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Measuring Traffic Congestion with Taxi GPS Data and Travel Time Index

Xiangfu Kong1; Jiawen Yang2; and Zhongyu Yang3

Shenzhen Graduate School, Peking University, Building E Room 216 University
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Town, Lishui Road, Nanshan District, Shenzhen 518055.

Shenzhen Graduate School, Peking University, Building E Room 326, University
Town, Lishui Road, Nanshan District, Shenzhen 518055.

College of Civil Engineering, Hunan University, Building 8 Room 552 Dezhiyuan
Dormitory, Yuelu Mountain, Changsha, Hunan Province 410082.

In an era of increasing urban traffic congestion, cities in China still lack a
comparable congestion indicator. Aiming to fill this gap, we computed the travel
time index (TTI) with taxi GPS data. Our TTI is the ratio of the travel time during
the period of interest to the travel time during free-flow conditions. Using Shenzhen
as the case study, we computed road level TTI for nearly 10,000 roads. The GPS
data, which tracks the movement of 13,798 taxies, are processed in a PostgreSQL
database. Our method can measure urban transportation congestion with
fine-grained spatial and temporal accuracy, and has the potential to be used in other

Keywords: Traffic congestion; Travel time index; Taxi GPS data; PostgreSQL

Fast urbanization and motorization in China has brought severe traffic
congestion in the megacities. For example, in 2008 in Beijing, the estimated cost
caused by traffic delay was about 45.4-65.3 billion Yuan, with about 4 billion Yuan
for the cost of fuel consumption. Congestion-relevant hydrocarbon and carbon
monoxide emissions are 563 tons and 3,260 tons, respectively. The total social cost
is as high as 50 to 250 billion Yuan, accounting for 2.5 to 5% of Beijing's GDP (Xie
et al.,2011). In addition, traffic congestion increases residents’ anxiety, changes
their travel plans, and reduces business operational efficiency, which eventually
negatively affects employment and business opportunities (Zhu et al., 2006). As a
result, various city governments have acted to ease traffic congestion.
Understanding where and when congestion happens, and at what level,
should preclude strategies for congestion mitigation. Congestion indicators with
high spatial and temporal accuracy are thus desirable for informing policy-making.
While big cities have begun to measure their own road congestion, the employed


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indicators are not comparable among cities. It would be desirable to build a

congestion indicator that can be implemented in various cities. Our research
adopts travel time index (TTI) as the congestion indicator, and we compute TTI
with taxi-GPS data, a dataset that is available in many Chinese cities. Our method
has been tested in Shenzhen, a city with 18 million residents and over 13,000
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Developed countries, such as the USA, Japan, and those in Western Europe,
have developed various indicators to measure congestion levels, partially because
of their stage of motorization. Those indicators are computed based on traffic
speed, traffic density, traveling time, and so on. For example, 35 cities in
California used lane kilometer duration index (LKDI) to assess periodic traffic
congestion. INRIX index, which is widely used in European countries, measures
traffic congestion based on the ratio of the expected speed to the actual speed at
the road level. It uses road length as a weighting factor when aggregating the
congestion indicator for the whole road network (Zheng et al., 2014). Lindley
optimized the parameter of the congestion index according to the different
characteristics of roads and urban areas and named the indicator Congestion
Severity Index (CSI) (Lindley, 1987). CSI, defined as the total delay time per
million vehicle kilometers of travel, reflects the relative congestion level at a
macroscopic scale. Later, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
adopted CSI as an indicator of congestion level in its traffic monitoring system
report. In 1994, the Texas Transportation Institute proposed the Road Congestion
Index (RCI) as a measure for congestion levels of urban traffic.RCI is defined as
the weighted average of the daily traffic volume per kilometer of different road
classes (e.g. expressway and truck road). Daily traffic volume per kilometer is the
ratio of the vehicle miles of travel (VMT) to the total lane-miles. The RCI method
actually measures traffic intensity. It does not accurately describe the levels of
congestion. For now, Texas Transportation Institute has switched to using travel
time index (TTI) as its congestion indicator (Schrank et al., 2012). This switch
reflects the advantage of travel time- or speed-based measures: they are much
easier to understand (Quiroga, 2000).
Congested cities in China, such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, have
developed their own congestion evaluation framework. For example, in Beijing, a
congested road is defined as a road where motorized traffic speed is under a
certain value. City-wide congestion is measured by the city-wide average speed,
which is weighted by VKT on each road (Zheng et al., 2014). This method is easy
to operate, but it is not as accurate, as speed not only reflects congestion, but also
the facility condition. Shanghai uses traffic speed and volume-to-capacity-ratio to
compute their congestion indicator. It is not easy to execute, as parameters for
road capacity can be easily challenged (Wei, 2002). Because of these differences,
congestion indicators in Beijing and Shanghai are not comparable. It is unknown
as to which city is more congested, even though they both publish congestion


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indicators. We propose that TTI has the potential to fill this gap.


Travel time index

We use travel time index (TTI) to measure levels of congestion. TTI is the
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ratio of the travel time during the period of interest to the travel time during
free-flow conditions. The bigger the ratio, the more congested the road. For
example, if a road's TTI for a period of time is 1.2, it suggests a travel time 20%
longer than during free-flow conditions. The formula for the TTI calculation is
shown in Equation 1.

TTI = = = (1)

T is the driving time on a road during the period of interest, while T

is the driving time on the same road during free-flow conditions. V is the traffic
speed during the period of interest, while V is traffic speed during free-flow
conditions. L represents the road length. According to Equation 1, TTI can be
calculated as long as the free-flow speed and the observed speed for the period of
interest are known.
TTI has two advantages over other congestion indicators employed in
China. First, it separates congestion from the facility condition. For example,
Beijing’s Urban Road Congestion Evaluation System evaluates traffic congestion
based on the average speed, which not only measures the congestion level, but
also the road conditions, as roads of different classes have different free-flow
speeds. Twenty kph is a congested speed for an urban expressway, but a free-flow
speed for local streets with dense intersections. Second, TTI is easy to understand
and TTI can be used for comparison. For instance, if the rush hour TTI is 1.5 in
Beijing, 1.4 in Shanghai, and 1.3 in Shenzhen, it would suggest that peak hour
congestion level in Beijing is higher than in Shanghai and Shenzhen, (as the travel
time during Beijing’s peak hours is 50% longer than non-peak hours, while that in
Shanghai and Shenzhen is only 40% and 30%, respectively).

Taxi GPS data

The TTI calculation needs information on traffic characteristics, such as

traffic density, traffic speed, or traveling time. Technologies exist to help acquire
this data. First, sensor equipment such as loop detectors, microwave radars, and
video recording devices can be used to collect traffic information (Younes et al.,
2015). However, these devices are expensive and are limited to the surrounding
locations where the sensors are installed. Second, vehicular ad-hoc networks
technology (VANETS) can also help to acquire the needed data. This method uses


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vehicles as mobile sensors to gather real-time traffic information. Vehicles in the

network communicate with one another with a long list of data items such as
travel time, speed, or direction (Boukerche et al., 2008). Nevertheless, this
technology faces challenges in band width consumption and reliability (Zhong et
al., 2008).
GPS-equipped vehicles can also be effective when collecting real-time
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traffic information (Shan et al., 2014). The taxi GPS data used in this paper
provides the necessary information for TTI calculations. By the ordinance of the
Shenzhen City Government, all of the 13,798 taxies in the city are equipped with a
GPS unit and a communicative device. The device sends the taxi’s location
information, (in longitude and latitude coordinates), with a time stamp to a
centralized data server on an interval of 30 seconds. For the purpose of our
research, we use a subset of this dataset, which starts on April 18, 2011 and ends
on April 25, 2011.
The data table includes nearly 20 million records. Every record shows the
location of a particular taxi at a specific point in time. Columns in the data table
include: vehicle plate number, data transmission time, longitude, latitude, vehicle
status, vehicle speed, and driving direction. The status column has two values: 1
or 0. The status value is 1 when there is passenger inside and 0 when there is no
passenger. The raw data comes in a CSV format. Due to the massive size of the
dataset, we use the open source enterprise database management system,
PostgreSQL, for data processing.
The road network we used in our research is a GIS vector file, composed
of 19,706 segments (polylines). Every road has three attributes: serial number,
name, and type. Road types are divided into expressways, arterials, and local
streets. In order to measure congestion level by road, it needs to be determined
whether a taxi was driving on a certain road during a period of interest. We could
do this with ArcGIS, but the size of the taxi dataset makes it impossible, so we
have to load the road file into PostgreSQL too. PostgreSQL has its own spatial
extension, PostGIS, which helps to manage the spatial data and process spatial
queries. The framework of spatial data processing is shown in Figure 1. When
identifying all GPS points associated with each road segment, we have to assume
that a GPS point falling within a distance of half of the road width to the road
centerline is on the road.

Raw taxi data (CSV format) Shenzhen road network file

(Shapefile format)

PostgreSQL database system PostGIS spatial data engine

Taxi spatial data (SQL format) Road network spatial data (SQL format)

Spatial relationship analysis

© ASCE Taxi GPS coordinate set of every road

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Figure 1. Identifying taxi-GPS points on roads

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Identifying whether a GPS point is on a certain road enables us to calculate

road traffic speed by averaging the speed value of relevant data records, but it is
only the first step. Not all GPS points can be used to represent the actual traffic
flow on the road. One noticeable case is for the data points with a speed value of
zero. For example, a taxi parking on the curbside sends its location info to the
centralized server every 30 seconds, with a speed value equal 0. Including these
points in speed estimation will underestimate the true traffic speed. However, we
cannot simply exclude all points with speed value of zero. Taxies stopping at the
red light also produce data records with speed value of zero. These speed-zero
records, however, should be included in speed estimation as they are part of the
actual traffic rhythm. Excluding them from speed computation will lead to
over-estimation. We have to differentiate between a taxi parking at the curbside
and a taxi stopping at the red light.
We realize that a taxi with passengers is unlikely to stop at the curbside,
even though it has to stop at the red light. A taxi with no passengers inside is more
likely to stop at the curbside and wait for customers. Therefore, by excluding
non-load taxi (status=0) from the calculation, we can exclude data records
associated with a stationary taxi at the curbside. We of course lose a large number
of data points associated with the running and non-load taxi. Given the size of the
dataset, excluding this portion of data should not sacrifice the robustness of the
estimated traffic speed.
In order to find out whether our concern is legitimate, we estimate the
traffic speed for three example roads, and the data were further divided into four
subsets. The three roads are the Beihuan Expressway, Liuxian Avenue, and Lishui
Road. These three roads have different functional classes: expressway, arterial,
and local street, respectively. The data points are divided into four subsets: 1) taxi
with passengers (status=1), 2) taxi without passengers (status=0), 3) running taxi
with passengers (speed >0 and status=1), 4) running taxi with no passenger
(speed >0 and status=0). The differences between group 1 and group 3, or between
group 2 and 4, are the data points for stationary taxies. We computed the average
speed for each of the three example roads. Figures 2(b), 3(b), 4(b) show traffic
speed by hour, where the traffic speed is the average of the speed value in relevant
GPS data records1. Figures 2(a), 3(a) and 4(a) show the number of data points

Figures 2 and 3 are computed based on data points of April.19th, 2011, which is

Tuesday. Figure 4 is computed based on week-long data (April 18th 2011 to

April 25th 2011) because of the low frequency of taxi arrival on Lishui Road.


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avaailable when computing the

t average hourly speedd.
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Figure 2(a). Numbber of data reecords Figuure 2(b). Aveerage speed

Figgure 2. Hou
urly traffic sspeed on Beihuan Exprressway

Figure 3(aa). Number of

o data recordds Figure 3(b). Average speeed
Figure 3.. Hourly traaffic speed on
o Liuxian A Avenue

Figure 4(aa). Number of

o data recordds Figure 4(b). Average speeed
Figure 4. Hourly trafffic speed on
n Lishui Rooad

Figure 2(b)
2 suggestts that any one
o of the four
f subsets of the dataa can be
useed to estimaate the hou urly traffic speed
s on thhe Beihua E Expressway,, as the
nonn-load and with-load
w taxxi will perforrm the same, and a taxi seldom stopps on the
mited access road
r to pick up or drop off a passennger. Lishui Road
R (Figurre 4) is a
locaal road on thhe north sidee of Shenzheen’s Universsity Town. TThis road hass almost
no traffic. Thee speed pro ofile shows almost no hourly flucctuation. The speed
diffference amo ong the fou ur subsets of the data confirms ouur early connceptual
undderstanding. Non-load taxi withh standing points (sspeed=0) tend t to
undderestimate speed
s and looaded taxi wwithout standding points ttend to overeestimate
speeed. The grroup of noon-load taxii without standings points also teends to


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oveer-estimate speed as it exxcludes the ttaxi points att the red lighht.
Liuxiann Avenue (F Figure 3) haas very diffferent speedd profiles when
w the
trafffic speed is calculated with
w four diifferent subssets of data, which sugggests the
impportance to eliminate
e thee non-load ttaxi. The nonn-load taxi ((with or withhout the
stannding momeent) reachess lowest traaffic speed in the earlyy morning. Such a
pheenomena cannnot be expplained by traffic t congeestion, but by the behaavior of
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drivvers of the non-load taaxi. They ooften wait for f passengeers at the entrye of
hosspitals, hotells or condoss. Cruising oon the streett in early mornings
m really does
not increase thee chance of getting a paassenger; it juust wastes ggasoline. In contrast,
the speed of with-load
w taxxies is close to 20kph frrom 1:00 am m to 7:00 amm in the
morrning, whilee it falls to 10kph at 9:000 am, whicch is consistent with th he actual
trafffic conditionn: Liuxian Avenue
A is coongested at rush
r hour. TThe speed proofile for
Liuuxian Avenu ue also indiicates the im mportance ofo keeping the data pooints of
stattionary mom ments for taxxies with passsengers. If those data points
p are exxcluded,
the estimated traffic
t speedd has almostt no fluctuattion from 8::00 am to 8:00 pm,
whiich does nott reflect actuual traffic conditions. The
T subset oof the loadedd taxies,
therrefore, proviides the mosst reasonablee estimate off traffic speeds.

TTTI Estimation
Using thhe data of thhe with-loadd taxies, we calculate freee-flow speeed as the
aveerage speed ofo all taxi GPS
G point froom 12:00 am m to 7:00 amm. For any period
p of
inteerest, we calculate its traaffic speed aas the averagge speed of aall relevant taaxi GPS
poinnts. We can then calculaate TTI for eevery road as a the ratio of
o these two speeds,
by hour. Figuree (5) shows hourly
h TTI vvalues for thhe above-meentioned threee roads,
fromm 7:00 am too 11:00 pm.

Figure 5. TT
TI values by
y hour

TTI vallues are diviided into sixx classes. Values

V less thhan or equal to one
indicate free-floow conditionns. Values abbove 1.5 inddicate congeestion or eveen traffic


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ms. Our classsification method
m and cutting-off
c of
o points foor each classs comes
m the transsport comm missions of the Shenzh hen city goovernment and a the
Guaangzhou citty governmeent. Figure 6 shows visuals v of thhe traffic sccenarios
assoociated withh each class (Transporrt Commissiion of Shennzhen Muniicipality,
20112). Figure 5 shows thaat Lishui Rooad is never congested. The compuuted TTI
valuue can run slightly
s beloow one becauuse the free-flow speed during the daytime
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n be slightly higher than that at nighht. Beihuan expressway
e aand Liuxian Avenue
havve traffic jam
ms during soome time peeriods of thee day. The trraffic congeestion of
Beiihuan Expreessway main nly occurs dduring the ruush hours. ByB contrast, Liuxian
Aveenue's condiition is morre complex. Its TTI value peaks at 1:00 pm, which w is
used by the many
m trips too the stores and
a restauran nts at noon.

Figure 6. Traffic scenarios forr each class


We applly the abovee method to tthe inner parrt of Shenzheen, including g Luohu
Disstrict, Futiann District, annd Nanshann District. The T road GIS file includes 601
seggments of expressways, 2,263
2 arteriaals, and 5,48
87 local streeets. Using th
he above
statted method, we calculatted TTI for every e road segment.
s Maaps below sh how the
TTII values of thet morningg rush hourss (7:00 am to o 9:00 am) on April 199th 2011,
whiich is Tuesdaay.
As shoown in Figuure 7(a), coongested ex xpressways are mainlyy in the
norrth-western Nanshan
N Disstrict and thee northern Luohu
L District, where caars drive
o central Shhenzhen alonng the expreessways. Figgure 7(b) shhows that coongested
arteerials clusterr around cenntral parts off the Nanshaan, Futian, aand Luohu districts,
whiich is consisstent with thhe polycentriic spatial struucture of Shhenzhen. Fig gure 7(c)
shoows the TTII of local streets.
s Conngestion clussters aroundd the north--western
Nannshan District and the Lu uohu districtt. Figure 7(dd) shows eveerything in one map.


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Figure 7(b).

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Figure 7(aa). Expressw


Figure 7(cc). Local streeet

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Figure 7(d). All roadds

Figure 7. Mornning rush hoour TTI

Figure 8 shows the proportions of road lenggth by congeestion level for f three
types of roads during
d mornning rush hour. More thaan half of thhe expresswaays have
freee flow or sm mooth traffi
fic and 33% % has congested traffic. The propo ortion of
arteerials with congested traaffic is 6 poiints higher thhan for exprressways, inndicating
a worse
w conditiion. As for local streets, more than half of them m have free flow or
smoooth traffic,, and the proportion
p o road len
of ngth with free
f flow trraffic is
partticularly higgh, (almost 41%). This is likely beecause mostt local streeets serve
resiidents’ daily lives, and are
a generally not used forr commutingg.

Figgure 8. Prop
portion of rooad length by
b traffic in

In ordeer to find out o how rooads functio on during ooff-peak houurs, we

commputed simillar statistics.. Figure 9 coompares the statistics forr peak and non-peak
houurs. From peeak to non-peeak hours, congested
c road length, (ii.e. light conngestion,
conngestion and
d traffic tie-uup), decreasees from 28% % to 24%, w which correspponds to
the actual situaation and thhe road conngestion inddex publisheed by the Trransport
Commmission off Shenzhen Municipality
M y. This indicaates that our method is reeliable.


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gure 9. Trafffic intensityy in peak an
nd non-peak
k hours

The avaailability of taxi-GPS
t datta provides the
t opportunnity to measuure road
conngestion witth a high sppatial and ttemporal acccuracy. Thee amount of o taxies
drivving on urbaan streets onn a daily baasis ensures the statisticaal robustnesss of the
calcculated indicator. Givenn the availaability of thiis data in many
m other Chinese
cities, the sam
me TTI meassure can be used in diffferent citiess, which sugggests a
conngestion indiicator systemm that is com
mparable among the diffe ferent cities in
i China.
TTII is also used in otheer countries. For exam mple, Texas Transport Institute
commputes TTI for all majoor USA metropolitan arreas. China’’s urban conngestion
meaasured by TT TI can then beb comparedd with cities in other couuntries.


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