New tools outline transportation planning impacts, look to boost resident engagement

This article was originally published by Mobility Lab.

In transportation planning, there is often a disconnect between planners and the public that can limit a new project’s effectiveness. By creating innovative and interactive presentations of data, planners can better inform and engage stakeholders of what transportation projects will bring to a community.

At the October installment of the Mobility Lab-sponsored Transportation Techies meetup, developers and planners presented different tools that can engage more citizens in transportation and urban planning, bridging the gap between planners and the public in order to improve mutual understandings of projects’ impacts.

Envisioning transit impacts

Multiple presenters developed tools to simulate the effects of urban mobility by allowing users to explore the effects of altering the transportation landscape in certain cities. By making these tools public, citizens can learn about some of the process that affects the decision-making process.

Jason Wright created Brand New Subway, which “encourages exploration through mapping.” Players can modify the New York Subway system from various historical iterations, or build a new one from scratch. The game uses census and employment data to project how adding or removing stations would affect fare costs and ridership on the overall system.

In order to encourage an efficient system, Brand New Subway provides a letter grade – the 2016 map, for example, starts off at a solid B – which forces the player to plan for maximum ridership and minimum cost.


Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Michael Eichler then presented the Metro Office of Planning’s Station Walk Area Ridership Model. The model has helped WMATA better understand how land use around Metro stations impacts ridership. In an example, Eichler compared the Bethesda stop’s dense, mixed-use environment to the Suitland station, where an adjacent federal office park blocks potential riders from walking to other destinations. Through this lens, it makes sense that Bethesda is significantly busier than Suitland.

Examining the built environment around any station reveals the stop’s “walkshed,” the area where people can walk to within 10 minutes. A limited walkshed indicates lacking access to homes, jobs, and services, and provides important context for transit-oriented development decisions. These can inform where to place new facilities or other infrastructure to maximize connections to other services for passengers.

Conveyal’s Matt Conway presented the company’s Scenario Editor, which projects how transportation projects would improve mobility within communities. The tool measures the number of jobs, homes, or other variables within x minutes of any location on various transportation modes. Using Montgomery County’s Purple Line project as an example, Conway illustrated Silver Spring residents’ accessibility to other parts of the county before and after the light-rail line’s construction. The tool makes it easier for planners to understand and communicate just how much farther residents can get in less time by having more transportation options at their disposal.

Peter Viechnicki of Deloitte used similar concepts with the Smart Mobility Project to evaluate the benefits of getting commuters to use transportation modes other than driving alone throughout the United States. Deloitte created an interactive savings table that explored the benefits of convincing commuters to carpool, carshare, or bike. In the D.C. region, if everybody who could switch from driving to bike commuting did so, it would reduce annual vehicle miles traveled by 271 million and save commuters almost $600 million.

Filling the gaps

Engaging the public in the planning process is a key factor in planning any kind of transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, even with the interactive features of the earlier presentations, outreach to relevant stakeholders can still be a challenge.

To address this issue, Drew Morrison developed Metropolitan Area Planning Integration Technology, or “MapIt,” which won the 2016 Hays Outside the Box Competition. MapIt is designed to lower the barrier for public participation by identifying those who would be most affected by a transportation project, and by helping planners to properly communicate these ideas to the community.

A visualization of what TapIt would look like in action.

According to Morrison, few people who would be affected by transportation projects participate in the public input process, with planning meetings seeing the same attendees over and over. As a result, MapIt helps agencies seek out stakeholders with interests in certain projects. Morrison uses geofencing through existing transportation apps to identify people who appear to live near or use parts of a system that would be affected by a new project.

MapIt could then push information about the project to the person and request feedback based on an augmented-reality presentation of the proposed changes. Just like Pokemon GO can show players pocket monsters roaming the streets, MapIt would illustrate the proposed changes through respondents’ phones, and offer them a direct way to comment on parts of a project.

Stephanie Dock presented the District Department of Transportation’s upcoming mobility web tool, which is expected to be released this fall and will explore the state of multimodal congestion in the District. From this, DDOT can more effectively engage stakeholders and prioritize the most valuable future investments and projects.

Dock explained that overlapping data sets, such as transit walk sheds, walkability indices, and bike system coverage, provide a comprehensive sense of multimodal options, illustrate D.C.’s largest gaps and problem spots, and help DDOT better understand multimodal congestion from a mobility and reliability perspective.

Uli Strötz explained how he and startup Door2Door use data to fix public transit in Berlin. By tracking user information from the Ally Mobility app, which helps residents navigate their transportation system, the service analyzes how people move through the city, building an understanding for traffic flows and where the transportation system is most efficient. Using Berlin’s famous nightclubs as destinations, Strötz identified the areas in which it takes 15 minutes to reach the clubs by car versus by transit. There was a major discrepancy in coverage areas between the two modes, which demonstrates that, despite a generally good transportation system, some areas of the city still lack connectivity to others, particularly the all-important clubs.

The data also helped Strötz identify hotspots (see image at top) that lack transportation options, particularly in relation to the clubs. With this information, Door2Door launched the Allygator shuttle, an on-demand bus that serves areas that lack effective transportation. Allygator has become so popular since its summer launch that there are currently not enough shuttles, and Berlin’s hotspots of poor mobility have become almost as accessible with public transportation as by private car, allowing more people to navigate Berlin in a better way.

As cities continue their quests to improve mobility, citizen engagement will always play an important role in ensuring decisions are beneficial to those who most need it. By creating interactive ways to bring more people to the table, data analyses and technology-based tools can play an important role in creating more equitable transportation planning.

Photo, top: Uli Strotz presents at the October meetup (M. V. Jantzen, Flickr).


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