U of T team launches app to track transit data to cut down on gridlock

University of Toronto researchers are launching an app today that can be used by provincial and local governments as they make planning and funding decisions.

App runs in background to 'identify patterns in peoples' lives' to inform transit policy

The app will give researchers a glimpse into how people are using "active transportation," like walking and cycling, that has been difficult to glean using conventional survey methods. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

University of Toronto researchers are launching an app today designed to collect transit data that can be used by provincial and local governments as they make transit planning and funding decisions.

The university has been conducting transit surveys every five years since 1986, as part of a project funded by the Ontario government and municipalities in the Toronto area, as well as key transit agencies such as Metrolinx and the Toronto Transit Commission.

Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering at the university, and the principal investigator on the project, says that until now, the surveys have been conducted using landlines.

But as more people are using smartphones, Miller says trying to reach subjects by landline has become an issue, which is why the university is launching the new app, called City Logger.

The Android version will be released Monday and the iOS version will follow shortly after.

The app is free and will have two different versions, each being assigned randomly to users who download it.

The idea is to capture, in granular detail, transit users behaviour. It will run in the background collecting location and time data and will prompt users about the nature of their various trips, from commuting to work to trips to the grocery store to bicycle rides to walks.

"One real advantage is once the app is loaded we can observe people day after day for a week or two," Miller said. "You can identify patterns in people's lives."

More modern method

Miller said the traditional survey required "an army of people" that asked, when people answered their home phones, where they travelled on a given day.

"But people tend to forget short trips. You ask them what they did and they say went to work and came home, but forgot about going for lunch," Miller said.

It is also a much better tool to capture walking and cycling trips, he said.

"That's becoming more and more important to understand what's known as active transportation," Miller said.

The new initiative is far from perfect, he said, as not everyone has a smartphone — he estimates 60 to 65 per cent of Torontonians own one — and the data will complement their traditional survey, he said.

The initiative is part of a three-year, $1-million research project, he said.

Miller's team reports to the Transportation Information Steering Committee, which is chaired by the province's Ministry of Transportation.

Muhammad Khan, a senior adviser with the ministry's transportation planning branch, said the app is an experiment to see if it can address age bias with the traditional survey.

He said they first noticed issues back in 1991 with the rise of cellphones.

"The data was becoming more biased towards older generations and that was the critical issue we identified," Khan said.

He said they had some success with users filling out the survey online, but believes the app has potential to retrieve granular data that can be difficult get otherwise.