Replica Places shows the distribution of work locations for low-income residents in Los Angeles who have lengthy transit commutes to work.

How big data can help California make cities more livable, equitable, and resilient

California is today pursuing sweeping policy changes to rethink its approach to housing, transportation, the environment, and the quality of life for all residents now and into the future. Metropolitan Planning Organizations are central to this mission, with laws including SB743 and SB375 directing MPOs to make generational investments in infrastructure with goals that include reducing vehicle miles traveled, adding more housing and density, and improving equity and resilience.

California’s policy goals reflect the demands of a rapidly changing world. As the state determines where to direct funds from REAP 2.0 and other programs, it’s vital that cities and regions have access to accurate, trustworthy, and reliable data that can inform decision-making and support better outcomes.

In a recent webinar, Replica CEO Nick Bowden joined Bill Higgins, executive director of CALCOG, and Shengyi Gao, senior analyst at SACOG, to discuss the need for California’s MPOs to move beyond traditional mobility data in order to do their work effectively — and how Replica can work with CALCOG’s membership in the future.

Replica is a data platform for the built environment that makes complex, rapidly-changing urban ecosystems easier to understand. By combining powerful data insights with an uncompromising approach to privacy, Replica provides a holistic view into the ways mobility, land use, and economic activity intersect.

California MPOs need more than mobility data

For too long, transportation and housing have been seen as separate policy areas, one about where people live, and another about how people get around. But we know that these two things go hand in hand: Housing policies that encourage sprawl mean more people have to travel farther to shop or go to work. It becomes costlier for public agencies to provide sufficient transit service, and requires that people have cars to get around. That means more people spend more time in their cars, driving farther, increasing VMT and vehicle emissions, paying more for basic transportation, and so on.

It’s important to recognize that housing policy affects transportation policy, and that they both affect the economy, environment, and equitable outcomes of a city, region, and state. “You need to see all the things that are happening in a region — mobility, parking, economic activity — in order to really understand it,” Nick Bowden said. “Mobility is really important, but is just one part of a broader pie.”

Replica builds high-fidelity, privacy-preserving activity-based travel models using a large composite of sources that include location data, consumer and resident data, land use and real estate data, credit transaction data, and ground truth data. “Our input data is much more than mobility,” Bowden said. “The output of that is that it allows you to see a much wider view of what’s happening.”

Equity analysis

Improving equity and access requires a multi-dimensional approach. Without the ability to cross filter your data, you’re just seeing one slice of the problem. Replica’s data offers a much clearer view of what’s happening on the ground. It allows you to study equity across a variety of geographies and metrics including income level, race and ethnicity, access to mobility options, and employment status.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused widespread change, for example, but only looking at mobility metrics may lead to the wrong conclusions. That’s why, when the pandemic struck, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) turned to Replica to better understand, and help forecast, the rapidly changing travel behavior of its riders in near-real time — including differences among different cohorts of riders. When New York made the decision to stop 24-hour subway service for the first time in over 100 years, the MTA leveraged Replica data to design a shut-down schedule and alternative transit options that would least impact the ability for essential healthcare workers to safely and efficiently get to work.

Parking

It’s difficult to overstate how large a role parking plays in the built environment. Replica will soon be offering new parking data on its data platform: surface, subterranean or garage parking and also category (i.e. hotel, office) and number of total spaces. The data will also include numbers for average daily occupancy of parking structures. At the network level, you’ll be able to assess the street, the block ID, the number of spaces, and the probability that a person can find an open on-street parking space on any given hour of the day.

The use cases are potentially transformational: This data can be used to locate EV charging stations, for example, and for the first time, you’ll be able to look at the relationship between economic activity and parking inventory.

SACOG + Replica

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments began a pilot partnership with Replica in 2019 to gain insight for trips that started or ended outside of its jurisdiction, or that passed through entirely. The organization also sought Replica’s disaggregated data for race, equity and inclusion (REI) analysis, and link-level traffic volume.

In the webinar, SACOG’s Shengyi Gao described his agency’s thorough collection and validation of data for transit ridership and traffic counts, and subsequent satisfaction with the reliability of Replica data.

Among the applications used were a Caltrans-managed lane study, a Caltrans origin and destination study (Where do travelers come from? How far did they travel and what roads did they use?), congestion analysis, and transit planning studies including SACOG’s next generation study. During the pandemic, SACOG used Replica data to track change in VMT over time. The data has also been used for a report on VMT in Yolo County for SB743 implementation support, as well as to help determine top 10 transit destinations outside of downtown.

“Basically, we can do whatever we want,” Gao said of the platform. He shared with the audience of CALCOG members that the interface is easy to use and that the platform provided instant results, had great potential for detailed behavioral analysis, and provided good insights on VMT, transit passengers and trips, interregional travel and pass-through traffic.

Didn’t get a chance to attend the webinar? You can watch it here and/or schedule a demo.