Engineering students collect traffic data using GPS technology
12:41 p.m., July 11, 2013--For the last month eight University of Delaware students have taken a road trip to the Delaware beaches every Friday, Saturday and Sunday but not to soak up the sun.
The UD students, who log an average of 1,200 miles per weekend, are compiling traffic data using global position system technology to quantify the severity of congestion as part of collaborative research project with the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT).
Peering into cell structures
The students travel in two UD vehicles equipped with GPS devices programmed to capture travel time from one point to another, mean travel speed and delay using longitude and latitude measurements taken while the vehicle is in motion.
They cover all roads leading to and from the Delaware beaches, starting at the Pennsylvania border and ending at the Maryland border during peak weekend travel hours from June 14 to Sept. 2.
While one student drives the others collect data both manually and using the GPS unit. As the vehicles cross each predetermined control point, the students record travel time, delay time and delay sources such as accidents, weather and unexpected occurrences.
Each fall, the students present and discuss their findings with DelDOT transportation planners charged with planning future projects, providing a snapshot of current traffic conditions as well as comparison of previous years. To provide the transportation planners with a visual representation of trouble spots, the GPS data is integrated with GIS Geographic Information Systems and graphed on roadway maps.
“We are not only pointing out the problems for short term improvements, we are also shaping the 20-30 years ahead, while learning how to participate and manage a real world project,” said Abdulkadir Ozden, a doctoral student leading this year’s summer project.
New this year, the research team is also capturing data using GPS smartphone applications. At the end of the season, they will compare the high tech GPS data collection with that collected using free GPS capable phone apps to evaluate their accuracy.
UD professor Ardeshir Faghri and a rotating cohort of students, whom he calls the “eyes and ears of area transportation planners,” have been working with DelDOT since 1995 when he helped automate the transportation system’s data collection mechanism. The project has been ongoing ever since.
“When E-ZPass was implemented, for example, DelDOT used our data aggressively to measure the difference between stop and go and automated toll booth systems on Route 1,” said Faghri, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the DTC.
The data is also very useful in optimizing the timing of traffic light signals at intersections where “timing adjustments that are only fractions of a second long can dramatically improve congestion and traffic patterns,” Faghri said. A similar study of the entire state is completed each fall, and used by both DelDOT and the Wilmington Area Planning Commission (WILMAPCO).
According to Ozden, one of the most challenging parts of the project is the early morning runs.
“Sometimes, we leave very early, between 4:30 and 5 a.m. to catch the morning rush hour traffic in Sussex County,” he said. The experience is worth it, he continued, because “I have learned to think about transportation problems from different perspectives as a transportation planner, driver and researcher, which I believe gives me a better decision making capability.”
Dejun Zhang, who is pursuing a master’s degree in applied economics and statistics in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said, “I joined the team to learn about real world data collection and to practice classification techniques that will be useful to my future role as a statistician.”
Originally from China, Zhang said the down time between the morning drive to southern Delaware and the evening return presents a unique opportunity to better her social skills and “learn about people from different cultures” as the teams walk the boardwalk, shop the Rehoboth outlets or go to the beach.
DelDOT transportation planner Mark Eastburn cited the expansion on Route 1 between Lewes and Five Points as an improvement that resulted directly from data provided by Faghri’s research team, calling the project a win-win for both parties.
“We get data that we are unable to capture in other ways and the students learn skills and knowledge that they can apply to a future job,” he said. Many students secure future internships as a result; some have even landed jobs with DelDOT, Eastburn said.
Daniel Blevins, principal planner at WILMAPCO, said that Faghri’s research data has helped drive the organization’s project selection by pinpointing key problems areas on roadway networks since the early 2000s. He cited the student’s “consistent data collection” over time and the student’s enthusiasm, both for the project and for training future participants, as a plus.
In the future, Faghri and his students may incorporate Bluetooth technology into the project. “Bluetooth technology is emerging as a new tool to capture transportation data on major networks,” Blevins said.
Article by Karen B. Roberts
Video by Ryan Maguire