As apps like Waze continue to give drivers alternatives to sitting in traffic, our engineers discuss the impacts.

Yi-Min Ha
Jorge Barrios
Our engineers, left to right: Engineering Associate Yi-Min Ha and Senior Engineer Jorge Barrios.

How have traffic patterns changed over the years with the spread of GPS and, more specifically, diversion apps like Waze?

Yi-Min Ha: The technology is widespread. According to the 2018 Mobility and Technology survey conducted by Metro, “smartphone apps are the top travel information source for residents” in the Portland metropolitan region, regardless of mode choice. The survey found that approximately 44% of drivers use smartphone apps for navigation. However, despite the widespread use, there is limited data to suggest that travel patterns have fundamentally changed due to navigation apps alone. Navigation services do not influence the reason for travel, mode choice, need for parking, or car ownership behavior as much as ride-hailing, car/bike-sharing, or other mobility services.

Approximately 44% of drivers use smartphone apps for navigation.

Jorge Barrios: Traffic patterns during very congested periods (special events, construction, etc.) have changed as people use apps to find the shortest path. This has led to some drivers using roadways not designed to carry high volumes of traffic (e.g., local streets, rural farm to market roads, etc.)

Do you think there have been unintended consequences related to these apps—i.e., traffic being diverted onto residential streets that aren’t designed to handle the capacity?

Jorge: It’s true that navigation apps provide drivers bypass routes around congestion. This may result in more drivers using smaller streets that are not intended for through traffic. It may also diminish the ability of traffic engineers to route traffic through signed detour routes.

Yi-Min: While congestion on residential streets may be a concern, we’ve found that most of the concerns on cut-through traffic have been safety related. We have worked with municipalities and neighborhood associations to design traffic calming treatments to discourage cut-through traffic and speeding on residential streets.

How has the existence and use of this technology changed the way Kittelson approaches traffic studies?

Yi-Min: Widespread use of navigation services have provided us with affordable, readily available traffic data. During navigation, the user generates a lot of useful travel time data.

Jorge: As traffic engineers, these real-time traffic models offer a cost-effective means to monitor the performance of roadway facilities and understand the scope and duration of congestion on a day-by-day basis. This allows us to make planning decisions based on weeks/months of data, instead of short snapshots in time.

This allows us to make planning decisions based on weeks/months of data, instead of short snapshots in time.

Have these apps been a net positive or negative on congestion, safety and infrastructure design?

Jorge: Although there may be unintended consequences of the widespread use of navigation apps, we believe these apps have a net positive effect on mobility. For the end user, these services help users plan their travels more reliably and reduce out-of-direction travel due to wrong turns. Some apps even provide users notifications if a destination will be closed by the time of arrival, saving the user a whole trip.

Yi-Min: On the topic of infrastructure design, we believe other emerging technologies are bigger drivers of change.

What does the future hold? Are there any technological advances or other changes on the horizon that could further alter the picture?

Yi-Min: We don’t have to look too far into the future to see how technological advances are already shaping our built environment. Ride-hailing and self-driving vehicles are influencing how the curbside is designed and managed for pick-up/drop-off. Many public agencies have also lowered off-street parking requirements or are thinking about it. E-commerce continues to grow, and delivery methods are being developed or revitalized to meet the growing demand. You can now see more urban bike messengers, package deliveries on private cars, public lockers, and even sidewalk robot deliveries. Deliveries by drone are just around the corner.

There are too many exciting advancements in transportation to cover here. In a nutshell, we expect the future of transportation to be more automated (both vehicles and infrastructure), more data- and information-rich, and offer more mode choices to the public.

“We expect the future of transportation to be more automated (both vehicles and infrastructure), more data- and information-rich, and offer more mode choices to the public.”

- Yi-Min Ha

Yi-Min Ha is an engineering associate who believes in telling stories with a data-driven approach. He began his Kittelson career in Florida and now sits in our Portland office, delivering experience in signal systems, traffic operations and data analytics. Jorge Barrios is a “plangineer” in our Orlando office who likes to work at the intersection of transport and land use, fueled by a passion for all things data and technology.