When it comes to urban mobility, ambitious projects like bike lanes, bridges and busways tend to get most of the attention. As a result, perhaps the most important and fundamental piece of public transport is often overlooked.
“Everybody at some point is a pedestrian,” says local entrepreneur Eric Sinagra.
As co-founder and CEO of the mobility-focused startup pathVu, Sinagra is part of a growing field of researchers and advocates pushing for improvements to our nation’s walkways.
“There’s starting to be this shift in how sidewalks are looked at,” he says. “Initiatives like Complete Streets, Vision Zero, walkability and pedestrians plans and things like that are starting to become more prevalent.”
Here’s the key: Any practical effort to improve pedestrian access will require a wealth of dependable and current data on the conditions of local sidewalks. For the vast majority of communities, that data simply doesn’t exist.
That’s where pathVu comes in.
pathVu’s flagship product is the pathMet (Pathway Measurement Tool), which Sinagra originally designed and tested while pursuing his master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. It’s a stroller-like device that uses mounted laser sensors to gather highly detailed data about sidewalk conditions as it rolls throughout the urban environment (see above photo).
With this data in hand, a city’s government can then identify areas of greatest need and spend their resources accordingly.
As the company celebrates its fifth anniversary, Sinagra chatted with NEXTpittsburgh about the past, present and future of his socially-conscious startup.
Sinagra’s interest in the field came well before graduate school. Growing up in Pittsburgh, he watched his brother Nick, who uses a wheelchair, navigate streets that fell well short of being accessible. Today, Nick Sinagra serves as pathVu’s director of technology.
“The company’s real focus and mission is to enable independent mobility for all pedestrians of any ability,” explains Eric.
After graduating from Pitt in 2014, Sinagra and his fellow pathVu co-founders Jon Pearlman, Jon Duvall and Tianyang Chen were able to quickly establish their company thanks to support from the university’s Big Idea competition and AlphaLab Gear‘s startup accelerator program.
Since then, the company has embarked on a number of public mapping projects. In 2017, the team worked with the government of Louisville, Kentucky, to map nearly 1,900 miles of sidewalks.
That same year, they received a federal contract to develop a pedestrian navigation app specially made for people with disabilities from The National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research.
Looking ahead to the next five years, Sinagra says he hopes to see pathVu working in major metropolitan areas across the country and even the world. He envisions a landscape where specialized directions for pedestrians with disabilities are a standard feature on navigation tools like Google Maps.
While Sinagra is eager to collaborate with Pittsburgh’s government on a sidewalk mapping project, current laws make such a project difficult. Unlike Louisville, where the local government is formally responsible for the upkeep of the city’s streets, in Pittsburgh that duty mainly falls to private property owners.
In the meantime, Sinagra says he’s pleased to develop the tech and gradually grow out his team in Pittsburgh. Speaking by phone with NEXT, he noted that the company would have three full-time employees as of September.
“We’re a small company,” says Sinagra. “But we make a lot happen.”