Apps and GPS changing traffic patterns with integrated design

Posted in: Bridges, Highways


Who hasn’t had their GPS send them in an odd journey? Leaving you frustrated with your app or satellite mapping.
Who hasn’t had their GPS send them in an odd journey? Leaving you frustrated with your app or satellite mapping.

Apps and digital navigation systems are a mainstay in our lives. Navigational aids, GPS in our phones and cars tell us how to get there, and also about traffic issues, nearby businesses and when road construction is forcing alternative routes. Engineers and designers are looking at how using this technology can improve traffic snafus.

We’ve all been in the situation where the GPS in your phone or car is insistent that you take the next left, and yet clearly the road is closed. Batteries die. Satellite mapping is incorrect. The signal isn’t strong enough or there is a dropped connection.

There is a plethora of funny memes where people solely trusted their GPS over common sense. One of my favorites is the Milwaukee truck driver who got his semi-truck stuck on a pedestrian crossing that had once been an historic bridge. In his case GPS correctly identified the bridge, just not the small dimensions.

As a traffic engineer I watch with interest as technology addresses direction issues. In this article, “Chicago is installing beacons to keep your GPS from freaking out on Lower Wacker” two tech firms are finding ways to boost signals in Chicago’s underground tunnels. Boston and Pittsburgh are using this similar navigation technology to help make better use of the cities’ infrastructure. Will future road design include beacon placement?

In New Jersey, drivers looking for the quickest route around rush hour traffic were directed through small towns, creating new congestion on side streets unequipped to handle the influx of cars. So, the community worked with navigation apps, like Waze, and Google Maps to safely redirect traffic. Think of how this might be applied to a short-term issue, like a highway construction zone.  Part of a transportation engineer’s job may be to coordinate with various navigation software companies to make sure traffic is directed to the safest route.

In urban areas it’s not uncommon for drivers relying solely on GPS to arrive at the correct area or block, but not the street entrance. City dwellers also have problems when apps and navaids are unable to find available (not full) parking options. In rural areas, the GPS address may encompass several acres of a general location, but not take you to the entrance (like a ball field).

Even with technology included in our roadway planning and designs, I recommend that travelers review an aerial map of their destination. This will help locate entrances or parking. A quick look at the map can prevent uncertainty at the end of the trip.

Eventually technology will grow to solve these issues with more detailed information as it becomes available. Traffic engineers will need to be aware of improvements and incorporate new technologies into their designs. We will make sure navigation software is able to receive data and make the proper adjustments, so drivers can get to their desired locations.

I foresee a rapid change in better wayfinding options to meet the ever-growing expectations of drivers. The changes are exciting, and I’m looking forward to incorporating more new technology in future transportation projects.


Jay Hamilton, PE

About the Author

Jay Hamilton, P.E., has worked in the transportation industry for over 30 years specializing in traffic safety and congestion. Whether you are building a new intersection or upgrading an existing one, Jay can help you provide safe and efficient traffic flow for vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Read more posts by Jay Hamilton, PE

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