Should new data mean a new approach to transport modelling?

Alan Brett | 21 Jan 2016 | Comments

In my experience transport modelling techniques have changed little over the last 30 years. Whilst advances in computing have enabled us to run increasingly large and complex models, the underlying processes have changed little from the models I was building in the 1980s.  A key factor in this lack of change has been the continuing use of interview based data to identify why, where, when and how people are travelling. 

New technology is now presenting us with exciting new data sources, in particular satnavs and mobile phones, which have totally different, in some ways opposite, characteristics from traditional data. For example, mobile phone data explains where and when a large proportion (typically 40%) of the population are travelling on a 24/7/365 basis, but not why or how.  Conversely, interview data only represents a tiny proportion of the population for a ‘snapshot’ in time, but does explain why and how they are travelling.

Understandably, and correctly given current guidance and best practice, the focus at present for use of mobile phone data is a series of complex and assumption based processes in order to manipulate the data into the traditional form used in transport models.  
New technology isn’t just affecting the data available to us, it is providing a range of new technological solutions to transport needs that have the potential to transform the use and provision of transport systems.  

Looking to the future I think this raises some challenging questions:

  • Are we making best of use new data sources by adapting these to suit traditional transport modelling techniques?  
  • Should we recognise that new data sources and new technological solutions may be incompatible with traditional modelling?  
  • Do the needs of new transport solutions and the advent of new data provide the catalyst for us to develop entirely new methods of transport modelling?

An analogy would be the introduction of concrete in bridge construction, where early works such as Glenfinnan Viaduct (of Harry Potter fame!) were built using concrete in the same way as masonry would have been used.  Subsequently, techniques to take advantage of the characteristics of concrete led to new approaches in civil engineering design and construction. 

I believe that the move towards active technological solutions for transport (intelligent mobility), together with the advent of new data sources such as mobile phone data, challenges the continuing use of traditional modelling approaches.  So let’s have a ‘Glenfinnan’ moment with a radical rethink as to what we will really need from our transport models in the future and how we can make best of new data sources to fill this need.