Integrated LRT, simulation software, and the future of urban transit

By Eric Cone | August 22, 2018

Light rail transit (LRT) is a wonderful way to move high volumes of passengers around a city, connecting them to the places they live, work, and play. It’s clean, quick, efficient, and much more affordable than alternatives like subways. When it’s implemented properly, LRT can really complement an entire transit system and shape the growth and development of an area.

LRT systems support and even spur growth. When implemented properly, they can actually be used as a tool to shape growth and focus the development of a city. We’ve seen this happen effectively with the nearby Region of Waterloo, one of our forward-thinking clients with whom we worked to help develop early plans and strategies around these concepts.

In Waterloo Region, the goal was to limit urban sprawl and focus development along the area’s central transit corridor. Even though the light rail project is still a few months away from opening, the Region is already attributing over C$2 billion worth of new development in its downtown cores to the project. This in turn has shifted the perception of the public from uncertainty to excitement and ambassadorship as people and businesses recognize the positive effect it's having on their city.

Waterloo’s outcome is one that we believe can be replicated elsewhere. The United Nations says that by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities. So we need to focus on proper transit planning and development, and start now. This will require more detailed and accurate assessments of both current conditions and future needs and goals if we are to design the right kind of transit to get people where they need to go safely, cost-effectively, and conveniently.

Fortunately, LRT planning now benefits from some fantastic digital tools that let us simulate situations and test out strategies and solutions. By creating different corridor, intersection, and station scenarios and introducing any number of variables, circumstances, or possibilities, we can predict how concepts will play out on the computer screen first, and then focus on the ones that show the most promise and best opportunities for the particular location.

We commonly use four different types of simulation tools in LRT planning:

Traction power consumption and traction power modeling for light rail helps us understand the best places for traction power substations, how to minimize energy usage, and how the alignment affects power consumption.

Modeling street and intersection vehicular access allows us to see how intersections function in conjunction with the introduction of transit and the subsequent impacts to levels of service.

Modeling the operational performance and run-time analyses of light rail vehicles enables projections of how frequently trains will be needed as well as how close together they’ll be.

Analyzing the movement of pedestrians gives us a better understanding of how people interface with the stations at particular locations along the transit corridors and intersections.

Our teams have gone a step further with these technologies. They have created a software tool that dynamically links the outputs and inputs of all these simulation packages. So now we can get a more detailed and accurate picture of a complete transit scenario and see the results of each model dynamically change as any model variable is modified.

For example, we can observe the relationship between a light rail vehicle traveling along a block and through an intersection, and the traffic lights, transit lights, and pedestrian movements that are occurring simultaneously. Understanding how each element affects all the others dynamically allows us to optimize strategies for the most efficient solutions.

We’ve already proven the effectiveness of this tool on a current project with the City of Calgary in Western Canada. It’s demonstrated how using smart technology is one of the most important keys to proper planning when it comes to transit.

We’re starting to see public support shift in favor of smart tech solutions, and a new generation of city dwellers are prioritizing better work-life balance. We’re seeing a stronger desire to rely on transit to live, work, and play in the same area, as opposed to sitting in three hours of traffic every day.

Now more than ever, people are looking for smart tech solutions and buy-in from government and industry. Yes, the investment needed to create good public transit is substantial, but the evidence of positive returns is indisputable. It’s the best way forward for our environment, our economies, and our overall quality of life. It’s time to get started transforming our transit systems into future-oriented assets that make cities more livable, more functional, and better for all.