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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.