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U of T Cities Podcast Ep. 1 The Future of Traffic

October 16, 2014

Artificially intelligent traffic lights, human-electric hybrid pod vehicles and more


This first episode of U of T Cities features researchers and entrepreneurs working to build the future of traffic. Learn about artificially intelligent traffic lights, bike-car hybrid vehicles, a first-of-its-kind undergraduate course all about the Toronto election and more.

For more stories on U of T research transforming cities, entrepreneurship, health, education, community-building and more, visit

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[CARS HONKING] -Traffic. It’s the one thing that brings Toronto together. Motorists, transit users, cyclists, pedestrians, everybody hates traffic, and yet it’s literally everywhere we turn, stopping us from getting where we want to go.

Oliver Moore is The Globe and Mail’s urban transportation columnist. He recently called traffic quote “electoral gold,” and even said that frustrated drivers are shaping up to be this election’s key voting block. But it doesn’t matter what candidate you support, or even if you plan to vote. Traffic taking the stage as an election issue has made it clear that Toronto needs to green light some changes when it comes to the flow of our roads.

Later this episode we’ll hear from Phil Lamb. His startup is designing new vehicles specifically for Toronto streets. We’ll also hear from a human geography professor named Zack Taylor. He’s going to explain why the issue of traffic is so political in Toronto and tell us about the fourth year students he’s teaching who are doing groundbreaking research on the mayoral election. But first, an international award-winning U of T expert who’s combined game theory with artificial intelligence to revolutionize traffic, and it’s all about smarter traffic lights.

This is the U of T Cities podcast. I’m Brianna Goldberg. In this special four part miniseries you’ll hear about the University of Toronto researchers and entrepreneurs pushing boundaries on some of the upcoming election’s most important issues. We’ll introduce you to our big thinkers and researchers making things that will literally change your life. For example–

-OK. My name is Samah El-Tantawy. I’m doing post-doctorate…

-She’s just one of the many people at U of T changing what traffic means and how it works all around the world. The smarter traffic light system she’s building with Professor Baher Abdulhai is called MARLIN. And El-Tantawy’s Ph.D. Research tested MARLIN in traffic simulations, but now it’s commercialized and about to be tested on actual roads in the city of Burlington. It’s combining game theory and complex communications, but El-Tantawy says it’s easy to understand if you just think about sports.

-Similar to players in a soccer game, so everyone wants to score, but the ultimate goal is for the whole team to win. So they keep coordinating together. So our system, MARLIN, works as a brain that sits at the traffic light and this brain allows the traffic lights to react to the traffic conditions in real-time by updating the timings on second by second basis to minimize the waiting time for the cars at the intersection while coordinating these actions or decisions with the neighboring intersections, in order to minimize the drain to the whole network.

-So the traffic lights will be like talking to each other, and saying I have lots of people here so you need to allow more flow down the road. Is that what you mean?

-Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. They are sending their sensory information to each other. And like in the algorithm itself, the decision is made by taking into consideration the expected decisions that these neighbors are going to take. So everyone kind of is building a mental map of the others and try to take its action according to the other sections.

-So how does it get its information? Is it 3D sensors in the road that you’re talking about?

-Yeah, 3D sensors. And they’re going to be communicating through either ethernet network or even wirelessly. And the sensors themselves are cameras, video cameras, that can get these queue length information to the intersection and then the intersection can send this information to the neighbors, and receives the others as well.

-What do you think traffic could look like if this was implemented widely?

-So based on, again, the simulation results that we have tested, we have found that it can have savings of 30% to 40% in the delay.

-What got you interested in this problem of traffic in the first place?

-Well, of course, all of us face this on a daily basis when we get frustrated waiting at traffic lights or stuck in anywhere, I mean, in traffic. And I was living most of my time in Arab countries and specifically Egypt, and this problem is the main problem in Egypt. So when I knew about the intelligent transportation systems and this happened like kind of luck or chance, because my husband came here to study the Ph.D. with Professor Baher Abdulhai.

So this was the first time for me to know about the intelligent transportation systems and I found it very exciting for me that I can use theoretical concepts that I have learned in communications control theory and also mathematics in solving one of the main problems that we faced over there. And when I became here I also found that it’s, again, in every large city is a problem. So I’ve worked with Professor Baher and from day one he was talking about the implementation on streets. For a Ph.D. student who’s just starting, oh, it was too early for that. But he transferred this passion to me and we were also working on this target in mind, that we need to finish this work and try to implement it on the streets.

-Do you see this model being transferred to countries overseas?

-Yes, definitely. It works with any city that has the issue of variable traffic on the different approaches with intersections. Like the traditional way of coordination in the current systems is to have a green wave along an arterial, assuming that the major demand is just along that arterial and we want every car to pass through the intersection to the other in a green wave, all of them are green. But this will not work in a grid network, for example, like Toronto, where there is high demand and variable big demand and all approaches.

-So we might see this making traffic smarter in other places other than Toronto?

-We hope so. We have a couple of meetings with cities from Mexico.

-Do you drive in the city?

-Well, I will have my driving test, driving road test in October 2nd. So I’m not driving, but I feel for this because my husband’s driving and I’m sitting beside him. And, of course, it’s going to be different when I am driving by myself.

-That was Samah El-Tantawy. She is a postdoctoral researcher at U of T working on the MARLIN adaptive traffic signal control. You can read more about her at Coming up in a few minutes, we’ll hear from Professor Zack Taylor on why traffic gets so political in Toronto. But first, the vehicle of the future runs on your own two feet.

What does traffic look like to you? Is it an endless line of cars with exhaust fumes rising up on the horizon? Bikes squeaking in between the lanes, taking chances of getting knocked over by a much larger vehicle? Maybe pedestrians plodding along as they breathe in all this pollution? Well, if a team behind a new company called Wheel Span gets its way, these tired old pieces of the traffic puzzle could be replaced by sleek, safe, human-electric hybrid pods. The company’s growing with help from one of U of T’s startup hubs specifically geared towards scientists turned entrepreneurs. It’s called the Impact Center and in the driver’s seat of this company is Phil Lamb, the co-founder Wheel Span.

-Our company is in urban transportation and we’re interested in building a product that fits into cities. So we’re looking at transportation of less than a few kilometers, moving from place to place inside cities, wonderful cities, older cities that we have quite a few of in North America. So cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Austin, Texas, places like that.

And the reason that we’re doing this is because we’ve looked at transportation as it is today and we’ve said well, if not broken then at the very least there are things we could change. We could make better– we’re coming from a point of view of saying transportation should be green, it should be good for the environment, it should be good for the city, it should be good for the people who are using it. It should be healthy, it should be predictable, it should be comfortable, convenient. And we’ve centered around those principles that we think will fit into cities better than any of the existing alternatives.

-So tell me, how will this end up affecting people’s lives? What could it improve?

-So maybe it’s best to talk about use cases, so examples. So you might imagine if you compare, say, to someone who currently drives to work. Driving to work can be a very stressful experience. It’s also very expensive. From a health standpoint, driving is one of the worst things that you could do to your body. It’s almost as bad as sitting at a desk, simply because your body essentially wastes away. If you use something like we’re designing, or a bicycle, or something that’s human-powered, even walking is incredibly healthy in comparison.

So to give you an example, in North America you’re more than 10 times as likely to get injured cycling somewhere than you are driving. And yet, the health advantages of cycling outweigh even that additional risk. So it’s healthier, even when you take into account accidents and other unfortunate happenstances, to cycle than it is to drive, which is very unintuitive but unfortunately true. If you think about someone who lives in a dense city, parking can be a real issue, management of vehicles be a real issue.

So you can think about a use case where you might want a vehicle that you can use as, say, for example, as a sort of in the role of a second car. So you might want to take a quick trip to the grocery store, or you might want to drop off your child at daycare. All of these things are short trips meant for either one or two people that you want to be easy, you want them to be predictable, and simple, and safe at the same time. So you might want to find– so our product is something that can achieve all of those things without the hassle of the different other types of transportation that are currently available.

-How did you get interested in solving this problem?

-So when I started grad school, I was commuting in from Mississauga from one of the outer suburbs. And for me was it was sort of a natural step, because at the time GO Transit had just installed bike racks on all of their buses. So I figured, OK, well I could buy a bicycle and I could just take it with me. And that worked out really nicely, except for the fact that it’s really scary to cycle in Toronto. And I’ve heard that it’s very scary to cycle in other cities as well. I mean, I’ve fallen into streetcar tracks, I’ve been almost run over, I’ve been run off the road. And all of that was actually still preferable to taking the TTC, which isn’t– that’s not the TTC’s fault and it’s not a problem with public transportation, it’s just a problem with the way that public transportation fits into our existing infrastructure.

And so the original design concept was for something that was supposed to address those needs. And it was more like a project for myself, and it turns out other people were interested, and then the concept grew, because at some point you can only involve so many people by saying well, this is a project for my own interest. And it turns out that there’s a real need. And so we said OK, well, how can we expand on this concept to create something that actually fits the needs of a substantially large enough portion of people to really make an impact?

-And so how did your experience at U of T help you develop that idea into an actual company?

-It’s just a natural place to pick up the kind of attitude and the skills required to be able to say, well, there’s a problem, let’s just fix it. The Impact Center, in particular, has been instrumental in supporting us because they looked at our concept and said well, that’s cool, how can we help you? And it’s really neat because they took us on with the understanding that we were kind of rather– how shall I say– less skilled than was necessary to really for a functioning business. And they just kind of looked at that and said, well, you know, we’ll help you get there. And so we can’t be grateful enough for that, as sort of a place to develop ideas that are non-technical.

And so political, cultural, the University of Toronto was a fantastic place to meet, to meet people who are like-minded who can help you develop ideas about the way we live, the way we interact with our built environment in our society. And there’s lots of people here that will encourage that kind of thinking, that’s essentially well, look at what we have, understand that it could be better, and take the time to really critically reflect on what changes you could make.

-Phil Lamb and his team at Wheel Span design innovative green vehicles developing with help from U of T’s Impact Center. Find out more at

Toronto’s upcoming election isn’t just an opportunity to weigh in on leadership, it’s also a great chance to learn more about what’s important to the city and the people who live and drive in it. Professor Zack Taylor teaches urban politics and local government at U of T’s Scarborough campus. For him, traffic is at the core of the central drama driving politics in Toronto, the tension of the GTA’s amalgamation.

-We have these stereotypes of the Starbucks voter and the Tim Horton’s voter, and so on the automobile-oriented suburbanite versus the transit-riding downtowner. And these are caricatures, but I think they’re worth trying to unpack and explore and figure out what the politics of this means when it all happens inside a single city council, a single municipality, a single electorate. Because that’s not what happens in Vancouver. It’s not what happens in almost every American city. These two areas have their own municipalities, their politics are separated from each other.

-It’s these kinds of dramas and frictions playing out in real time that students are digging into with of course he’s designed specifically for the upcoming election.

-Because I thought that if I could get students to do original research on the election that we would end up knowing more about this election than anybody else. And I’m really excited. They handed in their proposals today. We’ll learn a lot about political behavior, about campaign strategies, about how candidates raise funds. So, really, it’s more on the political side than about the big issues, necessarily.

-What kinds of students have you found were attracted to this course?

-So, what’s been quite interesting is that some of the students have an academic background in political science where they’ve been exposed to some of these ideas already. But one of the really amazing things about UTSC is that a good number of our students are New Canadians, some of whom are not citizens. And so talking about these issues is actually a way to kind of bring them into the political process and increase their civic literacy. So that’s been a really interesting experience for me at all levels, not just about this course but to talk to people about elections who’ve maybe come from places where they don’t have those things.

-So you mentioned the proposals that they’ve handed in. Tell me about how this course is going to shake out?

-How’s it going to shake out? I don’t know, and that’s kind of the exciting part. There’s a group of students who are very interested in how social media is being used as a campaign tool. So they’re going to be doing analyses of the Twitter feeds and social media presence of candidates. This is an area that some people have started to look at in American political campaigns but I haven’t really seen any literature at any level in Canada. I think they’ll say something new and original with that. Another part of it, another group of students are looking at the media. So do our newspapers cover the candidates and the issues in different ways? How do they cover the issues? How is gender and race treated in the news coverage? I think the different angles at which they’re going to tackle that are going to be really exciting and I think we’ll learn something from that.

-So what has interested you about this election as we’re moving into the last legs of it?

-Oh, where to start? I mean, there’s all the obvious things. The events, the extraordinary switcheroo of Rob and Doug Ford, what are we to make of that? There’s the question of the stark reversal where Olivia Chow began in the lead and how John Tory, at some point in July, he seems to have taken the lead away from her.

What I tell my students who maybe weren’t paying a lot of attention to what happened in previous elections is anything can happen, we’re in a very fluid time in this last six weeks when people start to tune in. And you look back to previous elections, David Miller didn’t come into first place until the last three weeks or so in the campaign. Anything can happen at this point. And I think we’re actually talking about real issues for a change, right? The transit thing is going to get shaken out, we’re seeing people talk about housing and homelessness, we’re seeing people talk about social issues. So we’ll see, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens there.

So there’s the theater of the election, I guess, right? Which is sort of the exciting and visual aspect of this. But on sort of the deeper, longer term level, I remain interested in the city suburb divide. What does it mean? Can we ever overcome it? Can we ever be one city or are we a two track city, two separate trajectories that pulls politics in opposite directions? I don’t know. That’s what I’m interested in.

-Professor Zack Taylor teaches human geography at U of T’s Scarborough campus. We’ll check back with his students in later episodes. In the meantime, you can read more at

From vehicles of the future to artificially intelligent traffic lights, and drivers and pedestrians and bicyclists of varying degrees of intelligence, it’s all part of the shifting nature of traffic in Toronto and around the world. We at the U of T Cities podcast were happy to bring you these stories today as we introduce the podcast series. So glad you joined us. To learn more, please head over to U of T news at That’s where you can find updates on innovative research and projects transforming cities, entrepreneurship, health, education, and more.

Do you have a question about an election issue you’d like to have answered by a U of T expert? Well, you can tweet us at U of T news or send an email at Since this is our first episode we don’t yet have any audience questions, so I’ll throw this one at you. Where can you find more close conversations with U of T experts making the future of sustainable cities, transportation, civic diplomacy, and more? That’s all coming up on the U of T Cities podcast.

Today we featured music made available on the Free Music Archive. The artists are Cheese N Pot-C, The Silent Partner, and The Custodian of Records. This program was produced by me, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U of T news editor, Jennifer Lanthier. Thanks for listening.