Engineering Science Education Conference – ESEC

An Extension on Lecture by Prof. Baher Abdulhai

On January 20th, 2017, Professor Baher Abdulhai gave a guest lecture entitled “Can Artificial Intelligence Win the Traffic Game?” The key concept presented: the means to manage traffic flow better.

There were 2 strategies the professor has been researching to optimize traffic flow.  One was to use an intelligent, self teaching, system. Hence the use of ‘Artificial intelligence’ in his lecture title.

The other approach, is the one I intend to focus on. It is the analysis of current traffic flow and congestion levels, used to control roadway tolls on expressways to match levels of traffic on the road. This would mean highest tolls at peak hours, and progressively lower tools as traffic becomes progressively less busy. This spreads the usage of the road by discouraging drivers from using it during peak hours, distributing that traffic volume to the road at other times.

Professor Abdulhai then talked about how this method impacts the time drivers choose to leave and where they choose to travel. He mentioned how it will cause people to change their schedules. In defense of this point Professor Abdulhai, stated that the options were to either expand infrastructure or improve what already exists. Unfortunately, there is very little space left to expand into in terms of Toronto and the Gardiner Expressway. His point: To optimize infrastructure so closely tied with the daily lives of people, we indeed must impact the daily lives of people.

I became curious: is the impact on people from this infrastructure optimization justified?  Is the cost to society, the financial cost to individual drivers, and the political controversy [1], outweighed by the benefits of reduced congestion?

I did some investigation to answer my query and I have found that its more complicated than a yes or no answer.

In an article on a report by a McMaster researcher Matthias Sweet, my question has been almost directly addressed. The article makes the key statement, “sometimes the cost of alleviating congestion is higher than the cost of the congestion itself. […] Until congestion reaches Sweet’s tipping point, it’s economically inefficient to spend resources trying to fix it” [2] The tipping point mentioned is a threshold of “about 35 to 37 hours of delay per commuter per year (or about four-and-a-half minutes per one-way trip, relative to free-flowing traffic).”

The findings of this study provide just the kind of insight I was trying to get at with my question; going beyond Professor Abdulhai’s innovations and essentially asking if we even should implement what he is proposing. What this study suggests to me about the situation on the Gardiner Expressway is that an investigation needs to be conducted to check if it is worthwhile to do what Professor Abdulhai suggests. This is all rooted in the need to address the subtle leap in logic made at the presentations debut, that congestion should be fixed. While counter intuitive, it’s a jump that could be erroneous, as this study suggests for certain cases.


  1. James Royerson, “”Wynne Listened To The ‘Vocal, Selfish, Short-Sighted’ In Blocking Toronto Road Tolls: James”.,” The Star, 2017. [Online]. [Accessed 9 02 2017].
  2. E. Badger, “CityLab,” Atlantic Media, 22 October 2013. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 19 Feburary 2017].


The PDF version of this here.

More about ESEC here.

More about the speakers at ESEC here.

More on the specific lecture  I discuss, found here.




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