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Mapping New Ways to Improve Urban Mobility

Private geographic information companies, rich with useful data, have transportation solutions that governments need to start using.

Geographic information systems are crucial to the way governments plan and operate cities. From identifying flood zones to mapping prime farmland, GIS lets officials respond to the changing land environment in real time. So far, it has been used most creatively by corporations to cut costs and improve services. In a two-part series, we describe what governments can learn from private-sector advancements in GIS, focusing on two pillars of land use planning: housing and transportation. This first article deals with transportation.

The United States Geological Survey defines GIS as “a computer system that analyzes and displays geographically referenced information. It uses data that is attached to a unique location.” This can create maps, databases, and the deployment of data gathered through remote sensing. Companies providing these services include Esri and Caliper. Open source options, such as QGIS, also exist, with similar levels of functionality.

In transit planning, GIS has been used for density mapping; crowdsourcing information about fare machine location preferences; tracking commuting patterns; and modernizing highway maintenance.

Geospatial World reports that by using “GIS-enabled devices, field crews collect accurate information from the field and seamlessly update corporate databases located in the office in real time. … Roadmaps from the GIS database can be extrapolated to automatically create geometrically correct and topologically consistent 3D models of large-scale road networks to be readily used in a real-time traffic simulation.”

Transit agencies can use GIS to plan new routes or improve existing ones, which is particularly useful at a time when bus networks are adopting a “flex-route” model. Planners can pick which travel factors to give more or less weight to, generating movement paths from there. Phoenix’s Valley Metro has published a presentation showing how GIS can be used to highlight areas with high or low population density.

Exact cost estimates for adopting GIS to public transportation are difficult to generate, but in general its adoption has led to savings. According to research by New York state officials, GIS allowed for drastic reductions in overtime hours (eliminating them altogether, in one case). In Loudoun County, Va., adopting GIS to conduct environmental analysis produced substantial efficiencies thanks to the ability to automate mapping. This could carry over to transportation by reducing the need for field work or manual mapping from staff.

Just as conventional transit providers use GIS, so does the private transportation sector, and the data it collects can help larger-scale government systems. Uber relies on GIS software for its route tracking. According to the University of Southern California, the company uses GIS to send rider data to prospective drivers and to track the location of most common rides and destinations. The company has an offshoot called Movement that accumulates data collected by Uber drivers into a web platform displaying congestion, trip time, and trip frequency. Movement covers several large cities worldwide, and its underlying software has been made available to the general public.

Looking into the future, GIS can play a pivotal role in enabling autonomous vehicles. The sensors that AVs deploy in order to avoid obstacles comes from lidar laser-based data, which is used to create digital imagery. Advancements in GIS will likely prove necessary to make autonomous driving, both for private vehicles and buses, more viable by helping them better detect obstructions.

Urban planners ought to keep a close eye on how GIS is used in the private ride-share, mapping, and autonomous vehicle sectors. Combining this already prominent tool with data from private transit providers can offer a more dynamic look at where and how people travel. By assessing congestion, GIS can inform decisions about investments in infrastructure such as rail or bus rapid transit — or transportation demand management strategies.

This series is being co-authored by Market Urbanism Report content staffer Ethan Finlan.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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