Transport planning is a tricky business. Can visualisation tools help?

Visualising London's bike share scheme. Image: Ito World.

Visualisation is a crucial tool in understanding and communicating data. Its use in transport planning is growing, but it remains a specialist activity, often reserved for larger, higher profile projects.

However, the arrival of new tools that focus on movement data make it quick and easy for anyone to visualise sensor and modelling data key to transport planning.

The use of data visualisation has exploded across a wide range of industries over the last decade, with the pace ever increasing. There has been a shift from analysing data using statistical techniques alone, as people adopt graphical representations to aid analysis and understanding.

The growth of business intelligence (BI) tools such as Tableau, Qlik View and Microsoft Power BI that provide advanced analytics and visualisation is a measure of this transformation. These tools leverage the brain’s capacity to quickly understand and interpret graphical rather than numerical representations.

Such tools are increasingly being used within transport planning, alongside traditional GIS software such as ArcGIS and MapInfo for handling geospatial data; and 3D modelling tools to generate photo realistic renderings of transport schemes. BI and GIS software provide powerful functionality to look at static data and simple representations of temporal data but they lack the capability to easily and effectively combine spatial and temporal elements into informative interactive visualisations.

Movement data

What if you could easily visualise this movement data? What would be the value to a transport project if you could easily analyse the data and communicate key metrics and findings? How do trip profiles change over time? How do traffic flow, speed, journey times or pollution levels vary throughout a network over an hour, week, month, year? And what is the impact of the scheme over five, 10 or 20 years?

Visualisation helps answer these questions. It provides clarity and facilitates discussion throughout a project, providing a means for everyone involved to understand the issues.

A selection of Ito World visualisations.

The use of interactive visualisation to present large complex datasets allows the viewer to comprehend and analyse data that would otherwise be impenetrable. You can quickly spot patterns, trends and anomalies that are difficult to identify when studied using numerical analytical tools alone. This is particularly apparent when dealing with movement data that varies by both time and location; for example, you can easily view trips by purpose, origin, destination, mode of transport or any combination, understanding how they vary over time.

Interactive visualisations exploit and enhance the viewer’s cognitive capabilities rather than relying on predefined numerical approaches. When both temporal and spatial dimensions can be easily and effectively presented simultaneously, visualisation becomes valuable at all stages of a transport project.

The ongoing transition to using large complex datasets automatically generated from sensors rather than traditional surveys to feed our transport models makes it more important than ever to understand the datasets being used. With the correct tools it becomes fast and easy to visually screen and validate this input data.

Visualisation is an effective tool for the calibration and validation of models as they are built. Model outputs can be visually compared against count data. While such visual inspection doesn’t replace statistical analysis, it can greatly accelerate the calibration phase by making it easier to spot inconsistencies, making iterations faster and reducing the number required.

Similarly, interactive visualisations of model output reveal insight during the analysis of results. Many leading traffic simulation software packages include visualisation capabilities for this purpose but others lack the functionality, as do custom developed spreadsheets, R or Python models.

Communicating findings

Effective visualisation is vital when communicating study results. Outputs from a range of analyses and models need to be communicated to stakeholders who are not necessarily experts in the use of a particular technique and are not used to looking at such outputs. Results need to be shared between sub-teams working on a project such as transport, economic and environmental teams; with project managers; project sponsors; and, in some cases, with ministers and the public.

The ability to convey complex information in a concise and understandable way is crucial for a project to progress. An effective visualisation can summarise a two hundred page report into a two minute video. It can set out the issues, and present and quantify the benefits of the solution in a way that non-experts can understand.

A key component of a successful visualisation is the ability to present different datasets in a common visual language. Consider the case of a new road scheme where a report may include historical and projected traffic data for the base case and different schemes; accident data; noise and air quality data; journey time predictions; as well as contextual information. These come from multiple sources, both measured and modelled, in a range of data formats.

The report is much easier for both the expert and non-expert audience to understand if all this information is presented in a consistent style, rather than varying according to the software package used to produce or analyse the data. The images below illustrates different datasets presented in a common visual language.

Click to expand. Image: Ito World.

Ultimately, with the right tools that focus on movement data, visualisation will be used throughout transport projects – saving time, increasing insight and delivering a better result for the end client. 

Johan Herrlin is the chief executive of Ito World.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.