Published on March 13th, 2015 | by Christine Allum

Here’s How One App Could Seriously Change Your Commute

In 2011, CAA set up the CAA Graduate Scholarship in Transportation Engineering at the University of Toronto (U of T)*. We were impressed with the quality of research they were doing to help move cars through intersections more efficiently, allow even flow on our highways, make it safer for pedestrians to cross the street, and many other practical improvements.

This scholarship offers a helping hand to hard working, successful and innovative researchers to continue working on the future of how we get around.

Alec Knowles, 2014 recipient of the CAA Graduate Scholarship in Transportation Engineering at the University of Toronto (U of T), is working on a project that aims to make transit more efficient.

The goal of Alec’s research is to create a web-based tool and a mobile app that will allow a transit agency to plot bus routes on Google Maps, and then (virtually) add/delete stops to see how much time this would cost/save the bus and its passengers, based on historical patterns.

We had a chat with Alec to learn more about him, how his app could change your commute and what advice he might have for a prospective college or university student:

What are some benefits a commuter might have if the results of your research are put into practice?

Our current research is aimed at providing software tools to transit agencies to facilitate fact-based decision-making for transit planning and operations. In other words, we take the reams of data gathered by transit vehicles and try to make sense of it. The end goal of improving the decision-making process is improving the efficiency and service of transit vehicles.

If the data shows that hardly anyone takes the No. 651 bus on Tuesday mornings, why are buses arriving every five minutes? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have buses come every 10 minutes, and transfer the spare buses to another route which is overloaded? Of course, transit agencies already put a great deal of effort into making sure the No. 651 scenario above happens as infrequently as possible. What we are trying to do is reduce the time and effort required for this sort of decision making, while increasing its accuracy.

This translates to benefits for every commuter, regardless of whether they use public transit:

  • More efficient transit means lower costs, meaning fewer tax dollars and lower fares;
  • More efficient transit means better service per dollar spent, improving the speed and comfort enjoyed by transit riders;
  • More efficient transit means more transit users, reducing congestion on the roads

You were working prior to starting grad school, what drove you to change course and make the return to school to do this research?

During my last term of undergrad at Queen’s, I was intent on applying to graduate school for the following year. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and thought grad school would be a good way of kicking the can down the road. I chatted with a professor in the business school at Queen’s, who – given my obvious indecision regarding my future – recommended I go out into the real world to work for a few years: “Get some work experience, find out what you like to do, and after a few years, if you truly enjoy school, you’ll be anxious to go back.”

After a few years of working I found that I liked my coworkers and passably enjoyed what I was doing, but never felt truly gripped by the work.

I left my job, and took some time off to step back and figure out what direction I wanted my career to take. I reflected on the reason I chose to study engineering in the first place: I enjoyed math, data, and computer science. Transportation struck me as a likely match. My search led me to professor Dr. Amer Shalaby at U of T whose research combined public transit with math and data science. I eagerly bought into his field and his vision, and haven’t looked back since.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to someone reading this who might be considering post-secondary education, or even grad school?

  1. If you love your field and want to advance your career within that field, you’re lucky. Decide (based on the experience of others in your line of work/study) whether working or school is the better vehicle for advancement, and go for it.
  1. If you aren’t sure that you want to stay in your field, before making a change, take your time, and think critically. There is little risk in leaving a career you do not plan to stay in for the future, but there is high risk in jumping prematurely into a new field without careful consideration. There’s rarely a need to rush into a school program. School will still exist a year from now. That said, don’t wait too long (say, five years), or your life will be so different you’ll have to reevaluate everything and start the process over again.
  1. No job (or school program) is perfect, all involve completing mundane and unpleasant tasks, so try to find the one that is best suited to your natural inclinations. If you are trying to decide what career path to go down, start by making a shortlist of your favourite and least favourite everyday activities: things like reading, writing, using spreadsheets, delivering presentations, interacting with people, monotonous filing, working with your hands, perfecting processes or products (e.g., baking the perfect cake, or running the fastest 10k)…etc. Evaluate any future career based on how much time you will spend doing these everyday things you like, and how much time you will spend doing the everyday things you hate.

And finally, what is one piece of technology, hardware or software that you can’t live without to help you navigate or survive your own commute?


* The recipients of the CAA Graduate Scholarship in Transportation Engineering are selected by the University of Toronto.

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