Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 16, 2014

Palo Alto looks to cameras for traffic data

New method raises privacy concerns from residents

by Gennady Sheyner

Seeking to gather more data about local bicyclists and pedestrians, Palo Alto has installed dozens of cameras around the city, prompting citizens' concerns about their privacy.

Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez told the Weekly that the city has been putting up cameras at different locations since April 28, with each camera staying up for a week before being taken down. The goal is to count the number of bicyclists and pedestrians in preparation for construction of new bike boulevards.

The technology caused unease last weekend, as some residents wondered about the appearance of cameras near their homes. Paul Machado, who lives in Evergeen Park, noted in an email to the City Council Sunday that a camera on Stanford Avenue is "pointed in a way that will keep an accurate picture of every time we leave and return home."

"I am uneasy with the Palo Alto Klandestine Gathering Bureaucrats, aka KGB, making a pictorial record of all my comings and goings," Machado wrote. "My neighbors also may object."

On Monday, city officials made clear that the videos always point away from homes and only capture footage of roads and sidewalks. Furthermore, Rodriguez said, the city never sees the data. Rather, it goes to the city's data-service providers, who then watch it at a high speed, tally up the numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians and send the city the numbers.

"All we get is the raw data," Rodriguez said. "And once the data-collection firm reviews the video, it is discarded."

There are three different firms providing data-collection services, he said. These are All Traffic Data, Traffic Data Services and Sandis. The goal is to collect data for 50 locations throughout the city. At any given time, about 25 are up, he said. The ones in Evergreen Park are due to come down Saturday.

In addition to the cameras, the city is using the traditional vehicle-counting tubes to gather data, but Rodriguez noted that the tubes aren't sensitive enough to gather data about pedestrians and bicyclists.

City Manager James Keene also addressed the camera issue during his comments to the City Council Monday night. The use of video-based traffic data is fairly new for the city, he said. He noted that it is "helpful in us being able to see good baseline data for pedestrian and bicycle use that has not been previously available to the city."

"I do think it's unfortunate that we did not get this news out in advance, and I think we had a few surprising situations with folks sort of surprised by these cameras being put up," Keene said. "We'll probably be doing some more extensive outreach on that."

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