Map of London. Eric Fisher, Flickr

Reinventing City Maps

The traffic jam was enormous. As French winter holidaymakers headed to the Alps in February, 1980, cars strangled the city of Lyon with one of the world’s longest recorded traffic jams – a full 175 kilometres.

In response to this epic standstill, University of Lyon professor Ludovic LeClerq began developing new models of traffic flow. Funded by the European Research Council, LeClerg is developing general algorithms to determine which journeys cause the most congestion in a system. His next-generation road-traffic management systems anticipate jams rather than react to them. They focus on cancelling or delaying trips by one percent of drivers in strategically chosen neighborhoods and aim to reduce congestion by 18 percent.

Enabling computers to see and understand what humans see when they navigate their way through the city. Bastian Leibe, RWTH Aachen University

The European Research Council hopes map research like LeClerg’s project will make cities more resilient and livable. Some other notable projects include:

  • 3D Urban ModelingLuc Van Gool, professor of computer visions at the University of Ghent and at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, is leveraging 3D modeling to understand the impact of new buildings on their neighborhoods. “There are quite a few 3D city models available, but we want to extend them and add a level of understanding,” he says. “Instead of showing just buildings, we are adding doors, windows, and floors – so you can look into different areas such as how much light comes into an apartment, because you know where the windows are.”
  • Green SpacesMatthew Gandy, professor of geography at Cambridge University, is using mapping to understand how nature develops and thrives in cities, by examining cities via digital maps that he creates. In one of his focus cities, Berlin, he invited a botanist to transform a car park as part of an effort to explore new “green ways” to use “managed flooding” to avoid constructing giant barriers and dikes.
  • Safer Tunnels: Tunneling, such as to expand subway lines, is increasingly common as cities grow denser with urban development, but it often threatens existing buildings. City architectural plans can’t predict which buildings are weak to tunneling. Current methods of analyzing tunneling risks are prohibitively expensive. Civil engineer Debra Laefer, of the University College in Dublin, is using aerial laser scanning and an optical sensing technology known as Light Detection and Ranging to identify buildings at risk more inexpensively, thus reducing uncertainties around building stability near tunnels.

Although Professor Leclerq admits that he has not yet eliminated Lyon’s traffic jams, he says progress has been made. The city’s new traffic management centers adjust traffic signals to allow a detour, and post message signs to alert drivers to trouble along their routes. By combines the city’s historical and real-time traffic data with advanced analytics and algorithms, he envisions a futher with smooth driving and better living – even in crowded cities.