Via MIT's Technology Review comes a promising new study of taxicab GPS data from Microsoft Research Asia. Researchers there have been tracking the location of taxis in notoriously congested Beijing to see if they can determine the underlying problems of the city's transportation network. And they report having considerable success:
The researchers' algorithms indicate when the network of roads and subway lines between two regions cannot support the number of people traveling between those regions. By pointing out underlying problems, the system shows urban planners where to focus their attention, Zheng says.
In some cases, Zheng says, the busy regions aren't really the ones that are flawed. For example, it may be that people from region 1 are going through region 2 on their way to region 3, in which case it may be better to connect region 1 and 3 directly, rather than trying to widen highways in region 2.
You can easily see how similar studies would be useful in cities with large numbers of GPS-equipped taxicabs, like New York, Tokyo, or Moscow. But what about metros that don't have a lot of cabs, places like Phoenix or Savannah or Dayton? With the increasing availability of GPS technology on smart phones, some enterprising app developer could have a field day pitching city planners all over the world on a method to capture commuting data from individual residents. And it wouldn't even have to be limited to car commuters: mass transit systems could collect real-time information from bus riders, bike lane designers could learn from cyclists, and so on. The main barrier would of course be getting enough residents to agree to be tracked, but if you had a chance to hand over information to your city that might actually shorten your personal commute, wouldn't you consider signing up?