Big Data Can Make the Most of Transportation Infrastructure

Before building more roads, bridges, and highways, policymakers need to evaluate how current transportation options can be used more effectively, speakers said at a AAAS event.
Technological fixes that monitor traffic in real time may help unclog the roads, researchers say. | Flickr/pchweat

While job creation and retirements will produce about 685,000 job openings in the state of Virginia over the next five years, transportation challenges will affect individuals' desire to move to the state to fill those jobs, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said at a AAAS event.

"As many jobs as we have, if you're stuck in traffic for two hours a day, it affects your ability to do business," McAuliffe said. "It also affects your quality of life. When it affects quality of life, it affects people's ability to want to move here."

Gov. Terry McAuliffe | Carla Schaffer/AAAS
Brookings Institution Senior Research Associate Adie Tomer and Linda Bailey | Carla Schaffer/AAAS

McAuliffe gave the keynote address at the Eco-Engineering Forum 2014 on harnessing the potential of technology and big data to solve social problems. At the forum, which was the sixth in a series of annual forums sponsored by Hitachi and featuring panels organized by AAAS and the Brookings Institution, McAuliffe announced the launch of VirginiaRoads.org, a one-stop source for information about real-time traffic information as well as planned and current road construction projects.

"You can go there and it will tell you exactly how long it is going to take," McAuliffe said. "We'll give you alternative routes. We're going to use data to take our Virginia transportation system really into the next level which no other state has done yet."

At a panel on big data and transportation during the forum, speakers focused on the importance of using big data — large and complex data sets coming from a variety of sources at a high velocity — to make the most of existing transportation infrastructure before building new roads, bridges, and highways.

"There are two ways to move vehicles," said Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. "One is by expanding the amount of time you give them through the signals and the other is by expanding the amount of space. And, in a successful city center, space is at a premium and you don't want to be bulldozing stores to put in another lane of traffic."

With roughly 238 million cars, trucks, trains, and buses on the road in the United States, with an average of 4.5 seats per vehicle, there are more than a billion seats of capacity, said Joseph Kopser, founder and chief executive officer of the mobile app RideScout. However, Americans are in transit on average for about two hours daily, meaning that roughly 98.6% of those seats are empty at any given time. "We think that there's enough infrastructure, we're just not using it well," Kopser said. "So we have to do better with existing infrastructure."

RideScout strives to make it easier for commuters to fill those empty seats and take advantage of current transportation options by allowing them to see all of their options in one place when they plan a route, including bike share, car share, ride for hire, commuter rail, local buses and subways, and pedicabs. RideScout also shares anonymized data the company collects from its users with local transportation officials, which is especially beneficial for cash-strapped city governments.

Umeshwar Dayal and Joseph Kopser | Carla Schaffer/AAAS
Rob Atkinson | Carla Schaffer/AAAS

Apps like RideScout require users to have smart phones, but cars themselves need to become data collection platforms to increase the amount and quality of transportation data, said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "We need to be able to build this system so that the car can interact with the stop light and we can build predictive systems," Atkinson said. "It's just going to be a lot easier if we have one standard and the platform is the car."

Cities could use data regarding a vehicle's location and speed to increase transportation efficiency by manipulating traffic signals in real time but most traffic signals are hardwired, making them expensive to update. "New York City has been going through a modernization process for the signals for at least 15 years, trying to make it automated so they can be dynamically changed from a central point versus going out and changing them mechanically," Bailey said. "So there's still a lot of modernization that needs to happen with nuts and bolts on the ground, unfortunately, in a lot of cities."

Enabling cars to transmit data in real time may concern privacy advocates but there is technology available to anonymize data, said Umeshwar Dayal, vice president and senior fellow at the Big Data Laboratory for Hitachi America Ltd. R&D. "Some medical data is being anonymized and they're using it to do all kinds of things like personalized medicine and so on," Dayal said. "There's no reason why traffic data or sensory data coming from cars and such cannot be anonymized as well. So the technology is there and I think it's a matter of policy and perception."

When data is de-identified appropriately, the odds of re-identifying an individual data point become infinitesimal, Atkinson said. "I think the issue is really perceptual," he said. "It's all about making sure that the people who are engaged in this field commit to really good practices and that we all tell the story that we can do this without any diminution of individual privacy."