The Broken Algorithm That Poisoned American Transportation

Aaron Gordon at Vice: “…The Louisville highway project is hardly the first time travel demand models have missed the mark. Despite them being a legally required portion of any transportation infrastructure project that gets federal dollars, it is one of urban planning’s worst kept secrets that these models are error-prone at best and fundamentally flawed at worst.

Recently, I asked Renn how important those initial, rosy traffic forecasts of double-digit growth were to the boondoggle actually getting built.

“I think it was very important,” Renn said. “Because I don’t believe they could have gotten approval to build the project if they had not had traffic forecasts that said traffic across the river is going to increase substantially. If there isn’t going to be an increase in traffic, how do you justify building two bridges?”

ravel demand models come in different shapes and sizes. They can cover entire metro regions spanning across state lines or tackle a small stretch of a suburban roadway. And they have gotten more complicated over time. But they are rooted in what’s called the Four Step process, a rough approximation of how humans make decisions about getting from A to B. At the end, the model spits out numbers estimating how many trips there will be along certain routes.

As befits its name, the model goes through four steps in order to arrive at that number. First, it generates a kind of algorithmic map based on expected land use patterns (businesses will generate more trips than homes) and socio-economic factors (for example, high rates of employment will generate more trips than lower ones). Then it will estimate where people will generally be coming from and going to. The third step is to guess how they will get there, and the fourth is to then plot their actual routes, based mostly on travel time. The end result is a number of how many trips there will be in the project area and how long it will take to get around. Engineers and planners will then add a new highway, transit line, bridge, or other travel infrastructure to the model and see how things change. Or they will change the numbers in the first step to account for expected population or employment growth into the future. Often, these numbers are then used by policymakers to justify a given project, whether it’s a highway expansion or a light rail line…(More)”.