Roads scholar

Roads scholar

Baher Abdulhai is using every tool he can to help you reach your destination a little faster
May 20, 2009
ITS Centre
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ITS Centre
Dr. Abdulhai

You have just pulled out your new Global Positioning System (GPS), which describes in excruciating detail how to get from your house to your rented cottage — think: “turn left at Willow Street and proceed for 7.6 kilometres.” Only the device forgets to tell you that due to a jackknifed trailer truck and five kilometres of road construction, the shortest route in kilometres is also the longest in time.

“Where’s the mapping technology to show me alternative roads?” you might well grumble, and in so doing you would be muttering right into Baher Abdulhai’s ear.

For it is exactly this sort of real-time traffic flow problem that Abdulhai and his colleagues at the University of Toronto’s Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Centre and Testbed have been addressing since 1998.

The ITS team is looking for ways to use information from a variety of sources that monitor traffic flow — fixed road cameras, cellphones and GPS location indicators — to produce a personalized, GPS-downloadable mapping tool that will, in Abdulhai’s words, “give drivers the fastest route as opposed to the shortest route.”

Abdulhai, who has been labelled a “roads scholar” for the traffic congestion fascination he developed while observing the clogged streets of his native Cairo, has turned the University of Toronto into one of the world’s leading centres for ITS.

A centerpiece of his efforts is the Virtual Toronto Network, a simulation of the traffic flow in Toronto stemming, in part, from the analysis of information coming into university computers from the cameras and buried sensors that monitor traffic on the city’s main roads.

The goal, says Abdulhai, is not just to monitor what is happening on the roads, but to figure out how to ease congestion with things like “smart” traffic lights that “learn” to automatically change red/green signals to suit road conditions, controlling the entry timing onto highway ramps, and by encouraging people to download information on road conditions to their cell phones and computers.

“Research-wise, we are 95 percent of the way there,” says Abdulhai about being able to make a difference in speeding traffic flow.

However, Abdulhai, who in 2005 became a Canada Research Chair in ITS, points out that the more information a system gathers, the more complex it becomes to ensure traffic is flowing at an optimal rate. Directing a few people equipped with an intelligent GPS could ease traffic by directing drivers to faster routes. But if everyone accesses the same information, “the fastest route will quickly not be the fastest route,” says Abdulhai.

With this in mind, Abdulhai’s future research will look at offering a range of route options that take into consideration the routes others have been told to take. “People starting out at the same place and going to the same place will receive very different directions,” he says. “But they will all get there at the same time.”

This research requires a statistical analysis of traffic flow patterns and up-to-date and accurate traffic information. Both should be significantly improved when a new, $720,000 ITS network upgrade is completed in 2010. It will make traffic information gathered in Toronto and other major cities around the world available to 14 universities, including Cairo University and three in the U.S. The shared data and computer systems will be used to create a host of new applications to help resolve traffic complexities.

It is an approach that impresses others in the field. “It parallels something we are trying to do in California,” says Will Recker, a civil engineer at the University of California, Irvine. “But Baher, as in many things he has done, seems to have gotten one step ahead of us. And in so doing he has really put the U of T on the map in terms of transportation research.”