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AI-Powered Transportation Planning for Future-Ready Cities

Experts from Ecopia, Fehr & Peers, & the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority explain how AI-powered mapping data helps build future-ready cities.

Civil engineering firms and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) have a long history of collaboration, particularly when it comes to developing and maintaining transportation infrastructure. As communities experience changes in land use, population, and other dynamic elements of our world, transportation planners in the public and private sectors work together to analyze transportation networks and adapt them to evolving needs. 

In our recent webinar series, Ecopia AI (Ecopia) highlighted this collaboration of private and public sector civil engineers and planners, and how geospatial data plays an increasingly important role in developing transportation systems that support a constantly changing world. During the session, the Ecopia team sits down with transportation planners from Fehr & Peers and the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) to discuss their recent collaboration mapping 17 advanced transportation features in the largest county in the contiguous US. 

This blog post breaks down how these organizations worked together to leverage geospatial AI for next generation community planning so you can envision how a similar project can foster safer, smarter communities in your own region. We’ve also included a recording of the webinar session so you can learn best practices for AI-based transportation mapping directly from the thought leaders themselves.

Challenges in transportation mapping data collection & maintenance

Ecopia VP Bill Singleton kicks off the discussion by acknowledging the many challenges transportation planning professionals face when designing future-ready cities. Bill explains how the highly detailed nature of transportation networks is not only difficult to capture in geospatial data, but also challenging to maintain. For example, many transportation planning workflows require data for every curb, sidewalk, and road marking in an area, a feature list which quickly adds up even across smaller geographies.

Detailed transportation map
A sample of detailed transportation features in San Bernardino County, California

Traditional geospatial data creation methods like manual digitization are highly resource-intensive in general, but especially for planners mapping these extremely detailed transportation features. Bill explains that some of the organizations he works with can spend years on data creation, not taking into account any real world changes that may have occurred during that time period. This unsustainable data creation cycle leaves many civil engineering firms and their MPO clients with out-of-date information that is not particularly useful for designing smarter, safer, and more sustainable transportation infrastructure. 

This challenge was echoed by other geospatial professionals at this year’s Esri User Conference; the lack of up-to-date transportation feature data available to planners has many departments relying on anecdotal evidence for analysis and decision-making, which is not ideal when trying to enhance equity and accessibility throughout a community.

Bill then walks through some examples of recent projects Ecopia has collaborated on with civil engineers and transportation planners. With artificial intelligence (AI)-based mapping systems, highly detailed and accurate data can be extracted from geospatial imagery at scale, ultimately providing firms and MPOs with the up-to-date transportation feature data needed for critical applications in multimodal network planning, pedestrian right-of-way analysis, ADA compliance, and more. 

AI-powered transportation data creation

The next portion of the webinar focuses on one such project Ecopia has collaborated on. Bill is joined by SBCTA GIS Administrator Tricia Vivian and Fehr & Peers Senior Transportation Planner Sean Reseigh to discuss a recent multimodal network analysis project that was powered by AI-based data creation.

Tricia and Sean first provide a background on their initial project goals. Like many MPOs, SBCTA seeks to enhance multimodal neighborhood mobility, improve active transportation safety, enhance first/last mile transit connectivity to transit stations, and promote social equity. Together with project consultants from Fehr & Peers, SBCTA determined that an accurate database of existing sidewalks, roads, and transit facilities was needed as a first step for working towards these goals. 

Example of sidewalk accessibility map
A sample of the detailed sidewalk and curb data required for SBCTA’s multimodal transportation planning initiatives

However, Sean and Tricia both explain how the size of San Bernardino County (over 20,000 square miles), plus the large population (more than 2 million people) made creating this database a huge feat. The team began with sidewalk mapping, manually digitizing features from aerial imagery and performing on-the-ground surveys to build a vector layer for analysis. After six months of this methodology, only 750 out of the 17,000 miles of sidewalk were mapped and attributed with the metadata needed for analysis. 

The panel then describes how AI-based systems were able to scale the feature mapping phase by 45X - not only digitizing all sidewalks and required attributes in three months, but also 16 other advanced transportation features, including turn lanes, curbs, medians, and more. With this comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date dataset, SBCTA and Fehr & Peers are able to analyze transportation infrastructure and confidently derive actionable insights for implementing their multimodal network plan.

Leveraging geospatial data for ADA compliance & multimodal transportation planning

The majority of the webinar is devoted to explaining how SBCTA and Fehr & Peers leverage AI-powered geospatial data to work towards their transportation planning goals. For example, the extensive county-wide sidewalk inventory, plus metadata on material, width, and identified pedestrian obstructions, has been critical for SBCTA’s Americans with Disabilities (ADA) compliance efforts, fueling an innovative new route accessibility index. This essential data has been compiled into an ADA Transition Plan Toolbox to provide other stakeholders with the information needed to improve sidewalk accessibility and curb compliance.

ADA transition plan toolbox with geospatial data and maps
The panel explains how AI-based data creation enabled the team to create an ADA Transition Plan Toolbox for MPO stakeholders to use in future-ready city planning

Tricia and Sean also explain how the data is overlaid with historical collision data to identify areas of concern, as well as find correlations between deficient pedestrian infrastructure and high rates of pedestrian-involved collisions. This added context is now used as a strategic input for designing active transportation networks that are not only accessible, but also safe for pedestrians or cyclists. 

A key component of the entire project has been both SBCTA and Fehr & Peers’ commitment to developing map resources to share with stakeholders as well as the general public. By creating interactive map assets, the team has been able to provide less technical stakeholders with real-world information for allocating project budget, and also communicate project status and funding decisions with San Bernardino County’s 2M+ residents. The panelists discuss how this type of communication increases data literacy and decision-making transparency, two goals MPOs should strive for as planning decisions become more data-driven. SBCTA and Fehr & Peers have even developed public-facing interactive maps that allow individuals to explore transportation infrastructure throughout the county. This both promotes active transportation choices and mitigates potentially dangerous activity, contributing to SBCTA’s overall project goals.

Building future-ready cities with geospatial data

The session closes with a reflection on how geospatial data holds so much potential for MPOs and civil engineering firms, but is often underutilized due to a lack of accessibility and data literacy. The panelists all agree that comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date data is foundational to planning future-ready cities, and that AI is making this data more accessible to transportation planners struggling to analyze a dynamically changing world. To demonstrate this, Tricia and Sean reiterate that the efficiency of AI-powered mapping is enabling SBCTA and Fehr & Peers to create and maintain a reliable database of detailed transportation features, and that the organizations are now looking into expanded capabilities for future projects, including 3D building analysis for construction and phasing. 

This session was an informative deep dive into how AI is changing transportation planning workflows in the private and public sectors, and how civil engineering firms, MPOs, and tech companies can collaborate to develop innovative solutions for some of the world’s most pressing issues. We highly recommend watching the full recorded session below to learn even more about the impressive work SBCTA and Fehr & Peers are doing to promote safer, more equitable, and safe communities in San Bernardino County.

To learn more about how AI-powered geospatial data extraction can produce next generation transportation infrastructure data for your own planning project, get in touch with Ecopia’s transportation team.

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