Tracking your commute

Crowd awaits train at train station as it approaches in the background.

Nick Place

Posted May 28, 2018

Real-time-data tracking how, where and when we move may lead to easier commuting.

Paul Simon once sang of technological advancements good and bad: “These are the days of miracles and wonder,” and he was right. Our use of technology in every facet of our lives means that information is gathered wherever we go, from myki cards and smartphones to in-car technology, CCTV and satellites.

In the past this information was based on expensive, time-consuming and infrequent surveys that sampled traffic flow on selected days. Policy makers now have continuous real-time data to work from as they plan public transport, road infrastructure and traffic-light timings. Insight gained from analysing this data has the potential to unlock real benefits.

RACV's News and Lifestyle spoke to the people who carve up all of our transport data, to find out how the information age is changing the way we travel and the way our cities are being designed. This is a timely discussion given Melbourne and Victoria are going through an extraordinary period of growth. Most of us feel this change when we experience packed trains and trams, overflowing footpaths and, of course, congestion on the roads.

As the RACV launches its 2018 Redspot Survey, identifying the most notorious road sections across the city and suburbs, pretty much every expert we spoke to for this story said drivers had better get used to traffic jams.

In April, Infrastructure Victoria’s ‘Immediate actions to tackle congestion’ report reconfirmed its travel forecasts. The city’s population is expected to rise from 4.9 million people to around six million by 2030. Daily travel is set to increase by 25 per cent while overall travel, whether by car, public transport or other means, may increase by 3.5 million journeys per day. Cars are expected to account for 70 per cent of journeys.

But alleviating the congestion crush is where data comes into its own. When you walk into the Bourke Street headquarters of Intelematics, owner of the SUNA Traffic channel, your eye is drawn to a giant wall-screen showing streetscapes of Australia’s major cities. Individual roads change colour as traffic eases or freezes before your eyes. Technicians work away at computers, analysing and monitoring.

Intelematics’ Product Manager, Steven Moloney, doesn’t even attempt to explain the science going on behind that SUNA screen. Partly because the maths and coding is extraordinarily complex but also because there are sensitive commercial arrangements that he needs to protect, such as which data providers his company works with to gain access to devices or elements within individual cars that are pinging towers or satellites.

Woman looks at her phone while waiting for train at station.

Policy makers now have continuous real-time data to work from as they plan public transport, road infrastructure and traffic-light timings.


The reason Google Maps, SUNA, TomTom or other companies that work in this area can provide real-time information about road traffic is because they are tracking enough vehicles to get a representative sample on the roads, as traffic halts and flows.

As well as being the company behind the core data at the basis of RACV’s new-look Redspot Survey, Intelematics has partnerships with many other roadside service organisations around the world, plus emergency services and car manufacturers. 

“We source billions of points that go into creating particular traffic services at any particular point in time, nationally,” says Steven.

“The quality of the data plays a critical role, but it’s the spread of data across the road network that is important to us. It’s not all passenger vehicles. There are also couriers, taxis, commercial and heavy vehicles that behave and contribute to how traffic is performing on the road, so we source data from multiple suppliers to get a spread of representative vehicles.

“Most of what we do is real-time traffic flow and incidents. Using FM radio signals, we can show you where traffic is heavy and what travel times will be when you choose a route.”

Infrastructure Victoria has explored this world further with a new data-crunching technique called the Melbourne Activity-Based Model (MABM).

“It enables you to see how people behave, how they make decisions, by collating a whole raft of different sources of data from the census to preference surveys, and figures from VicRoads,” says CEO Michel Masson.

“What’s unique about our model is that it actually integrates all of this data into something that hasn’t been done before. We’re awash with data; it’s about turning that information into intelligence.”

The breakthrough, according to Michel, is that the MABM no longer looks at somebody driving a car as a simple “trip”,  as traditional modelling does. Instead, it actively breaks down why people use their cars, and where and when, to discern behaviours that can be catered for, influenced and altered. For example, the MABM found that 15 per cent of freeway traffic is on recreational or social outings, not heading to work or school.

It found that one in four drivers admit that, right now, they don’t necessarily have to drive to work in peak hour; they could shift their journey to when the roads are quieter. Even more significantly, one in three have conceded that they could take other transport options instead of grabbing the car keys.

Imagine the difference if 25 or 33 per cent of cars were removed from peak hour although, of course, that would require public transport, bike paths and other means to accommodate those people.

These kinds of findings have seen Infrastructure Victoria push heavily to government the idea of a transport network payment system, to be introduced probably within five to 15 years. It would mean Melbourne drivers who want to use the roads at the busiest times pay for that right, just as we pay more for peak-demand electricity or flights in school holidays when demand is intense.

There are precedents: London has long had a “congestion tax” for anybody wanting to drive into the centre of the city; Stockholm’s peak-hour volumes have dropped by 20 per cent since time-sensitive payments were introduced; and Singapore has been charging for years. Rideshare company Uber has surge pricing in peak periods and, in the US, the company has conceded congestion taxes are a good idea to remove half-hearted commuters from the peak-hour choke.

Such ideas are part of the discussion about how we better utilise the roads and transport options we have, instead of endlessly looking to build new lanes for even more traffic. Infrastructure Victoria has proposed off-peak public transport fares to give an incentive for public transport commuters to avoid the peak-hour crush, and for more drivers to give up their cars during the week.


Train zooms past with city buildings in the background.

The Victorian government is looking for ways to reduce congestion and improve commuting times.


All this information can help people make smarter decisions about how and when they travel.

RACV senior planner mobility futures, Stuart Outhred, advocates this and believes the rise of data has another benefit we’re not yet utilising. “All this data is being generated through thousands of individual devices such as your mobile phone, gantries that read your e-tag on freeways, sensors at traffic lights and on bike lanes,” says Stuart.

“What’s exciting is how all this information can help people make smarter decisions about how and when they travel. By being more sophisticated in how these data sets are crunched, and integrating information across all modes and services, the community should get a better transport offering; fewer delays, more frequent services, all hopefully leading to a less stressful, healthier commute. I like to think we can get genuine public value out of this new world of mobility data.”


Redspot survey’s new data drive

RACV’s biennial Redspot Survey into Melbourne’s traffic congestion has a dramatic new methodology this year. RACV senior traffic engineer, Tina Webb, says that in previous years, the survey was based on questions put to road users about which intersections they considered to be the worst in the city.

“But in 2018, we’re tapping into the vast databank relating to traffic flow held by Intelematics’ SUNA, a real-time traffic monitoring data company that is majority-owned by RACV,” she says.

Intelematics has sliced and diced its data to tell us Melbourne’s worst road sections in terms of actual performance (or lack thereof) in peak periods compared to measured free-flow performance. 

“They’ve used data from months of travel, but excluded weekends, school holidays and public holidays,” Tina says.

RACV members will still get to vote on the road sections that frustrate them the most, but this time it will be from a pre-chosen, data-proven list of the worst of the worst.

The aim, as always, is to raise awareness of artery blockages within the road system, as a means of advocating for road and public transport action by government and future planners.