Driverless cars, artificial intelligence and e-sharing are transforming transportation. Are our cities ready?

Originally posted on U of T News  |  May 26th, 2017 by Tyler Irving

This story is the first in a news series on artificial intelligence and machine learning, published throughout the spring and summer of 2017.

Professor Baher Abdulhai, seen here with civil engineering undergraduate students Andrew Lau and Marie-Sophie Wint, has created a new research centre dedicated to studying the impact of transformative transportation systems, from car sharing to self-driving vehicles. (Photo: Neil Ta)

From Waymo’s self-driving cars to e-sharing companies like Zipcar, technology is disrupting the traditions of travel. Proponents of these innovations promise that they will improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions — a new U of T research centre is studying how these predictions may play out in reality, and how to make the new technology work in our favour.The iCity Centre for Automated and Transformative Transportation Systems (iCity-CATTS), the newest addition to the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute (UTTRI), will examine how new transportation technologies affect our cities. Its multidisciplinary team will create models and methods to quantify their impacts on our transportation systems, our future cities, and their economic, social and environmental sustainability. This includes addressing factors such as congestion, commuting times, urban sprawl, emissions and human health.

Professor Baher Abdulhai (CivE) will lead the new centre, with several of his UTTRI colleagues. “When Henry Ford created the first mass-produced model-T automobile more than 100 years ago, the world changed,” says Abdulhai. “With revolutionary technology, we are now taking the car as we know it and putting it on steroids. We have a bold vision for a future that is automated, shared and green, but there are risks too. We want to avoid those risks and empower people and businesses to maximize their potential.”

Development of the self-driving car is being accelerated by improvements in machine learning and artificial intelligence that will improve its navigational and maneuvering capabilities, and presumably lead to a more efficient use of available road space. But Abdulhai says that may or may not be the case. “If an autonomous vehicle is programmed to be cautious and leaves more space in front of it compared to the human driver, the capacity of our roads could actually go down,” he says.

Baher Abdulhai and his team at iCity-CATTS plan to research the impacts that self-driving cars such as Google’s Waymo could have on the economic, social and environmental sustainability of our cities. (Photo: Grendelkhan, via Wikimedia Commons)

Autonomous vehicles could also contribute to urban sprawl. “The convenience of being in a car that drives itself while you’re watching a movie or working on a laptop might mean that people now choose to live further away from where they work,” says Abdulhai.

Another example: “When I go to the dentist, do I send my autonomous car back home to self-park for free or ask it to drive around for half an hour until I am done?” asks Abdulhai. “There are many such questions, but the truth is, nobody knows the answers yet.”

Data on the potential long-term impacts of related technologies, such as car sharing and ride-hailing apps, are also limited. And the unknowns multiply when these technologies are combined into multi-modal transportation networks: imagine an app that buys you a train ticket, summons an autonomous vehicle to take you to the station and, at the other end, ensures that an autonomous bicycle is rolling toward you, ready for you to hop on.

By building models and simulating various scenarios, Abdulhai and his team will study topics such as:

  • Infrastructure — Will autonomous vehicles increase road capacities or put more strain on highways, off-ramps or other roads? Will separate or hybrid lanes be desirable?
  • Freight and shipping — Could self-driving trucks, autonomous robots or drones reduce delivery time? How would this impact the economic bottom line? How would these robots interact with pedestrians on sidewalks?
  • Environment — Can car sharing services combine with ride-hailing apps reduce the number of cars on the road? If so, how much will that reduce emissions and carbon?
  • Human health — Do smart technologies provide opportunities to better integrate walking or cycling into our commutes? How will this impact our choices?
  • Policy — How do we design our future cities to ensure that technology works for us, rather than against us? What policies, based on evidence, can help us avoid the pitfall of past urban development? What policies are needed to deliver a future transportation system that is automated, shared and green?
  • Sustainability — How do we ensure that the triple bottom line, i.e. economic, environmental and social sustainability, is maintained for our cities?

iCity-CATTS brings together leading experts in all of these areas from across U of T Engineering and beyond. Working across disciplines, they will provide insights that will enable both government and industry make informed decisions and stay ahead of the coming transformation.

“Much of the current research interest focuses on the technology — less attention has been paid to the mobility, social, economic, and environmental implications,” says Abdulhai. “This is what iCity-CATTS is for. Our research will show how new technologies, including artificial intelligence and automated vehicles, will impact city-wide systems and affect our quality of life.”

Infrastructure’s impact: How public transit investments affect our environment

Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, informing policymakers as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)
Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, informing policymakers as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, equipping policymakers with data as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

 

This story originally appeared at U of T Engineering News

The benefits of building public transit include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, relieving traffic congestion and expanding a growing city. Yet each transit project is unique, and predicting its future effectiveness is difficult. Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) crunches the numbers on existing infrastructure to provide key decision-makers with a ‘reality check’ on the environmental and social impacts of today’s transit investments.

“Engineers usually aren’t involved in policymaking, and policymakers usually aren’t involved in engineering,” says Saxe. “I’m trying to bridge that gap.”

Saxe joined U of T Engineering in August 2016. Before completing her PhD at the University of Cambridge, she spent three years at a major consulting engineering firm in Toronto, working on projects such as the Eglinton Crosstown transit line and the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension.

“I love design, it’s amazing,” she says. “However, when you’re building things that people are going to use, you have to stay well within the limits of what you know for sure. I was curious about questions that we didn’t already know the answers to.”

During her PhD, Saxe conducted a detailed analysis of the London Underground’s extension of the Jubilee Line, completed in 1999. She gathered data on the greenhouse gases produced during construction and operation of the line, then used transit and land-use surveys to estimate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to people using the line and living near it. By combining the two, she could calculate the net environmental benefit of that transit project.

“It turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag,” she says. “If you make some optimistic assumptions, you could say that it broke even in terms of greenhouse gas emissions around 2012 or 2013. If you are more pessimistic, you’re looking at a greenhouse gas payback of twice as long.”

Saxe says that the Jubilee Line extension sees approximately 175 million trips per year. On projects where ridership is low, the environmental payback period can be much longer. Saxe also studied the Sheppard subway line in Toronto, and found that with a much lower ridership it initially struggled to provide greenhouse gas savings. Over time, the Sheppard Subway Line has benefited from the decreasing emissions associated with electricity in Ontario. The results of the Sheppard Subway study were recently published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment.

“If you’re at Don Mills station, and you want to go north, east, or even southeast, the network doesn’t serve you yet,” she says. “We still see people from that area driving 70 per cent of the time, so unfortunately there’s just a lot less opportunity for savings.”

Saxe says that her dream project would be to follow a major piece of infrastructure, such as a new transit line, from its conception through construction and use for 20 or 30 years — essentially throughout her career.

“I want to answer questions like: why did we originally build it, how did we originally build it, how did it perform over its lifetime, how did we maintain it and what did it need?” she says. “If we know how our present decision-making affects things decades from now, we can make better decisions.”

Two U of T Engineering researchers awarded Canada Research Chairs

In the latest round of Canada Research Chair announcments, Engineering professors Penney Gilbert (left) and Marianne Hatzopoulou (right) were named as Tier 2 chairholders. The CRC program aims to help Canada attract and retain research leaders in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.
This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.
In the latest round of Canada Research Chair announcments, Engineering professors Penney Gilbert (left) and Marianne Hatzopoulou (right) were named as Tier 2 chairholders. The CRC program aims to help Canada attract and retain research leaders in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.

In the latest round of Canada Research Chair announcments, Engineering professors Penney Gilbert (left) and Marianne Hatzopoulou (right) were named as Tier 2 chairholders. The CRC program aims to help Canada attract and retain research leaders in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Professors Penney Gilbert (IBBME) and Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) have been named Tier 2 Canada Research Chairs (CRCs) in an announcement made today by federal science minister Kirsty Duncan at the University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

The two U of T Engineering researchers are among the 25 U of T faculty members to receive CRC appointments. They join 216 current chairholders across the University of Toronto.

“I would like to extend my heartfelt  congratulations to the new and renewed Canada Research Chairs. The Government  of Canada is proud to support talented researchers whose hard work will improve  our scientific understanding and strengthen Canada’s reputation for research  excellence,” said Minister Duncan, who is herself a U of T alumna. “The Chairs’ efforts will also provide us with the evidence needed to inform decisions that help us build a vibrant society and a strong middle class.”

Professor Hatzopoulou holds the CRC in Transportation and Air Quality for her research into how emissions are generated by on-road vehicles, dispersed in urban environments and who is exposed. Through her collaborative work with epidemiologists and health scientists, Hatzopoulou is working to better understand how traffic patterns, road design and characteristics of the built environment can be modified to improve urban air quality and help vulnerable individuals reduce their exposure.

“Receiving this appointment is an opportunity to advance research in an area of growing concern for rapidly expanding world cities,” said Hatzopoulou. “It will also help provide scientific evidence for the often controversial decisions on urban transportation system expansions and their effects on the air we breathe.”

“I am very honoured by this appointment, and for the recognition of my research team’s efforts toward unlocking the secrets that permit the human body to heal itself,” said Gilbert, who was named the CRC in Endogenous Repair. She received the appointment for her research into the cues that “wake up” muscle stem cells and direct them to repair skeletal damage. Along with her team, Gilbert hopes to decipher these cues and inform the development of new drugs, therapies and treatments that restore strength to muscles that are wasting as a result of aging or disease.

“We’re extremely proud of the leadership and research excellence demonstrated by Professors Hatzopoulou and Gilbert, and I am pleased to congratulate them on this recognition,” said Professor David Sinton (MIE), interim vice-dean, research for the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “We’re also grateful for this investment in our Faculty as our researchers continue to work across disciplines to address the world’s most pressing challenges.”

The CRC program was launched in 2000 to help the country attract and retain research leaders in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences. Tier 1 Chairs last for seven years, and recognize outstanding researchers acknowledged by their peers as world leaders in their fields. Tier 2 Chairs are for exceptional emerging researchers and last for five years.

Clean air map from U of T Engineering researchers helps cyclists avoid air pollution

Civil engineering post-doctoral researcher Sabreena Anowar and Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) are studying the risks of air pollution on cyclists and their impact on route choice. (Photo: Tyler Irving)
Civil engineering post-doctoral researcher Sabreena Anowar and Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) are studying the risks of air pollution on cyclists and their impact on route choice. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Civil engineering post-doctoral researcher Sabreena Anowar and Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) are studying the risks of air pollution on cyclists and their impact on route choice. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

This story originally appeared on U of T News.

Cyclists face a difficult dilemma: on one hand, cycling is good for your health and the environment; on the other, cyclists are more exposed to risks such as accidents and air pollution. New research from U of T Engineering is helping cyclists map cleaner routes to minimize this exposure.

“In general, the benefits of cycling certainly outweigh the risks,” says Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE). “If you are a healthy person, you are better off to continue cycling than stop.” Nevertheless, when it comes to air pollution, cyclists are at a disadvantage.

“Studies have shown that the concentration of air pollutants tends to be higher inside vehicles than outside them,” says Hatzopoulou. “However, cyclists have a higher breathing rate, which means that they inhale more of these pollutants, and they go deeper into the lungs.”

Such pollutants include ultra-fine particles, as well as nitrogen oxides. Hatzopoulou cites studies associating increased exposure to these pollutants with respiratory problems and certain types of cancer. Her own research has shown that they can even have immediate, measurable effects on the cardiovascular system.

To help address this challenge, Hatzopoulou has created a tool called the Clean Ride Mapper for both Toronto and Montreal. It is essentially a Google Map with an extra layer representing the average concentration of pollutants in a given area, as measured by her team and collaborators. Using this data, algorithms can be constructed to work out not only the shortest route between two points, but also the one that exposes the cyclist to the lowest levels of air pollution.

Hatzopoulou and Anowar outfit a bicycle with equipment to detect the concentration of pollutant particles in the nearby air. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Hatzopoulou and Anowar outfit a bicycle with equipment to detect the concentration of pollutant particles in the nearby air. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Hatzopoulou intends to further refine the maps — for example, by incorporating real-time pollution concentrations instead of static data — but lately she has been pondering another question: are such tools actually useful to cyclists?

“There are a lot of factors that influence the choice of a cycling route besides pollution,” she says. “For example, there is safety, separation from traffic, elevation, distance, etc. Which ones would cyclists be willing to trade off in order to decrease their pollution exposure?”

Sabreena Anowar (CivE), a post-doctoral researcher on Hatzopoulou’s team, is working on an answer. She’s designed a survey that proposes several different cycling routes and asks cyclists to choose which one they would prefer.

“No route is perfect,” says Anowar. “They all vary in terms of traffic volume, pollution, elevation, travel time and other attributes.” By measuring which routes people would choose for either a recreational ride or a commuting ride, Anowar and Hatzopoulou hope to better understand how cyclists factor the risks of pollution into their activities. This in turn can help improve the design of tools like the interactive maps.

The survey was launched in Toronto, Montreal, Orlando, Austin, New York in collaboration with researchers in those cities. It will be open at least until June, and Anowar and Hatzopoulou are hoping to get at least 3,000 participants. In addition to their own research, Anowar says that the data could also be useful for city planners. “It will help identify how people value road infrastructure like separated lanes or signage,” says Anowar. “If we build more infrastructure like this, perhaps we can encourage people to cycle more.”

To help Hatzopoulou and Anowar in their research, complete the online survey for either a recreational ride or a commuting ride.