Every day on the streets of New York City, 8 million people (and counting) are making moves–enjoying and enduring all the aspects of big city living. Manhattan’s famed gridded streets are the framework through which an almost unthinkably massive number of people conduct their work and their personal business. In a city that consistently reaches unfathomable heights, there’s a below-the-surface infrastructure that makes such movement and growth possible.
Keeping everything moving along is an intricate network of utilities, pipes, wires, tunnels, and overall a huge amount of invisible real estate, entirely underground. Without the plumbing, electric, transportation and other services made possible by the underground grid, the modern city simply wouldn’t be possible. This system lives in the shadows, and we can’t live without it. However, it’s not as streamlined a system as one might imagine.
While the above-ground streets are strictly managed and organized by city planners and zoning ordinances, it might surprise some to learn that in comparison, the underground is a bit of a free-for-all. Hurricane Sandy threw into light the fact that the subterranean city is unmapped by any central authority, making coordinated efforts to improve the system extremely difficult.
Each authority and utility that works below the surface has their own set of information that can sometimes prove unreliable, as unexpected finds below ground often force construction crews to improvise in dangerous conditions, further compounding the confusion and making the job more treacherous than it needs to be. It’s to the detriment of lasting city improvement and worker safety that a detailed picture of exactly what’s beneath our feet is so hard to come by.
That might not be the case forever. Consultant Alan Leidner, working with infotech consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, has spearheaded a project to collect all that disparate data from utilities, contractors, and city government and more to create a single unified map of New York’s underground.
This project might end up being a huge money saver for NYC. According to Bloomberg, digging mistakes damage our underground infrastructure to the tune of $300 million per year in repairs and lost time. The sooner Leidner and company can plot out the tangle under the streets, crews will be able to work more efficiently and quickly–something construction-wary New Yorkers of all neighborhoods will be able to celebrate.
A firsthand dive into this underground is usually reserved for transit workers, utility repairmen, and the odd amateur spelunker (which we do not recommend, as it’s dangerous and against the law). Once Leidner’s map is complete, however, a precise guide to what’s beneath your feet will give NYC a fascinating look at what truly keeps the city functioning, and holds the potential to make the city smarter than ever.
The map is part of a larger project dealing with Geospatial Informational Systems (or GIS). GIS describes a computerized data system that can collect and interpret data about how spaces are utilized, a sort of smart GPS. The potential for this project to aid in smart city design means it’ll carry benefits around the world, not just in New York’s neighborhoods. It’s likely Leidner’s work will one day lead to faster emergency response times, better traffic flow, and maybe even better public transportation both above ground and below.
Since the 1800s, NYC residents have looked to subway maps to help them traverse the sometimes-overwhelming city streets. Thanks to high tech computer surveying combined with old fashioned data collection, tomorrow’s New Yorkers will benefit from a new map, one that they won’t have to see in order to help them get around the city more efficiently. For a system that’s hidden from view, it’s only appropriate.