4 Ways Google EIE Transformed Transportation Data Collection

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Local governments need high-quality, consistent data to plan and achieve their transportation goals. To help meet this need, Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE) makes locally-relevant, regularly-updated data more accessible than ever.  EIE provides local governments with a streamlined platform to access transportation and building emissions data and rooftop solar capacity that is powered by Google’s machine learning, modeling, and mapping capabilities. ICLEI has analyzed EIE’s transportation emissions data and determined that it is more accurate than other data sources and provides valuable insights for local planning and budgeting.

Recently, EIE released 2020 transportation data to over 4,000 local governments throughout the United States. With this release, local governments can perform year-over-year analyses on transportation emissions dating back to 2018. The data behind this release can help governments better understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and, in turn, bolster recovery efforts in addition to informing transportation infrastructure investments. 

Better Transportation Data

Before EIE revolutionized the collection of transportation emissions data, many local governments would contact their regional planning organizations for this information. To calculate transportation emissions, planning organizations take real-life measurements every three-to-five years and use models to extrapolate over the next few years. Due to the generalized nature of these models, they are less helpful to local governments when tracking the impact of program initiatives or changes due to singular unforeseen changes, such as changes in vehicle use due to a pandemic or natural disaster.

EIE provides empirical transportation data extrapolated from aggregated location information from user trips to infer traffic, mode of travel, busyness, and total distances driven in a city. The data provides a more reliable and readily available indication of year-to-year change in on-road transportation activity than do most existing data sources. EIE aggregates trip data from Google Maps, processed to ensure privacy, and uses machine learning to assign a transportation mode, such as biking or driving, and scales it to account for population. Using regional-specific fuel type, fuel efficiency, and emissions factor assumptions from CURB, EIE calculates the total CO2 equivalents emissions. Paired with more locally specific fleet data, the Google EIE Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) data provides the foundation for even more accurate emissions data for communities.

Yael Kisel, Climate Smart Analytics Lead at the City of San Jose piloted the 2020 EIE data. “The most useful thing about EIE data is that it’s based on real-world data and updated annually,” reported Yael. “Before getting EIE data, we were dependent on the City travel model managed by our department of transportation, and this model is only updated using real-world data every 4 or 5 years.”

Simplified Greenhouse Gas Inventory Development

GHG inventories are an important first step toward effective climate action planning. They highlight local governments’ main emissions sources so that local governments can prioritize investments in the most impactful sectors. Inventories also provide a baseline from which to track progress.

EIE provides data to streamline parts of the GHG inventory processes, allowing local government staff to focus more attention on driving action, and reducing the cost and personnel burden of inventory preparation for disclosure.

Transportation and building energy consumption are usually responsible for the majority of community emissions. For cities just getting started with climate action, the data contained within EIE can provide a starting point for cities beginning to explore climate action. Other cities more established in their GHG inventory and planning will find value in combining or overlaying EIE outputs, particularly those for transportation, with other inventory data sources.

Already, local governments are integrating EIE into their GHG inventory workflows. “I’m using EIE data in the soon-to-be-published 2019 community-wide GHG inventory. I expect to use it in the next community-wide inventory and to use it for reporting on our online data dashboard as well,” said Yael Kisel.

Data on Transportation Mode Choice

EIE data shows changes beyond only emissions and on-road vehicles. It provides insights into pedestrian, bicycle, and transit transportation modes. This can present a more complete picture, support planning efforts, help local governments prioritize active and public transit modes, and allow planners to easily measure shifts in mode share over time.

San Antonio is working to increase community use of the local bus system. Minerva Defee, Climate Program Manager, and Harley Hubbard, Sustainable Transportation Manager, from the City of San Antonio Office of Sustainability piloted the 2020 transportation data and found that “it seems like efforts of 2018 paid off even though we saw a big decrease in 2020, which could be attributed to the pandemic and people making fewer trips in general.” 

Over time, this data can tell a story that local governments can share with stakeholders to inform future investments in transportation and build strong community buy-in on the projects that will make a big impact. 

Annually Track Progress

EIE intends to update its transportation datasets every year within the GHG reporting window. This is a significant improvement from other sources of data which provide information nine-to-eighteen months after the measurement year. This is lost time in the eyes of city officials to rapidly respond to community needs. Access to consistent, timely data that EIE provides will enable local governments to better track progress on their transportation goals, innovate new solutions, and rapidly engage stakeholders to build buy-in. 

Climate action plans often include tracking and monitoring. With EIE, getting this data year after year will be easier and less resource-intensive. Kimberly Schlaepfer, Climate Action Collaborative Project Manager for Walking Mountains Science Center, of Eagle County, piloted the 2020 transportation data and reported, “The easy aggregate CO2 calculations are incredibly helpful. Annual data from EIE will be critically important as we track our year over year Climate Action Plan goal achievement.”

Similarly, local government staff can track transportation mode data to follow the success of transit projects, biking and walking initiatives, or other programs. For example, the City of San Antonio, Texas is working to increase the accessibility and use of multimodal and mass transit. Minerva Defee and Harley Hubbard from San Antonio’s Office of Sustainability had this in mind when they piloted the 2020 EIE transportation data. “It would be extremely helpful to quantify our collective efforts to see if they are paying off,” they reported. “In addition, data that points to increased bus ridership could open doors to increasing budget allocations and for making an argument towards investing in developing another method of mass transit for the city.”

Conclusion

With the release of the 2020 transportation data, there are now three years of free, publicly available data* for local government officials and leaders to compare and analyze. This data includes the impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, which local governments can use to inform their investments to prioritize a just recovery.

ICLEI finds the data to be higher-quality than traditional sources and much easier to access and analyze. EIE simplifies parts of greenhouse gas inventory development, especially the transportation section. It allows governments to easily track the changes in transportation emissions and mode choice over time. This information can support stakeholder engagement, planning efforts, budget allocation decisions, and more.

ICLEI is also excited to share that the 2020 data will be available for download in the ClearPath emissions management tool in the near future. 

* To ensure user privacy, Google currently releases data for locations with populations in the tens of thousands. If data is unavailable for your location consider checking for the encompassing area, such as your county.

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https://icleiusa.org/2021049-2/