After being the victim of an automobile-bicycle crash, Tara Pham co-founded street sensor startup Numina to give communities a better way to understand how people were using the street so that planners can create safer, more equitable, and more livable cities for its most vulnerable users.
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT TO COME
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Pham: Tara Pham
Jensen: Curb-level activity measured by Numina’s hardware is used for everything from justifying a project to operationalizing how to make it work most effectively. You’ll hear from Numina’s CEO, Tara Pham, on how communities can use the same data in quite different ways coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: Our guest today is Tara Pham, the cofounder and CEO of Numina. We’ll let Tara give us the details on Numina, but the high level is hardware that measures how people use the curb, the street, the sidewalk, and that data that can be used by cities, mobility providers, and real estate firms to help ensure that we use that precious space as effectively as possible. Welcome to The Movement, Tara.
Pham: Thanks for having me.
Jensen: So, Tara, can you go ahead and introduce us to Numina and the problem that you guys are trying to solve?
Pham: Yeah, absolutely. As Josh mentioned, we make a sensor that measures all forms of street-level activity and actually, you know, non-street, curb, sidewalk, park, plaza, any sort of public realm space. And originally we set out just to be a better bicycle-and-pedestrian sensor. Cities are largely planned around car data, because that has been historically easier to capture. You know, you put a tube across the road; we have all sorts of telematics products, but we don’t have really good ways to actually measure how people use space, and so we make a sensor that does just that and turns that data into insights and analytics primarily that urban planners can use and to some degree facilities managers.
And, I would say, aside from passive, real-world detection, the other thing that is a primary differentiator of our technology in this space is that we’re completely privacy-by-design. So we use a camera as sensor. We are actually visually detecting all of these things, but we do it in such a way that we’re not saving or transmitting the sort of raw data imagery or video. We’re only transmitting completely anonymous, non-personal-identifiable information.
Cohen: So that means, like, you’re saying, “I sense a bicycle or a person on a bicycle,” or, “I sense a pedestrian crossing a street,” that level of detail but not the actual image which might show me?
Pham: Yeah, exactly.
Pham: Yeah. And we detect—really out of the box we focus on five categories or modes, so pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, buses, and trucks, which are—you know, we say heavy trucks, kind of freight vehicles. But we do have some projects where we measure other things like dogs and bags of trash and in some cases specific uniforms maybe. We work with a museum where we’re measuring actually their visitorship and engagement with outdoor instillations that they have. And we trained our algorithm to detect their staff uniform so that we could pull their staff specifically out of their visitorship count. So the technology is very extendable, but we do focus—that museum example is a very kind of specialized and unique example. We focus primarily on issues of transportation equity, really.
Cohen: Take us back to the founding of the firm. Like, what was going on through your head, or what problems were you seeing that you said we needed to get at?
Pham: Yeah. So originally in school I studied how city design and the built environment affects people’s behaviors, primarily their active transportation choices and how that affects their cardiovascular health. So to put it in simpler words, “How can we design neighborhoods to encourage people to walk and bike so that they don’t become obese and therefore can avoid other chronic disease that’s so closely linked to obesity?” And at that time, you know, there weren’t even wearables, so we were sending people pedometers, and we were going out on street corners and manually counting how people were using streets. So it became obvious to me that, “Oh, this data doesn’t exist because it’s actually really hard and kind of tedious to collect.” And that planted kind of the seed of the idea in my head, which actually I came back to with my cofounder some years later.
And really we started working together in St. Louis, Missouri. That’s where we started our company. And in 2014 we had actually both been hit by vehicles while riding our bikes, and so that was sort of the major sort of catastrophic impetus to starting Numina. And in my cofounder’s case he was hit in a hit-and-run. His name is Martin McGreal. He was hit in a hit-and-run that was a terrible accident, and I think it was for him a little bit of a wakeup call that life was too short to keep working at his very cushy corporate job—[LAUGHS]— and he wanted to come build something exciting, lucky for me, with me. And so—yeah, that’s sort of how we started Numina, again, just wanting to be a better bike-ped sensor because we recognized that our crashes were not really accidents.
I mean, yes, they were result of bad driving, but ultimately these are very common incidents that just result from the fact that streets are designed for cars and not for people. And so, you know, anyone I tell our founding story to or really that I talk to who bikes has been hit or, you know, has a loved one that has been seriously injured or killed. Unfortunately, the bike-ped fatality and injury rates are really out of control, and they’ve actually only gotten significantly worse in the past few decades. Meanwhile, we see that traffic fatalities overall have decreased because cars have just gotten so much safer. So if you’re in a car, you’re safer; if you’re outside of a car, you’re actually in more danger than at any other point in the last 30 to 40 years actually. So we’re trying to make sure that cities have the data to justify better design to make their communities more walkable and bikeable primarily.
Cohen: Wow. So you mentioned equity kind of at the beginning there when you were introducing Numina, and so obviously—and you’ve talked about some of these specific examples. Obviously our cities are great places of opportunity—that’s why people like to move to them—but they’re also places of structural and systemic racism, even and especially sometimes in the transportation infrastructure and service. So I’m curious. I want to maybe dig into this a little bit and really try to understand how does Numina help overcome those inequities.
Pham: Yeah, great question. We are definitely only a small piece of the larger puzzle or equation here. But I think just understanding, you know, to the point that you just made, that cities and especially their transportation infrastructure really do foster racism, if you look at—you know, we focus largely on multimodal, so bicycle and pedestrian, not just vehicular traffic trends. Communities that are lower income have generally worse bike and ped infrastructure even though their communities are more reliant on walking and biking and taking public transportation. And I think we see that really manifest in the statistics.
So Black Americans and Native Americans, for example, make up about 13% of the population but almost a quarter of pedestrian deaths. And also seniors, so people over 65 are almost 70% more likely to be killed by a vehicle. So traffic violence is real, if you are part of, you know, what in public health we would call a vulnerable population. And more than that actually your access to transportation options drastically impacts your health outcomes overall more than your education, your income, other aspects of, you know, what we would call social determinants of health.
So all of these things really mean we just need to make places equally accessible for everyone. That actually will extend them opportunity and also extend literally, you know, life expectancies in our communities. So that’s why we focus on in particular making sure that cities have the same quality data or hopefully better for bicycles and pedestrians and everyone in the street rather than just what has been historically car counts.
Cohen: So I want to ask a follow-up here. And, L’erin, I’m curious to get your perspective on this too. But, like, you’re providing the data—right—to validate some of these things that are going on—right—these inequities, this racism as far as safety, say, or how much access different communities have. Is the data enough to make those changes? Because I would argue that, like, we already knew some of the data even if we didn’t have the hard data to prove it. Right? What else do we need? I mean, obviously it helps, obviously, but, like, what else do we need on top of that?
Pham: Yeah, absolutely. You’re touching on something that is really an immense challenge in transportation planning. So, to your point, yeah, data itself doesn’t solve the problem. And even, I’ll say, like, as a technology startup that’s a challenge for us just because when we bring case studies to our customers and our potential customers often, you know, we’re kind of holding up the first part of the case study of, “Hey, we helped a client, a city set up goals, and we measured it,” but then they might not do the next part, or it might take them years to get the next part done of actually implementing an intervention. And the problem there is really politics. I think, with planning we have lots of examples where we basically know you have to build for what you want. We have lots of examples where, you know, highways were planned to minimize congestion by adding lanes, and actually it increased travel times, maybe because more people perceived that they could drive on the highway and maybe they’d encounter less traffic, and then they just were the traffic.
And so, you know, we don’t unfortunately have control over what happens with our data once it’s out there. But the thing that I have heard from a lot of our planners in the cities we work in is that the data really helps when it comes to the community meeting. So, so often, you know, you want to change parking and zoning in your community, and there will be a sort of loud minority in the room that opposes these things that actually probably benefit the majority of people. And everything in these meetings is based on anecdata. It’s someone raising their hand and talking about, you know, they own—I’m using a very specific example that maybe isn’t fair. But, you know, they own a store and they really need these parking spots in front of their store. Or, you know, on the other side, they own a store and they really want a bike rack in front of their store. And then they proceed to share stories of their customers that they know who need these things that they want. And what they might actually be missing is a larger opportunity that we as Numina are trying to measure for them. So then, you know, if a planner has an idea for something that’s hopefully progressive transportation policy or streets policy, they can say, “Well, you know, here’s the data.”
And one thing New York City DOT did that I really liked is they messaged—I believe that it was around 8th Avenue; 80% of the street space was dedicated to cars, but 80% of the throughput was actually pedestrians. And so they adopted this messaging of, “Let’s match road share to mode share,” and there the data becomes very important because it’s pretty hard to deny that the vast majority of people using the space are on foot. So, you know, that’s kind of where, I think, data helps even when you’re in that community meeting and there’s a lot of compelling, you know, anecdotal support for or against an idea. The data really kind of helps cut through that noise.
Jensen: I want to know if anecdata is a real word or if you’re just clever? [LAUGHTER]
Pham: To be fair, I think I stole that from someone else.
Jensen: I like that. I might steal it from you.
Pham: Okay, great. [LAUGHTER]
Cohen: Yeah. But, I mean, that’s such an illustrative example you just gave. I mean, I can totally see somebody saying—it’s like, “Well, I need these parking spaces because this lady has to drive because she’s handicapped,” and, you know, whatever, and it’s like, “All right. That’s one lady. That’s not everything.”
Pham: And even just, I think, there’s this perception especially on the side of retailers that, like, you remember how many big sales you made every day. You know, you remember that person who came in and bought a bunch of stuff because they were packing it in their car, and that’s their once-a-week or once-every-two-weeks trip. But actually data shows that in bikeable neighborhoods more people make smaller, more regular trips, so they’re actually probably spending the same or more over time; it’s just not in those, you know, sort of big, lumpy transactions that retailers often remember and think they can grow by, you know, supporting car transportation.
Jensen: I feel like what I’m hearing is that the data is really there to speak up for the people who can’t or don’t always show up to these community meetings or city council meetings. So in your example, the people using anecdata, the people with the largest voices, their will is usually done. They know to show up to those things. They know what happens. They know that’s how you get change in your community. But the data is there to speak for the people who don’t always show up but who need it most.
Pham: Exactly. I mean, it’s just harder to show up at community meetings if you take public transportation, for example, at a very simple level. And then you also look at who are the people that are reliant on that, people who might have lower paying jobs or multiple part-time jobs or something like that. So one thing that I think actually could be a positive outcome of this pandemic lifestyle transition is that a lot more government meetings have had to go to virtual, which actually, you know, in some ways it’s weird, it’s different, but in other ways it’s actually increasing access.
Like, I’ve heard a lot of our planners say that they noticed people could tune in while they were cooking dinner or, you know, listen in while they’re sort of trying to put their kids to bed or something like that. And that actually meant more people heard what was going on in the meeting than had it only been in person, which I think is cool, and I hope that that actually continues.
Cohen: I love that point though that you just brought up, L’erin, about kind of ensuring that those folks whose voices may not always get heard, you’re helping to ensure that because that’s the value of that really hard data. Right? It just it converts that from being this kind of for lack of a better word this, like, you know, this high-throughput, you know, walking down the street in New York City. Right? It’s really easy to kind of have that be nameless and faceless. Right? And obviously for your technology it is nameless and faceless, but it turns that into a person, a data point that otherwise might not quote-unquote “be seen.” So I love that. I love the way you framed that, L’erin.
Jensen: Thanks. So, Tara, what’s next in our cities? Why aren’t we paying attention to or what still needs to be built?
Pham: That’s an insanely huge question. I love it. So we’re based in New York City now. Actually, our team is largely remote. We have team members all over. But it’s funny because it used to be, like, you know, talking about what’s going on in New York City isn’t actually relevant to most other cities in the country because it’s an outlier by its size and density and all of that. But it’s funny because during COVID we’ve seen a lot of smaller cities be able to act faster and do, like, as progressive or more progressive things than bigger cities in terms of adopting Slow Streets, using this time to actually do certain road work or finish complete-streets plans that maybe, you know, normally would have been delayed due to normal, everyday road traffic. So we’re seeing some progress.
I think to the earlier point, Josh’s point, and, L’erin, your point of sort of, like, being able to in a way, like, vote with your feet and be accounted for even if you can’t show up at the meetings, I think one of the things that needs to built honestly is better decision-making infrastructure. There are so many issues that we need to solve, and in some ways, like, streets can change so much faster now than ever before. A decade ago we barely had Uber and rideshare. Three years ago we didn’t have scooters. So things are changing so quickly, and technology is only accelerating that, technology in the sort of digital realm. And, I think, we need to figure out how to make our infrastructure more responsive in the physical realm as well.
So that is something actually that our company focuses on by making our data available through API. So, for nontechnical listeners, an API is essentially a data feed that computers can understand, can query and communicate with. And by making our real-world detections queryable through an API, we enable, you know, on the other end of the telephone, so to speak, another program or even maybe, you know, physical signage or some other thing to be able to use that data and change what’s happening, you know, in that program or on the street. So we are through our sensing technology trying to make streets more responsive in that way.
But, I think, at the policy level—that was a very longwinded way to say, I think, at the policy level we need to have ways for streets and the built environment to become more flexible to everyday needs. And the pandemic just shows that. Like, you know, we kind of don’t know it until it’s happening when something comes along and sort of changes everything or sort of, like, you know, wipes out our plans and we have to do something new. And cities historically have not been good at that.
Cohen: That’s an interesting point. I guess, I’m trying to think about what—it’s kind of hard to think about post-COVID, now. But, like, post-COVID, what’s going to be the next thing that is going to drastically fall into that example of kind of what you said of to, like, require the streets to be more flexible or require our infrastructure to be more flexible is I guess the right word? But it’s kind of hard for me to even think about what that could be at this point. I don’t know. Do you have any ideas or any thoughts that you’re already thinking about?
Pham: I’m hopeful that some of the slow streets initiative—so this is where cities will block off certain streets or blocks to car traffic to just give people, families, you know, who are wanting to be outside and wanting to exercise, what have you, to do that nearby their homes, let’s say, if they don’t live near a park and to do that while social distancing. I’m hopeful that those initiatives have gained popularity and that people want to keep them to some degree. You know, again, to use a New York example, with outdoor dining the mayor’s office has already said that they’re going to make that permanent. So I think some of this stuff has gained traction and will stay, I hope, and maybe even grow.
But my fear is also that actually driving has largely gone up during this period, and so it could be that when things are quote “back to normal” they do sort of go quote “back to normal,” whatever that is. And I hope that the new normal, if it does have, you know, the same level or even increased driving, that the thing that changes is that cities start to value their curb space more, because I actually think it’s not just drive time—in cities, it’s not just drive time that indicates, you know, or that influences people’s decisions to drive; it’s, “How long is it going to take me or how much is it going to cost me to park when I get there?” And, I think, you know, now there have been so many studies that show that on-street parking is basically free storage for car owners, and we could actually, like, monetize that curb space for the befit of cities so much more effectively or at least just like, you know, give it back to the people, like, make that space parklets. Or like we’re seeing with outdoor dining, that is actually a reallocation of parking spots that is more beneficial, I would argue, to cities than letting someone just store their car on the street.
So I’m hopeful that, you know, we get back to focusing on that, because, I think—you know, eye on the prize—reallocating the curb is actually one of the biggest opportunities for cities to actually create new revenues, decrease car dependency, make streets just, like, prettier and more lovely and delightful. So I hope that that’s something that comes in the near-term.
Cohen: This has happened a little bit where we live in Durham, but, you know, you see it a little bit more in some of these other communities, is obviously this transition from car storage to outdoor dining, I think, is—I agree with you. I think it’s fundamentally kind of better than what it was. But I think it does call into question, again, the concept that you gave with that 8th Avenue example, which is, you know, “What are we using this space for in general?” Right?
And so, you know, certainly from the perspective of dining, that is moving from one private use to another private use. Now, that private use has less negative externalities, I would argue, then car storage with its pollution and so forth. But it’s a shift in one direction, but it’s not the same as making that kind of like a parklet, you know, a public parklet or an increase sidewalk space, whatever. You know, so it is interesting, like, to keep kind of, like, going down this, like, “All right. Well, that is progress. Is it as far as we need it to go?” I don’t know. I mean, and different places have different needs, obviously.
Pham: I’m curious. For both of you, how would you answer that question, either broadly or specifically in Durham?
Cohen: Wait a minute. Whose podcast is this? [LAUGHTER] L’erin, you want to go first?
Jensen: Do I want to take a stab at it first? No, but I will. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think I have a better answer than that at the moment. I mean, I think that, Josh, you do have a point, and it’s not really a way that I’ve thought about that. And, I guess, in some ways that’s probably why cities have been able to, like, pass ordinances like this, because, like, “Oh, well, this is good for the economy,” rather than it’s good for people. You know, businesses are benefitting from it; people can eat outside, whatever. But, um, yeah, I don’t have an answer. That’s my answer, that I don’t have one. [LAUGHTER]
Cohen: She sits on this side of the microphone. She asks the questions. No, I mean, I think, you know, from my perspective, I mean, I think, applying some of these lessons writ large, I think, is what’s next. Right? So it’s like we know some of these things already. Right? You know, to use the example I said earlier, you know, it’s like you’re providing hard data to verify some things people already know. Right? Same thing with how we’re using the road space. We already know. It’s just how are we going to apply those lessons going forward to really bring about the change that is equitable and so forth.
And to me that comes back to what you talked about before, which is, you know, the politics and the decision-making at a political level, which is, you know, “How are we actually going to make these things a reality?” It takes somebody standing up and saying, “This is what I think we should do. You know, this is what the people are talking about. This is what I’m hearing when I talk to constituents. And, you know, this is the values of our community.” And I think it’s going to take that, in my opinion. And I think that’s what’s next—right—is just kind of the further cementing of some of these lessons through political will.
Pham: If I can add just a side note to that. So we work in about 25 cities—more than 25 cities on three continents. And what’s funny is in the U.S. almost always our projects are focused on first getting a baseline, just like, you know, what types of street users are there, when are they using the street, what is mode share, so how many people are walking versus biking versus driving and so on. And it’s, like, how do we track sort of before, during, and after an intervention so we can tell that story, frankly, politically to show, “Hey, here is where we’re at. We want to do this project to get from here to this goal that we have”? But outside of the U.S. and especially, I’ll say, in Europe, our next biggest market is The Netherlands where what you just described, Josh, is a given. Like, “Yeah, we want—we kind of know what’s going on in the street, and we have the political will to address that. We use data operationally.”
Our customers there are using Numina to, like, actuate real-time changes in streets, so changing, like, digital street signs, training street-cleaning robots and services to actually come pick up the trash when it’s overflowing or, you know, full in the trashcan as opposed to just, like, on an arbitrary schedule. When they have festivals they’re actually, like, allocating how many police or community liaisons are standing on each corner to direct people toward events and things like that. And so if we could get beyond just that, “Hey, we use data to make decisions in government,” the future is actually very cool as to what we could automate in streets or what we could just make very efficient.
I think, you know, with Numina our goal is, “Let’s provide this data so that planners and operators can match how people actually behave,” as opposed to, “Let’s set up a concrete structure, basically, in which people have to kind of follow that form.” Form should follow how people behave. So, yeah, if we could just get beyond some of the politics we could actually move much quicker and have, like, a pretty futuristic street now. I mean, we have all the—you know, we have all of the technology; we just don’t have the political wherewithal, I guess.
Jensen: To your point about decision-making, and you mentioned this earlier, like, we just need to figure out—not just need to, but if we could figure out a better way to make decisions, then our streets could change. I’ve been thinking the entire episode, Switzerland has, like, a very simplistic process for changing their constitution. It’s like three steps. It doesn’t change that easily, but you’ve got to—I think it’s like 100,000 people. Don’t quote me on these numbers. But, like, a certain amount of people need to sign a petitions. If enough people sign this petition to change something in their constitution, it goes to referendum. If it gets X amount of votes and passes, then the constitution is changed. If not, it’s not. But our political process here is just so convoluted and messy. And I would imagine in other countries too, but those are the thoughts that I had. We, like, don’t even have a real simple process to make decisions, so if we can get there then maybe the world will be a better place.
Pham: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it’s funny. When you’re in sort of this quote “smart city” space—which I sort of hate that term, but, you know, we’re sort of talking about digital access and sort of government and digital literacy—a big player is Estonia, which is a tiny country. It’s smaller than, like, a number of metro areas in the U.S. But they have this incredibly digitized government where you can make decisions and kind of influence policy in different ways very quickly. Sort of it sounds like the Swiss example you just gave. And one of the things though is, like, it is so much smaller that you can do that. And I wonder if in the U.S. because we’re such a big country if the way to get there really is through regional governments or municipalities, because—I don’t know—I personally don’t have a lot of confidence that at the federal level we could adopt something that fast-moving, just given our politics and our size. I think that’s a really—
Cohen: I don’t even think at the state level. I mean, you know, look at New York. I mean, you know, New York City is so different than the rest of New York. Right? So trying to put together a statewide legislation there seems like—I think you’re point is well taken. I think it’s at the local level.
Pham: The funny thing too is at the local level, like, by and large, at least anyplace I’ve ever lived, you’re party doesn’t really matter as much. You know, when you’re voting for your councilor or your alderman, do you even know if they’re Democrat, Republican, independent? It’s more likely like who shook your hand, who have you met in person, or whose speech did you like at a local debate or that showed up at, like, you know, your local organization’s fundraiser. It’s, like, who you have familiarity with and who you trust.
And, I think, that’s actually pretty interesting because it does give me hope that at the hyper-local level at least, you know, partisanship isn’t as big of a factor. Like, you know, if you ask all Americans, I bet we largely have the same goals. We want to have clean air and water; we want to have well-educated kids; we want to have safe communities. Like, we all agree on this stuff, and so, you know, maybe at the local level is where we could hope to have more forward progress instead of this kind of, like, partisan politics that holds us back.
Cohen: Yeah. No, I think there’s something there. Well, let’s wrap up with this. I know you work with a lot of different leaders and communities and so forth, and I’m curious what you have learned from them that impacts how you both lead your team and also how you serve the community.
Pham: I’ll say one of the things, one of many things that I’ve learned is, you know, we’re a tech company. We are for better or worse entrenched in tech culture at times. And I love that we work with cities. They’re big and slow and have a ton of inertia, and honestly for a tech company it is a great balancing force. It forces you to think about what’s really important. I think, it’s very easy in a startup and—hey—in life as a person, there’s lots of ups and downs. You know, you have a lot of, like, noise. And when you work with something as sort of difficult as a city, you really have to focus on signal and stay really grounded in your goals and in your values.
And so I really appreciate that, especially with working with public servants. They’re incredibly smart and passionate people who often choose to work in these more difficult systems because they want to have an impact on their community. And a lot of them understand people and politics really well. That has, like, taught me sort of how to better communicate with people, sort of staying focused on, you know, the signal through the noise is something that despite what it seems like in the news, when you actually work with public servants they’re very good at that. Like, don’t get distracted by whatever the drama of the day or the politics of the day is.
Cohen: Yeah. No, I think you’re right about that. That’s a good place, I think, for us to end on. Where can folks learn more about you and Numina?
Pham: I guess, our website, Numina.co. It’s N-U-M-I-N-A dot co. It’s Latin for the spirits of a place, the deities that protect a place. So if you forget our name, you can try to look it up somehow that way. And also on our Twitter; we’re just @Numina. That’s our handle on Twitter. And my name is Tara Pham; that’s also my Twitter, and I tend to tweet a lot about the company as well.
Cohen: Well, Tara, thank you so much for giving us this introduction both to Numina as well as how you are looking at the challenges our cities face and how to solve them and what some of the opportunities that there are to do that. I appreciate that introduction and wish you the best of luck. Thank you.
Pham: Thanks so much, Josh. Thanks, L’erin.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.