Google’s “Popular Times” A Potential Game Changer

When it comes to city planning, research is the key – the key to fluid transportation, efficient land usage, and reasonable allocation of resources. Tim Barton recently made some poignant observations regarding Google’s “Popular Times” feature and how the data gathered by the media juggernaut could be distributed to and utilized by urban planners to better serve their communities.

Google Popular Times
Image via Google
For those unfamiliar, the feature is basically a tool that gives you access to data Google collects regarding where people are and when. When is the gym busy? When is the grocery store jammed? When does the beach become a Woodstock reenactment? The savvy anti-social can make sure to hit the necessary town hotspots during off-hours; or, in contrast, the social butterfly can be sure the mall will be packed with other socialites.

As Barton points out, urban planners can use the data in many ways. As a transportation consultant, part of his job is to estimate peak hours for parking demand. Often, he has to rely on data that is out of date, limited, and collected via surveys without necessarily considering the different types of communities being planned. For example, a suburban motor-vehicle-heavy area versus an urban public transit hub.

“Popular Places” allows for custom daily parking demand charts for certain areas. Even though available survey data shows peak grocery store time to be 1:00 pm, Barton was able to look at the specific area locations and determine that the peak hours for grocery in the area is 5:00 pm, after the locals leave work.

Barton leaves you with a wish list for the future of such data collection and availability. The lacking information that is potentially most interesting concerns the type of transportation people are using. While other firms are collecting similar data, Barton questions whether Google can determine what type of transit people are using based on speed and route.

Barton concludes, “This information is valuable. Google could charge for it and, assuming it was priced correctly, people would pay for it. And it would increase the accurately of our planning substantially. Which means better sized parking lots, better sized streets and, hopefully, happier communities.”

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