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Traffic Magic

Toronto’s Baher Abdulhai leads the way in helping cities clear up traffic congestion


When your career is devoted to developing better methods of keeping highways from melting into endless traffic jams, every congestion-trapped person you encounter feels free to offer what he believes is sage advice. This was the case with Yaseen Abdulhai, the 11-year-old son of traffic engineering professor Baher Abdulhai, who, when stuck in traffic one day, turned to his father and innocently opined: “If the first man in the line picks up speed everyone will be able to pick up and go faster and that will make everything better.”

His father’s response started with a long sigh.

“I told him that to reply fully to that question I would need to give him a year’s undergraduate course,” says the 43-year-old Dr. Abdulhai, whose fascination with traffic since his youth in Cairo has led reporters to dub him a “Roads Scholar.”

The core problem, explains the energetic professor, is that when it comes to traffic, everything affects everything else. Some of the myriad factors that come into play include “where people choose to live, where they develop land, the weather, [and whether] you decide you have to shop at 5 p.m. or go to the dentist in Markham.”

All of these actions take place in cars and trucks on roads and bridges, and at the end of the day they manifest themselves as fast or slow traffic, or something in between. The field that tries to understand and simulate this knotted interplay of highway repercussions is known as Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS. Thanks to Dr. Abdulhai’s expertise, the University of Toronto is now a world centre of excellence in the area.

ITS is based on the concept that issues related to traffic flow are fundamentally complex; in the past, traffic engineers were unable to come up with field experiments to effectively preview the perturbations caused by changes of various sorts. So, starting in the 1980s various institutions – including University of California at Irvine where Dr. Abdulhai did his PhD – began to explore ways of creating computerized systems that used real-time data recordings of highway traffic flows and applied micro-simulations to test how other elements (such as rainy weather) affected these flows. Researchers could then ask basic questions of their reality-based simulations: What would happen at the level of individual vehicles if we altered the timing of traffic lights here? Narrowed roads there? Had a whole population using a GPS to get up-to-the-minute travel information?

After joining U of T in 1998, Dr. Abdulhai worked to build a system similar to UC Irvine’s, but based on Toronto-area traffic data. His new system was anything but a copy, according to Will Recker, a professor of civil engineering at UC Irvine. “He took all the lessons that worked here, and the ones that didn’t, and built a better mousetrap,” says Dr. Recker. (Text continues below)

This centre allows researchers to combine data and computer simulations to improve controversial proposals to change the roadways. Recently, the centre was asked to help decide the hotly debated location of a dedicated streetcar line on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. Police and fire officials worried that a streetcar line would seriously slow their movements. Residents in the area feared that the dedicated route would mean more congestion spilling onto side streets.The ITS Centre and Testbed at U of T (of which Dr. Abdulhai is both founder and director) continually receives live traffic data and video from cameras and other sensors located on major highways stretching from Markham, northeast of Toronto, almost to Hamilton, more than 70 km to the west. The laboratory, with 20 large-sized screens and up to four professors and 45 students bustling about, resembles nothing so much as a NASA mission control centre during a shuttle flight.

U of T researchers, working with a consulting firm, found that a streetcar-only line would speed up streetcar traffic time by 20 percent (not a surprise to the researchers). They tweaked the design again and again, moving stop signs and sidewalks, until the system actually moved car traffic three percent faster than before.

“It is a classic example of how to use a virtual model to avoid mistakes in the field,” says Dr. Abdulhai with some pride. (See the box below for other examples of how ITS has improved traffic flow.)

The ITS Centre also creates new technologies to allow traffic to move in a less congested fashion. A technology under development nicknamed RoboTrafficLight would change signal frequencies on traffic lights as a result of what the light has learned about traffic flows.

“The longer you leave it in the field, the smarter it gets,” explains Dr. Abdulhai. RoboTrafficLight gets its traffic smarts from computer algorithms that were first developed to track other extremely complicated things, for example, how neural networks in the brain identify faces, or the complex relationship of genes to evolution. Dr. Abdulhai hopes to have a working prototype within two years.

That project seems almost banal when compared with the project undertaken by PhD student Hossam Abdelgawad. The graduate student wants to create a plan that will quickly and efficiently evacuate people in Toronto in an emergency, taking into consideration all the personal and transportation possibilities that exist in an evacuation. For example, when people are directed to the shortest physical route out of the city, those roadways quickly become so filled up they turn into gridlock incarnate. How will the emergency plan account for these idiosyncrasies?

Seamless evacuation

To demonstrate what could happen, Mr. Abdelgawad runs a computer simulation for an evacuation from one part of the city. Within seconds, bright dots representing individual cars clot into a vehicle torrent as people flee the danger zone. Then, suddenly, what’s called “network breathing” occurs: the rush dissipates once everyone has been evacuated.

Mr. Abdelgawad’s simulations have shown that simple actions – such as turning both directions of a highway into outbound carriers or informing evacuees when to hit the road, where to go and how to get there – can create big increases in efficiency, up to a 60-percent drop in total travel times and 70-percent reduction in travel distance to get to a safe area.

For Professor Abdulhai, the next stage in the vision of ITS is a web-based “science gateway” called ONE-ITS, where everyone around the world working in the ITS field can post their data and applications, with the aim of creating even better applications and solutions. In this he’s working with Mohamed El-Darieby of the University of Regina and researchers at 14 universities in Canada, the U.S. and Egypt.

“It’s a technological mash-up,” says Dr. Abdulhai. “IBM can take the work and build on it. Joe Blow in his basement can take the work and build on it. We want this to become the Facebook of the ITS community.” (Text continues below)

Hoda Talaat, a former U of T graduate student, says the collaboration provides a vital link in unsnarling Cairo’s legendary congestion. Now a Nile University professor, she says that funding constraints in Egypt limit the possibilities of applications-oriented research. “An open platform like ONE-ITS gives us the chance to focus on advancing others’ applications rather than inventing everything again all by ourselves.”

Alongside all these projects in the traffic systems puzzle, there’s another big thing on the ITS horizon: a time in the future when every driver will get individualized fastest-route instructions on a BlackBerry, cell phone or GPS. These instructions will be continually modified based on what other drivers are doing. Dr. Abdulhai’s lab is about to start working on the challenge with Intellione, a company that uses information about cell-phone location and translates it into statistical measures of what Toronto-area traffic is doing.

Willem Galle, Intellione’s chief operating officer, says that what the company wants from the ITS Centre is something that only a university can provide: a path to a future the company can’t yet see.

“What I don’t have are the additional visions, insights, ideas Abduhlhai and his group might bring,” explains Mr. Galle. “What I don’t know are the great things that they can do with information services we can provide.”

What lures Dr. Abdulhai, in return, is the meat and potatoes of ITS research: “Accurate data – from which you can make accurate simulations.”

Calming the roads
What does an ITS system do to make your roads less congested, less dangerous, and generally less of a pain? Here are some examples:

  • A smart animal-warning system put in place in Switzerland first identified deer and other large animals approaching a highway and then activated a signal that warned drivers of their approach. Result? Incidents of vehicles crashing

into big animals declined by more than 80 percent.

  • Advanced traffic systems make roads significantly safer. In Amsterdam when an advanced traffic system that included detection, lane control, variable message signs, and variable speed limits was put in place, the “overall accident rate”
went down by 23 percent, the “serious accident rate” by 35 percent, and the “secondary accident rate” by 46 percent.

  • In Los Angeles, a system that automatically adjusted traffic-signal timing at 375 intersections improved travel time by 13 percent, decreased stops by 31 percent, and reduced delay by 21 percent.
Stephen Strauss
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  1. Leona Fields / January 4, 2010 at 11:15

    I admire the work being done at the U of T by this professor and his ITS Centre.

    I wonder then, if a world renowned expert in this field is right here in Toronto, why do we still have the WORST traffic congestionin the world!?

  2. jim / January 30, 2010 at 18:42

    the reason we in toronto have not utilized the great knowledge of this professor is that the city has different priorites…bike lanes, planting trees etc…anything that improves commerce is related to the movement of cars, trucks..of which the city councillors.many of whom have never been ‘in business’..but ask them to plant a tree…they are gungho on it..

    sorry for the rant but the city of toronto needs an overhauling so it can be run properly and efficiently..and traffic management is one thing that can be effectively implemented with immediate benefits..