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The Ultimate Guide to Transportation Mapping & Planning

Transportation planning is heavily dependent on mapping & geospatial analysis. Learn more about best practices for transportation mapping in our ultimate guide.

What is transportation mapping?

Transportation mapping is a critical component of planning that involves visualizing transportation networks to both communicate with the public and analyze network features for decision-making purposes. Transportation planners, civil engineers, and geospatial analysts often map transportation features to understand how accessible, safe, and sustainable mobility systems are, and prioritize infrastructure enhancements in a rapidly changing world.


A sample of a transportation map in San Bernardino, California
A sample of a transportation map in San Bernardino, California

Types of transportation planning roles and organizations

Transportation planners work in a variety of roles at organizations within both the private and public sectors, and these different organizations often work together on mapping and geospatial analysis. For example, civil engineering firms from the private sector are frequently contracted by government transportation planning departments to assist in various projects.

Public sector transportation planning organizations

Federal, state, and municipal governments typically have networks of transportation departments that work together on mapping initiatives. In the United States, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) oversees federal transportation policy while working with state DOTs, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), cities, and transit authorities to maintain and improve infrastructure. These public sector organizations employ a range of employees, including urban planners, geospatial analysts, civil engineers, and other transportation professionals.

Private sector transportation planning organizations

Transportation professionals also work in the private sector. Civil engineering, planning, and design firms exist around the world to support governments in their transportation initiatives, employing similar experts that are contracted to work on specific projects for DOTs and MPOs.

Top 14 transportation map features

Transportation planners require detailed geospatial layers of transportation network features so they can understand how different modes relate to each other and support or hinder mobility and accessibility. Geospatial data representing various transportation networks is also important for communicating with the users of those transportation systems. While every community is different, there are some transportation map features that are universally important for understanding network safety, sustainability, and capacity.

The following transportation map features are commonly used by planners in both the private and public sectors:

  • Road centerlines
  • Sidewalks
  • Crosswalks
  • Right turn lanes
  • Left turn lanes
  • Middle turn lanes
  • Slip turn lanes
  • Through lanes
  • Bike lanes
  • Shoulders
  • Planting strips
  • Medians
  • Domes
  • Intersections

These are just 14 of the most commonly used map layers in transportation planning. Each organization leverages mapping data in their own unique way to support their community’s specific needs. For example, many planners map crosswalks by type (continental vs ladder vs standard, etc.), and others also layer in tree canopy to analyze urban heat risks to pedestrians. 

A sample of advanced transportation data in Toronto, Ontario
A sample of advanced transportation data in Toronto, Ontario

Top applications of transportation map data

Transportation planning is inherently geospatial, as networks are designed to get people and goods from one place to another. As such, mapping has always been an integral part of planning. However, as geographic information systems (GIS) and geospatial data have become more widely used in both the public and private sectors, transportation planners have increasingly been leveraging digital mapping and spatial analysis for a wide range of use cases

As both the climate and how humans interact with the environment change, having an up-to-date representation of transportation infrastructure helps organizations make informed planning decisions. Specifically, the ability of GIS to map and classify individual transportation features is key for planners as they monitor current network features and model future situations. As the world continues to change and society’s transportation needs continue to evolve, planners are tasked with ensuring safe, sustainable, and accessible transportation networks. This next section highlights four common transportation mapping initiatives that align to these goals: active transportation planning, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, Vision Zero, and sustainability and green infrastructure planning.

Active transportation planning

Advanced transportation features map in Chicago, Illinois
A sample of an advanced transportation features map in Chicago, Illinois

Active transportation planning is a common goal of DOTs and MPOs both around the world and within the US. Fostering communities with active modes of transportation not only encourages healthy lifestyles, but also provides more sustainable alternatives for travel. However, for these benefits of active transportation networks to be fully recognized, planners must make sure that active transportation modes are safely designed and accessible to all who need them.

Ensuring that active transportation networks are safe, accessible, and sustainable begins with geospatial analysis. For example, a multimodal analysis can help identify where areas exist that lack a variety of transportation options, and a pedestrian right-of-way analysis can highlight areas currently unsafe for individuals choosing active transportation methods. Common examples of active transportation modes include sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes; when combined on a map, these feature layers can reveal underserved areas as well as gaps in coverage that could result in safety concerns. With transportation mapping data, active modes can be visualized, analyzed, and modeled across entire communities, informing resource allocation and decision-making for DOTs and MPOs. 

ADA compliance

A sample of sidewalk and crosswalk map features, important inputs to ADA compliance analysis, in Reno, Nevada
A sample of sidewalk and crosswalk map features, important inputs to ADA compliance analysis, in Reno, Nevada

Transportation equity and accessibility are top of mind for many planning organizations, especially given federal ADA regulations. Established in 1990 to prevent discrimination based on disabilities, the ADA includes many community guidelines for transportation accessibility that require careful planning and maintenance. 

For instance, ADA regulations require special transportation features to increase accessibility for the visually impaired, those in wheelchairs, and other disabled groups. Examples of accommodations include sound-equipped crosswalk signals, ramps for traversing curbs or steps, and seating areas at transit stops. ADA required features are an important layer in transportation analysis, as they provide planners with a view into how equitable and accessible transportation is throughout their community. Detailed and up-to-date map layers for these accessibility features enable planners to achieve ADA compliance for both existing networks and any enhancements being made to meet other goals, such as those related to safety and sustainability.

Vision Zero

A sample of advanced transportation data needed for Vision Zero planning in San Pablo, California
A sample of advanced transportation data needed for Vision Zero planning in San Pablo, California

In addition to providing active and equitable transportation methods for communities, planners at DOTs, MPOS, and private firms must also ensure these networks are safe. The global initiative Vision Zero, begun in Sweden in the 1990s, aims to eliminate all traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries. While many US communities have since been working towards Vision Zero, there are still on average 42,000+ traffic fatalities each year. 

Geospatial data and analysis play an important role in Vision Zero planning and project execution. With a comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date view of all transportation features in an area, planners can identify safety issues and proactively implement solutions. Similarly, planning organizations can closely analyze historical collision data to better understand why past accidents occurred and prevent future casualties at those locations. Numerous federal funding opportunities exist for traffic safety related projects, enabling transportation planners to acquire the geospatial data needed for Vision Zero applications. Common elements of Vision Zero analysis include pedestrian right-of-way features, bike lanes, and other components of multimodal transportation networks. 

Sustainability & green infrastructure planning

A sample of green infrastructure and transportation features in Los Angeles, California
A sample of green infrastructure and transportation features in Los Angeles, California

While encouraging individuals to choose active transportation methods can have a positive impact on carbon emissions, fostering a truly sustainable community also involves providing equitable and accessible public transit options. When developing multimodal transportation networks, planners model how active transportation, public transit, and personal vehicle modes of transport connect to each other - and how that contributes to larger sustainability goals.

Mapping public transit features in relation to where the population lives and goes can help planners develop networks that support a rapidly changing population. Layering in additional map features for other modes of transportation highlight how accessible sustainable modes of transportation are to different parts of the community, and reveal opportunities for installing green infrastructure. For example, traffic medians are important functional elements to roadway travel, but also can be repurposed as stormwater conveyances to reduce flooding and urban heat. Additionally, public transit stop shelters can potentially be outfitted with solar panels to support alternative energy initiatives.

How to map transportation features

Because transportation planning is fundamentally a geospatial endeavor, mapping has always been a core part of planning efforts. While advancements in GIS and digital mapping have rendered older mapping workflows obsolete, there are still a variety of data collection methods used by planners, all ranging in accuracy, efficiency, and scalability. This next section of our blog will outline a few different options planners have for transportation mapping

Transportation surveys

One traditional data collection method that many transportation planners still rely on is onsite surveying. Conducting land surveys requires civil engineers and planners to physically visit the sites they are mapping and record data points about the features they need to analyze. GIS programs are typically very compatible with survey technology, and most planners are highly trained in surveying, so the resulting data tends to be very accurate and easy to work with. 

However, manually mapping transportation features is an extremely tedious and time-consuming process, ultimately translating to higher costs due to the time planners must spend on survey sites. What’s more, data conducted through on-the-ground surveys is likely to become out-of-date quickly, requiring teams to revisit the site and collect new data. When considering the scales of many transportation networks, the wide variety of features necessary for analysis, and how quickly the world changes, conducting physical surveys is really not cost or time efficient. 

Manual feature digitization and classification

As GIS and geospatial analysis have become increasingly common, various digital methods of data capture have emerged that reduce or eliminate the need for onsite surveys. Geospatial imagery from satellites, airplanes, and street view cars is now widely available for DOTs, MPOs, and private planning organizations to leverage as a data source for transportation mapping. GIS programs usually include tools designed specifically to manually trace vector features from georeferenced imagery, which helps planners delineate road networks, pedestrian right-of-way features, and more. 

Like surveying, manual digitization is extremely time-consuming and resource-intensive as it requires a trained professional’s careful attention to detail over large scales. The transportation planning initiatives of today’s dynamically changing world require many different types of features to be not only digitized, but also classified, which adds another layer of complexity to data creation. And while manual digitization and classification of imagery does not require a site visit, the data produced risks becoming out-of-date depending on the vintage of the foundational imagery, as well as the changing nature of the world. Many transportation planning teams relying on this method either resolve to use inaccurate data, or devote a tremendous amount of time and resources to constantly updating their databases as best they can.

Leveraging AI to extract transportation features at scale

Luckily, innovation in the geospatial industry continues to improve data creation methods for transportation planners. Artificial intelligence (AI) is now able to mimic the manual feature digitization and classification process, producing vector layers with the same level of accuracy that a trained GIS professional would generate, but in record timelines. This scale and efficiency enables planners in both the public and private sectors to quickly extract the detailed transportation features they need for their particular project without sacrificing the accuracy needed to inform decision-making.

Ecopia’s AI-based mapping systems have been in use by transportation planners for over a decade, and are continuously refined to produce high-precision data at the scale necessary for DOTs and MPOs to keep their maps up-to-date in a changing world. Instead of spending valuable time and resources on manual data collection or digitization, planners can now get right to the analysis required to actually make a difference in transportation safety, accessibility, and sustainability.

Examples of transportation mapping with AI

Ecopia works with governments and civil engineering firms around the world to scale transportation mapping projects with AI. This section highlights two recent examples of US communities leveraging comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date vector map layers for transportation planning.

San Bernardino County Transportation Authority and Fehr & Peers Enhance Multimodal Network Planning

Aerial image of San Bernardino
Advanced transportation map of San Bernardino

A sample of the 17 layer advanced transportation feature map created for SBCTA and Fehr & Peers by Ecopia

As the MPO for the largest county in the contiguous US, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) oversees a transportation network across over 20,000 square miles and serves a population of over 2 million people. Like other MPOs across the country, SBCTA is constantly working to develop and maintain multimodal transportation networks that best serve the needs of their growing population. Among their top priorities is fostering an ADA-compliant multimodal network that provides all of their residents with sustainable and safe transportation options. That’s no small feat across such a large and populated geographic area.

To inform these transportation planning initiatives, SBCTA contracted civil engineers from Fehr & Peers for assistance updating their geospatial database of network features. Six months of onsite data collection resulted in the digitization of only 4.4% of the county’s 17,000 miles of sidewalks - just one feature layer required for multimodal network planning. By partnering with Ecopia, SBCTA and Fehr & Peers were able to extract 17 distinct transportation feature types in just three months, allowing planners from both organizations to spend less time on data creation and instead focus on creating a safer, sustainable community.

Read about SBCTA and Fehr & Peer's multimodal transportation planning

Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Illinois Department of Transportation Partner to Map Land Use and Pedestrian Mobility

Aerial image of Chicago
Advanced transportation map of Chicago

A sample of the 26 layer land use and transportation map created for CMAP and IDOT by Ecopia

Chicago is the third largest metro area in the US, home to more than 8.5 million people across 12,000 square miles. To best serve this dynamically changing community, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) works closely with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to enhance the capacity of local MPOs with high-precision geospatial data. 

By working with Ecopia, CMAP and IDOT are leveraging AI-based mapping to efficiently extract 26 layers of land cover and transportation features in just a fraction of the time manual digitization would take. The resulting data is supplied to 286 local MPOs, providing a unified source of truth for regional land use and transportation networks. The comprehensive nature of the Ecopia data means these MPOs can leverage the vector features for a variety of public works use cases, including pedestrian mobility and right-of-way analysis, but also extending beyond transportation to include stormwater management and capital program monitoring.

Learn more about CMAP and IDOT's collaboration on transportation and land use mapping

Get started with Ecopia’s transportation mapping solutions

To see how Ecopia’s AI-based mapping can enable your organization to scale transportation planning without sacrificing accuracy, get in touch with our transportation team.

Learn more about Ecopia's transportation planning solutions

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