Effective Urban Transportation Planning in Smart Environments


To review currently available “ubiquitous computing” technologies—especially the evolving capacities of smartphones—and to analyze, in a specific transportation context, how these capacities can improve transportation planning from a sustainability point of view. 


Mark Weiser, considered the founder of “ubiquitous computing,” wrote in 1999 of “a physical world richly and invisibly interwoven with sensors, actuators, displays, and computational elements, embedded seamlessly in the everyday objects of our lives and connected through a continuous network.”[1] This world is now taking shape, marked by smart buildings, networked sensors, and mobile terminals. At the center, arguably, are smartphones (and smartpads, etc.) loaded with well-designed apps that give us the ability to shop remotely for virtually anything; to venture into unfamiliar terrain equipped with endlessly informative electronic tour guides; and to make the fast, informed, last-minute decisions that have been termed “micro-coordination.” Yet urban transportation planning does not seem to be adequately responding to the opportunities of this emerging smart environment. Traditional transportation planning—mandated by federal legislation—focuses on population and economic growth projections, patterns of land-use planning, and large-scale investments in physical infrastructure. Its outputs are long-range and short-range plans and capital projects. The planning process has evolved since the mid-1970s, but it still focuses on supply, still makes vast assumptions about travel patterns, and still is engulfed in bureaucratic control. And yet, in 2013, the tenor of daily life has drastically changed, thanks to the ubiquity of real-time information. To what extent does the traditional planning mentality tend to overlook promising strategies that are “hidden in plain sight” within evolving smart environments?  This project will explore this general question in one or more specific urban planning contexts. In doing so, the team will investigate ways in which emerging smart environments can offer energy-efficient and relatively low-cost alternatives to traditional transportation planning options.

Suggested Approaches

(i)  Stage 1: Conduct a wide-ranging literature review to develop a familiarity with ubiquitous computing technologies, e.g., computer architecture, sensor networks, etc. Become familiar with some of the conceptual frameworks, e.g., Gaber’s Spontaneous Service Emergence Paradigm. The goal is to develop a generalist’s awareness of the current technological and conceptual toolkit for urban planning in a ubiquitous computing environment.

(ii)  Stage 2:  Attempt to develop a more detailed, evidenced-based understanding of the impact of the smartphone (and smartpad, etc.). E.g., devise one or more surveys that aim for a better understanding of the ways in which individual decision-making in daily life—guided by the use and sharing of real-time information—is impacting our personal energy usage patterns.

(iii) Stage 3:  Select one or more transportation-related “case study” contexts of special interest to the team, e.g., intelligent vehicle systems for optimizing use of existing highways; improving the efficiency of  intermodal freight movement; reducing waiting or stopping times on mass transit systems. In analyzing a particular context, a central concern will be the ways that the users or potential users of transportation infrastructure can now rely on smartphones to make informed decisions among competing modes and activities.  A goal will be to analyze, within the particular case study context, the implications this real-time information capacity has for transportation planning, and in particular how it can improve planning from a sustainability point of view.

[1] Weiser, M., Gold, R., and Brown, J. 1997. The origins of ubiquitous computing research at PARC in the late 1980s. IBM Systems Journal,Vol. 38, No. 4, 1999, p. 694.