Data drives decisions. That's why urban planners, policy makers, designers, and engineers are increasingly using data collection, visualization, and analysis tools to inform decisions for improving the way our cities and public spaces work—especially in a megalopolis like New York. Tactics range from tracking vehicular data to more efficiently control and coordinate traffic lights, to mapping each tree growing along city streets to help advance urban forest management. At the root of it all is data: information to help make better decisions that address some of the most pressing issues in our cities today.
At Friends of the High Line, we have embraced the importance of what data collection and analysis can tell us about our park: who visits and when, what they do during their visit, and what they like about the park. Visitation data can also help us predict future investments in infrastructure and operations management. Data can tell us the flip side, too—who doesn't visit the park, and what programs and services we could provide to attract a more diverse and representative cross-section of New Yorkers. Such information will be critical as we continue to enhance our visitor experience and expand our community outreach efforts to ensure that the High Line is a well-loved park for all people.
UNDERSTANDING HIGH LINE VISITOR PATTERNS
When the first section of the High Line opened to the public in June 2009, we estimated that approximately 300,000 people would visit in its first year. We were off by just a bit: That number turned out to be 1.3 million people. And as the High Line expanded in 2011 and 2014, those visitor numbers continued to climb. In 2015, 7.6 million people visited the park—nearly six times the number of visitors in that first year.
How do we know these numbers? We can thank Friends of the High Line's park staff, who undertake the monumental task of counting the park's daily visitors and predicting visitation based on long-term patterns. Our staff members use a highly coordinated system to track visitation numbers, which we report each week to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
Here's how our counting and predicting system works: Every weekend, park staff members count visitors at one-hour intervals in eight different zones in the park, compile those numbers, and plug them into a proprietary algorithm to estimate total visitors. On weekdays, when we have more limited staff in the park and can't count as frequently, we apply those numbers to a weekday algorithm that also estimates visitor numbers during the uncounted hours.
So what do we include in our algorithms? Our formulas take into account the average length of a High Line visit (a typical visit is 30 to 40 minutes), day of the week, time of day, the number of visitors along each section of the High Line, and even the weather.
The algorithms are checked and adjusted, as needed, four times a year—each season—when staff conduct intensive counting sessions. During these sessions, staff count every visitor at one-hour intervals every day for an entire week. After they crunch the numbers, they determine baseline figures that can be applied to visitation counts in future months.
The visitation data confirms a lot of anecdotal evidence we observe on the High Line, but having hard data helps us to properly track trends. We know that the summer months of May, June, July, and August tend to attract the highest number of visitors, and that the busiest time each day during those months is between 2:00 PM and 6:00 PM. We also know that Saturdays tend to be the most crowded days of the week, and that Tuesdays tend to be the slowest.
Having hard data to back up this information helps us properly manage the park and inform visitation forecasts. This helps us plan our budget and operations needs, including everything from trash removal to replacement plantings, and from more periodic elevator maintenance to more frequent plank cleaning. Indeed, tracking and predicting detailed visitor times and locations allows our operations staff to more efficiently and effectively schedule vital tasks that keep the park running smoothly for our visitors every day.
GOING BEYOND NUMBERS: FOCUSING ON OUR VISITORS AND FINDING A DIVERSE PARK
Raw visitation numbers give us a lot of useful information that can be applied to both day-to-day and long-term park management, but they don't paint the full picture of the visitor experience, or of who's visiting the park. Numbers alone can't help us shape our programming or determine where to invest critical operations dollars into services like overhauled or expanded restrooms.
Since opening the park in 2009, Friends of the High Line has conducted comprehensive surveys every two years to gauge visitors' backgrounds and their experiences in the park, focusing on topics including ethnicity and point of origin, activities done during their visit to the High Line, and recommendations for what else the park can offer or do better. (Some of this data is detailed in this magazine.) By asking the same or similar questions with each survey, we can compare trends to help us gauge where we focus our efforts.
For the 2015 data collection drive, more than 2,100 High Line visitors responded to our on-site survey during four separate sessions from May through October.
From that survey, we discovered that our community engagement efforts are indeed having an effect: More New Yorkers than ever visited the High Line in 2015. About 31% of our total 7.6 million visitors—or more than 2.3 million people—were from New York City, with an additional 9% of visitors coming from within 45 miles of New York City. Twenty-eight percent of our visitors in 2015 were from overseas, a 2% decline from the 2012–2013 survey.
Crucially, as we start to fully embrace what it means to become an equitable park, the diversity range of our visitors has also increased significantly since the park's early days. In 2015, 34% of High Line visitors were non-white, compared to 19% who identified as non-white in the 2009–2010 survey. Among New York City residents who visited the High Line in 2015, 44% identified as non-white, compared with 24% in 2009–2010.
Understanding those numbers—what's behind the increases and how we can build on their momentum—is essential to our long-term efforts to fulfill our mission of serving as an extraordinary park for everyone.
The survey data can also tell us where we need to improve the visitor experience on the High Line. Many 2015 respondents asked for more signage in the park, with a particular focus on plant signage. We took this recommendation to heart and, for the first time, installed a dozen plant signs as part of the September 2016 Chelsea Grasslands Celebration. We may continue to expand signage if our Grasslands Celebration-specific survey—whose results are being analyzed this fall—indicates those signs were a success.
Visitors also expressed interest in better maps and information, and we are in the process of revamping our park guide, the most widely distributed piece given out at our information carts.
NEW WAYS OF DATA COLLECTION, VISUALIZATION, AND ANALYSIS
Beyond traditional counting and visitor surveys, new technologies are providing park managers everywhere with faster, cheaper, and more plentiful data sources—and Friends of the High Line is either using them, or studying their feasibility, to help us manage our park.
One tool Friends of the High Line has begun utilizing is Cartegraph, a leading operations management system that helps us care for and maintain the park and its assets from one central system.
Our operations team uses Cartegraph to create facility maintenance schedules and implement a wide variety of recurring tasks involving plumbing, irrigation, electrical, HVAC, painting, and plank repair. We also use Cartegraph to proactively plan for upgrades and repairs to save time—and, more importantly, money. With Cartegraph, this can all happen in real time and can be updated on the fly as demands change. For example, when a maintenance technician is out on the High Line, he or she can receive immediate updates to work orders, check off a task as soon as it's completed, and report any new or unexpected issues.
Cartegraph also provides a comprehensive dashboard overview of the entire park ( see Fig. 1). From one panel, the operations team can see a complete task list, the status of each task (see Fig. 2), the exact location of each task, the average time each work order will take, and the labor costs for each task (see Fig. 3).
When a user posts a photo or comment to a social media network like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, those companies can look at GPS data attached to these posts to help them connect data to specific locations and map certain kinds of activity patterns.
Friends of the High Line is in the preliminary stages of exploring ways to use this kind of data from publicly available social media posts that would give us insights about where people are engaged with certain features of the park. For instance, if someone visits the High Line and posts a picture of a particular High Line Art commission to Facebook, we can gauge how visitors are responding to that work, as well as what else they might find interesting on the High Line.
Beacons & Sensors
Not yet used on the High Line but helpful to the managers of many other public spaces, beacons and sensors are emerging tools that can help parks understand visitation and usage patterns. Beacons are small devices—as small as an inch—that can be placed throughout a space to send push notifications to visitors' phones when they are near the beacons. On the High Line, these tools could improve our visitors' experiences in many ways. For instance, as a visitor approaches a work of art on the High Line, he or she could automatically receive information on his or her mobile phone about the piece and the artist.
Similar to beacons, sensors are becoming more sophisticated at identifying not only the different types of users of a particular space, but also how a space is used. For example, sensors can recognize whether people are standing and interacting with each other or, instead, moving through a space. This allows parks to analyze traffic flow, identify potential bottlenecks, and restructure pathways, if needed, to ensure the best possible visitor experience. When compared to manual counts and surveys, sensors provide more consistent monitoring of who is in the park, allowing park managers to achieve greater accuracy when analyzing visitor trends.
THE BOTTOM LINE: USING DATA TO KEEP THE HIGH LINE EXTRAORDINARY
The most important task Friends of the High Line has is to maintain an extraordinary public space for all. Beyond that, however, we know that if the High Line has helped people reimagine what a public space could be, Friends of the High Line is in a position to reimagine what an equitable public space could be. And as we continue to think about how our programming and offerings could better serve our neighborhood and other New Yorkers, we're evolving what we deliver to our visitors.
To do that, we need to know who our visitors are, when they visit, what they want, and how we can provide the best possible experience for them. That means working with our staff—as well as utilizing a combination of traditional and more high-tech data practices—to ensure that we're accurately capturing how people are using the park. That data informs all of our decisions and will help us manage a 21st-century urban park in a sophisticated, holistic way that will continue to evolve.
This article originally appeared last fall in the bi-annual High Line Magazine, which is a benefit of High Line membership. Members keep the High Line vibrant! Your membership today will help us hire the gardeners and custodians who keep the entire High Line beautiful, clean, and welcoming. Plus, as a member, you will bring great programs and public art to the park to engage visitors of all ages and interests.