New Study Offers Hope for Urban Commuters: A new paper by faculty and student researchers from BU College of Engineering could dramatically ease commuter frustration.

in SE Spotlight Faculty, SE Spotlight-Research

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Navigating Boston with Waze

By Maureen Stanton

Frustration. Rage. Anxiety. These are just some of the adjectives people use to describe their emotional state when driving the streets of Boston, the sixth-most-gridlock-plagued urban area in the country, according to a WBUR survey.

Boston is not alone in dealing with ever-growing commuter frustration, cost, and environmental strain associated with traffic congestion. The average commuter in the U.S. spends 42 hours in traffic per year. The cost of commuter delays has risen by 260 percent over the past 25 years, and 28 percent of U.S. primary energy is now used in transportation.

While an increasing number of commuters are relying on navigation apps, like Waze, to circumvent traffic, research shows that these apps are increasingly having the opposite effect: directing heavy traffic flow into side streets not designed for traffic congestion. The reason is that navigation apps like Waze encourage “selfish driving” whereby each driver seeks out the best route to reach her destination, based on location and speed data, without taking into account the overall system performance.

A new study by faculty and student researchers from Boston University College of Engineering could dramatically ease commuter frustration. The study uses real-time traffic data from the Boston area to estimate the effect on traffic congestion of drivers’ selfish route selection as opposed to a more coordinated, socially optimal routing scheme. The researchers found that during certain heavily congested periods, socially optimal routing can lead to as much as 50% reduction in congestion. 

“The study demonstrates that we can effectively leverage minute-by-minute traffic data, learn from the data, and develop strategies to reduce road congestion by inducing socially-aware driver behavior,” says Ioannis Paschalidis, Professor (ECE, SE, BME) and Director of the Center for Information & Systems Engineering. “With this approach, apps such as Waze and Google Maps, and self-driving cars, could in the future, be programmed to choose routes that will help ease traffic congestion in urban areas.”

Ioannis Paschalidis, Professor (ECE, SE, BME) and Director of the Center for Information & Systems Engineering is the lead author of the study, The Price of Anarchy in Transportation Networks: Data-Driven Evaluation and Reduction Strategies. Christos Cassandras, Professor (ECE, SE) and Head of the Division of Systems Engineering, and graduate students Jing Zhang and Sepideh Pourazarm are also authors of the paper. The paper is scheduled to appear this spring in Proceedings of the IEEE, the flagship journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, Bosch, and MathWorks. The Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Office and the City of Boston provided access to traffic data.