Canadian Consulting Engineer

Conversation: The evolving role of ITS tools

August 17, 2022

"I don’t see any way to grow a city and still manage it effectively without technology."

Judy Yu

Photo courtesy Judy Yu.

Judy Yu, P.Eng., is the data management and intelligent transportation system (ITS) discipline leader for Associated Engineering (AE) in Calgary. She began her career at ISL Consulting before working for her city’s municipal government, always with a focus on transportation engineering.

 What originally interested you about ITS applications?

Transportation has always been and always will be my passion. The movement of goods and people is the backbone of the economy. Even at the early stages of my career, I knew innovation and technology would play a key role in the efficient function of transportation services.

Back then, ITS was still a relatively new and emerging set of tools. Over time, recognition grew around tailoring data for mobility—and not just traffic management. Technology can bridge language barriers, give people confidence to travel for work, education and recreation and improve accessibility to services.

I don’t see any way to grow a city and still manage it effectively without technology. When bold decisions about transportation infrastructure and services, are needed, reliable, high-quality data is the most unbiased way to make this happen.

Is there too much data now?

There is a high expense to capturing and storing data. Having a lot of it could add value in planning, but often it is just disorganized. Some organizations never get around to using it.

So, I’m starting to tackle the issue of properly defining data as an asset. We as engineers need to translate ‘systemspeak’ to help our clients. I have seen a disconnect between key performance indicator (KPI) reporting and the details of the data behind it. If you don’t address the gap, it only gets worse in the future.

Climate change, for example, poses threats to transportation infrastructure. You need an emergency response plan, but that plan depends on how much data you have and how good it is.

“The movement of goods and people is the backbone of the economy.”

Have vendors adjusted their products to better meet your clients’ needs?

It’s very exciting to see how the industry has changed and become more diverse. I have seen Canadian companies do great things in areas like freight, safety and direct marketing using traveller information platforms.

When you’re writing a specification, it’s based on where the client needs the technology to be. A sturdy, well-established system may not be flexible enough. Cubic, for example, has always been big in contactless payment technology for public transportation, but a few years ago, they bought a smaller company, Delerrok, because it could provide cheaper, lighter systems with fewer moving parts.

For us as consulting engineers, it’s important to remember we cannot put our personal preferences ahead of what the client wants. We manage risk on their behalf through consultation and good advice.

My clients are pretty practical. They’re not looking for glamour or glitz, they just need a solution that will work for a while. Most are not interested in trying, disposing and trying again.

“When bold decisions about transportation infrastructure and services are needed, reliable, high-quality data is the most unbiased way to make this happen.”

Is there a risk of ITS being used as a Band-Aid for aging infrastructure?

There are multiple ways to look at that picture. In a built situation, where you already have development on all sides, an ITS can allow for improvement without land purchase—still congested, but moving the best it can. Smarter infrastructure can facilitate balanced decision making for all modes of transportation. This doesn’t mean aging infrastructure should not be replaced.

At the same time, can an ITS delay capital spending on upgrades or growth? Yes. If the long-term forecast looks difficult for an infrastructure gap, an ITS—if applied properly—is one of many ways to sweat your assets, i.e. use them beyond their original useful life. And in certain situations, paired with good condition awareness of the infrastructure as it ages, that’s fine. You’re using technology to facilitate its continued use until you can afford to replace it. Even just five years more makes a big difference in capital budgets.


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