Traffic engineering, telematics, infrastructure management and planning are well established disciplines with several subdomains and a vast number of respective methods and toolsets. They all deal with traffic in the broadest sense: from planning, building and maintaining of infrastructure networks to an effective management of traffic flows.
On the other hand politics, lobby groups or citizens’ initiatives are powerful and important stakeholders when it comes to (road-based) traffic. They each follow their own targets and make use of different approaches (not to allude to methods and tools in a technical or scientific sense) in order to reach them.
Whereas the first group most often has a pragmatic, “technical” view on the object, the latter group is mostly directly affected in a certain way and consequently emotionally associated with the topic. An engineer exactly knows the width of a road segment, the type of pavement and the accurate number of vehicles per day. Based on this information he/she can judge whether the road segment fulfills the legal requirements or if any improvements need to be made. In contrast to this perspective a person living in the neighborhood probably does not know any technical details about the road, but he/she might know that it is very inconvenient to pass this road segment by bicycle because he/she feels threatened by cars.
Both groups are dealing with the exactly same spatial scope – a certain, clearly defined part of a road. But their view, experience and language is completely different. Some engineers and planners are very good in communicating with citizens (participation has become a real buzzword!), but they are – I fear – a minority. Since mobility is a very hot and increasingly complex topic, especially in urban environments, it is of crucial importance to bridge the gap between professionals and citizens. What is needed is a facilitator for a fact-based communication and decision making process where all voices are heard and equally considered. Complex problems need transparent and comprehensible solutions.
Geography as a discipline has a long tradition of serving as a stage for multiple perspective on space, making it a very heterogeneous domain with influences from the humanities, engineering and natural science. The common denominator for all questions and applications is space, be it the physical surface of the earth or a completely virtual environment. With geographical information systems (GIS) concepts from geography can be fruitfully combined with the power of computational processing. This makes it possible to collect spatial data, analyze it, retrieve useful information and visualize results in a catchy style.
When it comes to mobility research, planning and management geographers can hardly do the job of established professionals. But with an explicitly integrative approach geographers can provide – with the help of GIS – a holistic view on road networks, mobility and society which is not available within specialized professional domains or very focused interest groups. GIS can definitely make a significant difference!
GIS basically consists of a digital model of the real world (abstracted as geometric points, lines or polygons) combined with an arbitrary number of associated data or attributes. This allows for very diverse representations of the real world. The engineer’s view of a road segment – geometrically well defined with the exact technical information attached – can be represented just as well as a rather fuzzy, verbal description of the respective segment. Need a proof for this theory? Just pin a map on the wall and let diverse people tell them their (spatial) stories …
With geographical information systems one can not only store or represent different descriptions of space but also do all sorts of queries, selections and analysis. What’s the distance to the next bus stop? What’s the optimal route for bicyclists? Where are urgent maintenance works to be done? How many people live within a 100 meter radius from a certain place? Where are the most disliked road segments in my quarter? Who suffers most from motorized traffic? For how many additional vehicles do I have to adapt my road network after building a new apartment block? How should a pedestrian underpass be designed? And so on and so forth.
These questions are very diverse. They might be answered either by engineers, citizens or social scientist. But what all these mobility-related questions have in common is their implicit spatial component. Hence they can be answered with the help of geographical information systems. Moreover with GI systems multiple options for potential answers can be generated, depending on the focus you choose. In their ability to represent and anlyze space from very different perspectives geographical systems can not only serve as facilitator for integrative approaches but they can really contribute to better solutions for our daily mobility challenges.