to Urban Planning

Angela Jancius jancius3022 at comcast.net
Mon Feb 2 13:57:57 EST 2009

LimeWire Creator Brings Open-Source Approach to Urban Planning

By Eliot Van Buskirk January 30, 2009

Entrepreneur Mark Gorton wants to do for people what he already helped do 
for files: move them from here to there in the most efficient way possible 
using open-source tools.

Gorton, whose LimeWire file sharing software for the open-source gnutella 
network was at the forefront of the P2P revolution nearly a decade ago, is 
taking profits earned as a software mogul and spinning them into projects to 
make urban transportation safer, faster and more sustainable.
You might call it a "P2P-to-people" initiative -- these efforts to make 
cities more people-friendly are partly funded by people sharing files.
That's not the only connection between open-source software and Gorton's 
vision for livable cities. The top-down culture of public planning stands to 
benefit by employing methods he's lifting from the world of open-source 
software: crowdsourced development, freely-accessible data libraries, and 
web forums, as well as actual open-source software with which city planners 
can map transportation designs to people's needs. Such modeling software and 
data existed in the past, but it was closed to citizens.

Gorton's open-source model would have a positive impact on urban planning by 
opening up the process to a wider audience, says Thomas K. Wright, executive 
director of the Regional Plan Association, an organization that deals with 
urban planning issues in the New York metropolitan area.

"99 percent of planning in the United States is volunteer citizens on 
Tuesday nights in a high school gym," Wright says. "Creating a software that 
can reach into that dynamic would be very profound, and open it up, and 
shine light on the decision-making. Right now, it becomes competing experts 
trying to out-credential each other in front of these citizen and volunteer 
boards... [Gorton] could actually change the whole playing field."
Portland, Oregon has already used his open-source software to plan its bus 
routes. San Francisco, whose MUNI bus system is a frequent target of 
criticism, could be next to get the treatment. Gorton says he's in talks 
with the city to supply transit routing software for MUNI that will do a 
much better job of keeping track of where people are going and figuring out 
how best to get them there. San Francisco "overpaid greatly" for a 
badly-supported proprietary closed-source system that barely works, 
according to Gorton, putting the city under the thumb of a private company 
that provides sub-par support.

"They're frustrated and thinking about replacing it completely, and see the 
value of open-source because then they won't have any of these support 
problems," he said. "And they won't be constantly at the mercy of the 
private companies that have these little mini-monopolies."
TOPP was Gorton's first foray into urban planning, in 1999. It initially 
involved an ambitious plan to use open-source software to model public 
transportation and traffic systems in large cities.

"I was much more naive at the time," he said. "I thought, 'I can make 
software. I'll go build an open-source traffic and transportation model, 
which will show how much better things can be, and then go magically adopt 
those solutions."

But humans can be harder to program than machines, and sometimes a 
human-to-human interface works best. "We've actually been incredibly 
successful transforming policy in New York City without any models at all," 
he added, though some residents complained about parking spaces morphing 
into bike lanes.

The quest to bring open-source software to real-world urban planning 
continued, following the clearance of a key hurdle: Before you can build a 
transportation model, you need to know where the roads are.

While public, that data was locked by private software used by public 
organizations and suffered from an overall lack of standards. Thus was born 
GeoServer http://geoserver.org/display/GEOS/Welcome), an open-source, 
Java-based software server that lets anyone view and edit geo-spatial data. 
Road information can now be painstakingly imported once from proprietary 
systems or entered from scratch, double-checked by other users, and rolled 
out to anyone who needs the data.

"It didn't really exist before," said Gorton. "Most of the data was run on 
software from a company called Esri. Government agencies have this data, but 
it's all running on proprietary systems and you couldn't get access to it, 
or it was very hard to get access to it." GeoServer now runs in thousands of 
places around the world for all sorts of reasons, according to Gorton, 
whenever an online app needs to know where roads are.

Portland, Oregon's TriMet bus system is building a multi-modal trip planner 
using OpenGeo, an open-source visualization tool for GeoServer data, that 
will let people plan trips involving multiple forms of transportation.

"If you say, 'I want to bike to the bus and then walk from there,' Google 
and MapQuest have no idea what you're talking about," Gorton explained. "But 
it's actually really useful information if you're talking about a world 
where you're trying to get people out of their cars."
The next challenge is to add complexity to the system, so that the modeling 
software can incorporate more factors.

"All of the modeling technologies that I've worked with and seen so far come 
with so many caveats," said the urban planning expert Wright. "Trying to 
capture the very very complex systems of urban communities... creates 
incredible layers of complication. We've just scratched the surface of the 
way these [tools] are going to transform decision-making and urban 

Although its developers charge $70,000 for the full Enterprise version of 
GeoServer and $200/hour for time spent customizing OpenGeo for a specific 
application, this is an open-source project. As such, it borrows from 
previous work. The core of Portland's trip planning software had already 
been built by David Emory, a previously unrelated developer who made a 
similar system for the Atlanta Transit Riders' Advocacy & Information 
Network (ATRAIN).

"Once you have something working in one city, the work it takes to port it 
to the next is a lot smaller," said Gorton.

If information and technology comes from the people, the thinking seems to 
go, perhaps the government will plan better towns and cities for them. It's 
a nice bit of symmetry.

Here's where the livable cities movement is going next, according to Gorton:

1. More sophisticated open source city models
The Open Planning Project will add land use factors, so that towns and 
cities can ensure that transportation line up better with zoning. The two 
issues are intertwined in reality, so the model needs to reflect that.

2. Federal funding could come into play
The Obama administration might pump federal dollars into bike lanes, public 
space reclamation, traffic calming, and maybe even open-source urban 
planning projects.

3. Blogs and videos
He funds two social websites: Streetsblog.org, which employs seven full-time 
reporters and editors who cover "the livable streets movement" and 
Streetfilms.org, for which a three-person film crew chronicles innovative 
traffic solutions from around the world. A typical story on the new San 
Francisco version of Streetsblog concerns the potential destruction of the 
bike lane on Octavia.

4. Buses will become even more like trains
Buses have already learned a few tricks from trains: pre-paid tickets, 
elevated platforms, multiple doors and dedicated lanes. Bogota, Columbia 
recently implemented many of these recommendations (video).

5. You'll become (more?) familiar with "para-transit" and "traffic calming"

Open-source software could coordinate small fleets of vans to replace or 
supplant bus service in sparse and dense areas by only going where and when 
people need to go. Para-transit involves matching people, locations and 
vehicles in the most efficient way possible, sort of like a big, 
socially-networked cross between buses (which follow the same routes each 
day) and taxicabs (which don't scale).

Meanwhile traffic calming 
involves designing roads to make drivers more mindful of pedestrians and 
bicyclists while opening up space for non-car activities on what used to be 
road. One example is a Manhattan crosswalk on Madison Ave. that used to 
force pedestrians to traverse a crosswalk as long as two football fields. 
The same space now features tables, chairs and bushes where New Yorkers 
gather to check their e-mail for five seconds already.

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