A large role of a transportation planner is to understand and explain how people move around today and forecast how they will move around in the future. And, equally as important, attempt to understand why people make the transportation choices they make. Transportation planners need to consider important questions. Things like - Why do so many people travel from 8 to 9 AM and 5 to 6 PM? Of the people that cross a bridge, where do their trips begin and end? What are the home locations of people that work in the central business district? How many days per week do workers go to a specific office building? Can the people on this roadway afford a toll if the Department of Transportation (DOT) wants to add a toll for new revenue?.
The list of questions from a transportation planner can be nearly endless, and consideration of these types of questions helps them effectively conduct their critical job. You may wonder, How can anybody possibly gain this level of insight on how populations move around at a regional level, let alone a statewide level?.
Welcome to the world of mobile location data. Mobile location data has been informing transportation planners’ decisions for about 20-years, but it is more recently becoming the talk of the industry. This is especially true given that the types of data and their impacts have evolved over time, as well as location data becoming more accurate with newer technologies.
Wait, What Do Transportation Planners Even Do?
You may have seen transportation planners on the side of a road or at an intersection conducting traffic counts - typically during the morning and afternoon peak travel periods. Or perhaps you’ve seen someone counting parked vehicles in parking lots…or vehicles in a queue at a school drop-off/pick-up lane. These are common field activities among this group of practitioners. But, there is much more to this discipline. Transportation planners need to collect various data points and make observations, and then synthesize them to make sense of what all of the information means. They cannot look at an intersection in isolation, since transportation networks are a remarkable combination of nodes (intersections) and segments (roadway/railway/sidewalk/trail/etc. links). If transportation planners looked at an isolated snapshot or intersection, the outcome could be disastrous - more intersections would back-up and spill over into adjacent intersections, streams of vehicles would traverse through a corridor and stop at a RED traffic signal and each intersection. These operations are neither efficient nor desirable.
Transportation planners work on critical projects like expansions and modifications to infrastructure (roadways, bridges, traffic signals, and public transportation networks). They also evaluate impacts from land-use and development changes (construction of new buildings, complexes, and neighborhoods) and population growth in the future. Their efforts routinely include evaluating the viability and appropriateness of both public and private sector projects and investments. As such, data becomes key for this industry. This is because data routinely forms the base for their assumptions and estimates.
Transportation planners often evaluate the adequacy of existing and proposed transportation networks for current and future populations - residents, workers, and visitors - within a region. Their role includes comparing transportation demand with transportation capacity under various scenarios. Thus, it is necessary for these planners to understand things like the origins and destinations (O-D) of trips, measures of effectiveness throughout multimodal transportation networks, and even the thoughts that trip-makers consider when determining their preferred routes, modes, and destinations.
Some transportation planners work with travel demand models and forecast future traffic volumes. Others work on corridor and sector plans, and try to determine how localized transportation networks would be impacted. And some transportation planners work on freight plans, attempting to have commodities and goods move more efficiently throughout a supply chain.
As you can see, mobile location data has various applications and is ideally suited to provide insight to the many types of transportation planners in the industry. So, what is mobile location data and how does it help transportation planners do their job? Let’s find out.
What is Mobile Location Data?
Mobile location data is information about where a user's phone or other device (i.e., a Connected Vehicle, CV) is physically located at a specific point in time. Connected vehicles can provide location data including location (latitude/longitude coordinates), vehicle speeds, direction/heading, and roadway segment traveled. Fleet vehicles may also have similar location based details collected through aftermarket equipment (i.e., equipment not installed by the automobile manufacturer).
With mobile location data, transportation planners can leverage a significantly larger sample size when compared to more traditional methods. Despite the benefit of the large sample size of mobile location data, this dataset typically lacks self-reported responses - mainly because it is passively collected data.
How is Mobile Location Data Collected?
Mobile location data is a big data source and measures users’ behaviors at a large scale. Consider that this big data source can garner information on more users than sensors, surveys, and reports could cover. It can provide both current as well as historical data.
It can even associate the same user between multiple locations. Wireless carriers, networks, and services can collect this type of location data. For example, base stations on a mobile phone network collect data that can be used to track the location of a mobile phone. Similarly, on smartphones, users’ apps are able to collect location data when users opt-in and enable location services on their device. And in CVs, location data can be collected as the vehicles are operated along roadways nationwide.
How is Mobile Location Data Leveraged in Transportation Planning?
Transportation planning is a wide and deep field. Some planners might focus their career on only one element within the industry, while others might work in various disciplines during their career. As a result, there are numerous paths a transportation planner can take - all of which have varying uses of mobile location data. For instance, some transportation planners work on forecasting traffic volumes - for travel demand models, transit or corridor plans, or land-use and development impacts for traffic impact studies. Knowing the origin and destination of trips, or the waypoints of a vehicle’s journey, can tremendously assist the transportation planner evaluating conditions for the project. Moreover, knowing how frequently specific trips are made, and at what time of day, can also help this industry.
Travel Demand Modeling and Corridor Planning
Mobile location data can be used to improve travel demand models (traditional/4-step, activity based, etc.). Travel demand models assist organizations in understanding regional travel trends and planning infrastructure investments. They consider the origins, destinations, trip purposes, and times of day of regional travel demand. For example, aggregated data obtained from mobile location datasets can be utilized to construct origin-destination (O-D) flows along specific corridors, providing granular metrics on average speeds, vehicle volume estimates, travel times, and regional trip flows on roadway segments. These measurements can subsequently be used to compare various transportation demand management (TDM) strategies, as well as provide insights into the performance of current and future potential transportation networks. Transportation planners can then answer questions like- How much will a bypass help the region? How will a new toll change travel patterns? If fuel exceeds $5.00 per gallon, how would travel patterns change?.
As more location data from mobile devices becomes available, it is very important for transportation agencies to be able to use this information to better understand how transportation networks work today and will work in the future. Applying location data from mobile smartphones and CVs allows transportation planners to better understand traffic flows, how the transportation network is used, and how people traverse within and through a region. This data informs traffic forecasts and simulations, travel demand models, and even emergency and disaster management on a daily basis. As more mobile location data becomes available, and as it can be obtained in more granular forms, then transportation planners will be able to draw conclusions with a higher level of confidence, and decision makers will be able to make better informed decisions on what transportation projects should advance in the future. This is where everybody wins - if transportation networks work as efficiently as possible.
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