WE TEST: Big Data – Small Actions

WE TEST: Big Data – Small Actions

WE TEST: Big Data – Small Actions

by Simona Dobrescu, urbego

Cities across Europe are facing various mobility problems determined by the way they have developed and adapted over time to economic and demographic pressures. Whilst some cities have an agglomeration character with high urban densities, others have a spread out composition. The two development models pose specific challenges for transport connectivity and accessibility and pedestrian movement in particular.

Whilst dense cities are beneficial for commercial activities and accessibility, they often generate very congested environments that, at peak times, do not allow for free movement or enjoyment of the space and are detrimental to the liveability and quality of the city experience.

The streets of sprawled cities can often be car dominated, central areas struggle or are underused, and the vitality of the space, both in an economic and social sense is decaying.

But, as William H. Whyte rightly said, “So-called ‘undesirables’ are not the problem. It is the measures taken to combat them that is the problem.”

Fortunately, European policy and public/private projects and partnerships across the continent recognise investment in walking as both a tool and a goal in achieving better, more liveable public spaces and streets and addressing some of the inevitable challenges posed by development.

Such an example is the partnership between Urbego, IUAV and the Municipality of Venice to find solutions for alleviating congestion and managing pedestrian flows at the island’s terminal.

The project proposed to redesign the area to allow for the separation of different journey types (Venice Smart City) and tested a unified visual identity and signage for the island. The proposals responded to the needs of the increasing number of tourists, approximately 90,000 daily arrivals, and also aimed to alleviate the pressure on the overwhelmed resident population that has been abandoning the island to escape congestion and reduced services.

Testing of prototypes in public space. Image by: urbego

Analysis of pedestrian flow data. Image by: urbego

Other cities have used walkability as a tool to discourage car usage, boost activity and restore vitality and use of public spaces and streets.

Copenhagen is well known for a dedicated and sustained policy to favour and encourage walking and cycling but also for encouraging experimentation and testing to prove concepts and solutions.

The city of Bologna has been organizing the “T days” since 2012 and Prague has been experimenting with street closures with great success for residents, commercial units and tourists alike.

Irrespective of the approach and rationale for their initiatives, all municipalities face three main challenges:

  • availability of extensive data regarding pedestrian journeys,
  • a flexible planning framework to allow for experimentation and testing, and
  • limited resources to undertake extensive consultation.

In response to these challenges, Urbego, in discussion with 10 European cities, 2 universities and technology partners, proposes an innovative approach entitled WE TEST*. This method builds on European and international examples and the lessons learned from the Venice experience. It requires the use of data and experimentation to achieve citizen involvement, build the case for pedestrian and public space schemes and fast track implementation.

Sensor-tracking of pedestrian flows in Venice. Image by: urbego

Today, the availability, quality and accuracy of data for pedestrian movement are rapidly improving. Wireless and Bluetooth detection sensors as well as large, anonymised datasets from telecommunication operators are more widely used to understand pedestrian flows and movements without undertaking laborious manual or video counts. These technologies together with the use of interviews and observational studies are essential when planning for pedestrians.

Nevertheless, the main obstacle for data collection remains the associated cost.

With budgetary pressures and the requirement to prove the benefits, many municipalities will be forced into a vicious circle of insufficient data collection leading to poor evidence to substantiate planning decisions.

In order to break this circle, small-scale data collection together with testing and experimentation can build the case and reveal benefits that are often hidden or very difficult to quantify or monetise.

Testing physical wayfinding installations in Venice. Image by: urbego

Prototype wayfinding devices. Image by: urbego

Testing can range from a new design of a footpath to street furniture, closures, signage, digital interventions, etc. Depending on the possibility of scaling, temporary changes in the space can improve the design or generate new approaches and innovative solutions.

Cities that have taken a small-scale, step-by-step approach create momentum and often use the small-scale test results to support further walking-oriented schemes with great enthusiasm from their citizens and stakeholders.

Not surprisingly, municipalities such as Bologna, Copenhagen and Prague also benefit from strong citizen involvement and support. Thus, testing can also be a great method to address the limited resources available for public consultation by literally allowing citizens to vote with their feet, their actions and use of space, and involving them actively in the decision-making process.

Overall, these examples and many alike show the potential of allowing the WE TEST approach into the realm of walking schemes. Undoubtedly this process requires strong commitment from all institutional actors but it also represents an unrivalled opportunity for citizen involvement and transparency of decision making.


[*Walkable Environments through Technology, Experimentation and Sustainable Travel]

Simona Dobrescu, Urbego


Urbego won a Walking Visionaries Jury Prize with the project “Venice Smart City: Walkability 3.0