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UW EE Faculty to Tackle Urban Mobility

October 17, 2016


EE Assistant Professor Baosen Zhang is PI on the project. EE Assistant Professor Lillian Ratliff is Co-PI.

For urban roadways, traffic-choked streets have become synonymous with the weekday commute. Over the decades, strategic conversations between city officials, engineers and policy makers have sought to lessen congestion and provide increased transportation options. However, as cities continue to develop and populations increase, the results of years of conversation cannot materialize fast enough. On the thrumming streets of Seattle and Nashville, the consumer becomes a key player on urban transportation initiatives.

The project, which is a collaboration between the University of Washington, City of Seattle, Vanderbilt University and the City of Nashville, tackles urban transportation congestion by engaging the individual user through the use of smart devices. The three-year, proof-of-concept project has received a collaborative National Science Foundation (NSF) US Ignite Grant.

Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Baosen Zhang is the Principal Investigator on the project and Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Lillian Ratliff is the Co-Principal Investigator. The University of Washington leads the multimodal transit project, collaborating with Vanderbilt University and the Cities of Nashville and Seattle to test the research.

Zhang and his team seek to build an overarching solution that balances the needs of multiple parties, including commercial companies, municipal service providers and individuals. The information sharing and computing platform overcomes the incentive gap between municipalities and individuals by offering mixed-mode routing suggestions and other relevant information to travelers. For municipality officials, it relays how users are consuming different transportation resources.

“The platform serves as a virtual commons,” Ratliff said. “Individual citizens can directly communicate with service providers. It offers beneficial information to these providers, while offering users a voice.”

The project utilizes smart devices due to their proliferation in the urban commuter space. The commuters, therefore, become active agents in a shared economy.

Currently available applications for multimodal transport solutions focus on individual users and their local perspectives. This current application does not accurately represent an overall solution. Although there is large-scale data being collected by both municipalities and users, neither group has the resources to develop real-time analytics and controls.

The project will develop an architecture and framework to perform on a distributed platform and utilize multiple routes. The researchers will also develop the software to host a social platform capable of delivering relevant data and analytics. The Cities of Seattle and Nashville offer real-world use for testing and implementation.

“No one has done this type of collaborating and computing before,” Ratliff said. “It not only focuses on commuters as a whole, but it also looks at two socioeconomically diverse cities – Seattle and Nashville.”

Through an additional NSF Grant – the Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) – Zhang and Ratliff collaborate with the City of Seattle to alleviate parking challenges within the city. This project will address a host of environmental and infrastructure concerns, such as health, the environment and urban development.

“Traffic congestions are increasingly becoming bottlenecks to sustainable urban growth as infrastructures are being stretched to their limits,” Zhang said. “Up to 40 percent of all surface level traffic in urban areas stems from drivers looking for parking. This project will develop new parking management tools using algorithms for cities and apps for drivers that allow municipalities to achieve better congestion control and enable drivers to act more efficiently.”

The information gathered will provide parking and congestion models to municipalities, allowing the city to achieve better congestion control and enable drivers to act more efficiently.

“Transportation is a public good,” Ratliff said. “If this pilot is successful, this will inform how we can engage the citizens more, not just with traffic congestion, but with other transportation and urban initiatives.”

These projects are part of the Smart and Connected Communities Initiative of the UW Electrical Engineering Department. The University of Washington is part of the MetroLab Network initiative of the White House.