TrafficTurk Takes on Farm Progress Show’s Epic Traffic Jams

The throngs of visitors to the popular annual Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois, typically bring equally sizeable traffic jams. But help is on the way in the form of a traffic study being conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on behalf of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). During this year’s event, researchers deployed a new system to study traffic patterns around the show with the goal of giving organizers information that will lead to better traffic management strategies in the years to come.

This year’s Farm Progress Show—the nation’s largest outdoor agricultural trade show—took place August 27–29. For the first two mornings of the event, more than 30 data collectors were stationed around the area at critical points to monitor traffic congestion using a new smartphone application, TrafficTurk, developed by ICT investigator Dan Work, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The app basically turns smartphones into turning movement counters—expensive devices that traditionally have been used for traffic studies. The TrafficTurk system allows scores of users to simultaneously collect data and easily upload it to a control point, where researchers can use it to generate state-of-the-art analytics or even provide real-time information for police, emergency personnel, and the public.

Big events such as the Farm Progress Show are precisely what Work designed the TrafficTurk system for. “We designed TrafficTurk as a quick and cheap way to collect traffic data during ‘extreme congestion events,’” he said.

He further explained: “Special events like the Farm Progress Show create temporary but significant traffic congestion that can cause long delays to travelers. Because traffic congestion occurs only during the event, measuring the traffic with expensive but permanent sensors is usually cost prohibitive.”

In the past year, Work has successfully deployed the system to monitor traffic in New York City after Hurricane Sandy, as well as during the 2012 Illinois Homecoming football game. News of those deployments caught the eye of Macon County Engineer Bruce Bird.

“I found it interesting because they were measuring a large amount of traffic at a large number of intersections going to a single point location,” Bird said. “I thought this would be perfect for the Farm Progress Show.”

Show organizers, IDOT, and the Illinois State Police agreed. Since 2005, when the Farm Progress Show found a permanent home on a designated site near Richland Community College in Decatur, managing the traffic pouring into town from all directions has proved challenging, Bird said. The worst jam is along Interstate 72, where traffic can be backed up for four or five miles on the mornings of the show.

The hope is that the TrafficTurk study will offer a critical bird’s-eye view of traffic patterns, enabling the county to evaluate the efficiency of the current routes and assess the impact of traffic on alternate routes, leading to a strategy for smoother traffic management in the future.

This year’s traffic was typical, Bird said, and provided a very good test of the TrafficTurk system. “I am looking forward to the results of crunching the numbers to learn how we can make the traffic for future Farm Progress Shows flow smoother,” he said. “Hopefully, we will be able to reduce or eliminate backups—especially on the interstate—and make the traffic plan safer as well.”

-November 2013