To Better Predict Traffic, Look to the Electric Grid

Commuters check Google Maps for traffic updates the same way they check the weather app for rain predictions. And for good reasons: By pooling information from millions of drivers already on the road, Google can paint an impressively accurate real-time portrait of congestion. Meanwhile, historical numbers can roughly predict when your morning commutes may be particularly bad.

But “the information we extract from traffic data has been exhausted,” said Zhen (Sean) Qian, who directs the Mobility Data Analytics Center at Carnegie Mellon University. He thinks that to more accurately predict how gridlock varies from day to day, there’s a whole other set of data that cities haven’t mined yet: electricity use.

“Essentially we all use the urban system—the electricity, water, the sewage system and gas—and when people use them and how heavily they do is correlated to the way they use the transportation system,” he said.