Technology Perspective

Ironing out the bumps in the road

Research at KACST has helped develop a digital platform to guide transport planners and commuters on how to keep a city moving.

10 December 2017

A pioneering web-based system for studying and monitoring the road, bus and metro network of a large city is set to go online this year. It is initially based on Riyadh, which is creating the world’s largest public urban transportation project planned as an entire system. This transformation will deliver a new metro system and integrated bus network1, and is a prime example of how a city must cope with a rapidly growing population and urban sprawl. “Our interactive platform for transportation offers a much improved understanding of traffic and social dynamics for urban planners and designers working on such developments,” says KACST’s Anas Alfaris.

The website will be the most visible output of the Integrated Transportation System (ITS) project2, delivered by the Center for Complex Engineering Systems3, a joint venture between KACST and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. Alfaris is the director of the Center and a principal investigator on the project, which ran from 2015 to 2017 with the aim of investigating how the transportation networks are used in Saudi Arabia’s capital city.

The KACST and MIT teams generated detailed information on people’s journey patterns through data collection. They gathered conventional data on who was using the roads, bus services and metro system, and at what times of day. They also gathered data on traffic congestion and road accidents.

Deeper analyses came from examining patterns and locations of individual activities, including cell phone and social media use, and taxi hire requests. The data collection process offers an example of how location information from social network activities, such as Twitter and Foursquare check-ins, can be a useful information resource for researchers probing the interactions between society and the infrastructure we depend on.

The researchers then incorporated the data, using sophisticated software algorithms, into easily accessible visual maps that display what happens in different parts of the city at various times.

A ‘congestion heat map’, for example, has a slider that can change the time of day while the colours on the street map show hot spots of congestion as they build up and disperse. A map showing where taxi trips end reveals areas that would benefit from reducing congestion through trip sharing. Moving the computer cursor over a map on migrant population movements shows the numbers of people flowing through specific neighbourhoods at various points in time. Yet another map tracks the movements of faculty and students registered at a women’s-only university in Riyadh.

In this way, the algorithms mine the data and look at how the movement of people around the city is related to such factors as gender, cultural background, employment and education.

Initially, the project was designed as a “decision support system for city planners at the operational and strategic levels,” says the co-investigators. “But we found that much of the information could be used to increase public engagement.” They envisage that people might eventually use a mobile app to look around the city and zoom in on neighbourhoods of interest. “This will allow them to understand the city better and to give feedback to policymakers about problematic transportation issues.”

Having begun as a deeply technical project aimed mostly at professionals, it has now broadened into something that the KACST and MIT teams hope might facilitate better communication on transport policy between citizens, politicians and transportation professionals.

The predictive aspect of the project allows users to observe the likely effects of the new transportation systems that will come into use in 2018. It can anticipate the flow of traffic and people, identify the riskiest areas for traffic incidents and give users a detailed picture of how the transportation system will operate.

There are also many possibilities for use in education. The project has already been used as the basis of a course for university students at MIT in the US. Entitled Big Data Visualization & Society: Riyadh, this course taught students to work with complex ‘big data’ to answer or identify urban issues4. The students focused on the public policy and social implications of the creation of the new metro system in Riyadh. They were guided to reflect on the implications for the social dynamics of the city. In addition to considering the overall design of a big city’s transportation network, this led participants to consider wider issues such as the interactions of gender, race and social inequality with transportation.

The data collection and analysis might not end with the launch of the platform. Although the current modelling is based on historical data, it may become possible to continue to collect and analyse data as the transportation systems it models come into use. Such possibilities, however, have yet to be assessed by the funders and stakeholders.

The challenges and problems of transportation in Riyadh are a microcosm of those faced by Saudi Arabia as a whole, with a fast-expanding population of 28 million that is expected to double by 2032. The next step for the researchers is to move on to other large metropolitan areas in Saudi Arabia. Broader ambitions are to add rail and sea transportation networks covering all regions in the kingdom, not just the cities.

The joint KACST and MIT team believes the ITS project is developing expertise and insights that could be applicable worldwide. The models and visualizations being developed may eventually be seen as an early step in learning to understand how people move, and how they can be helped to get around cities everywhere.


  1. King Abdulaziz Project for Riyadh Public Transport | article
  2. Integrated Transportation System | article
  3. Center for Complex Engineering Systems | article
  4. Big Data Visualization & Society – Riyadh | article