"ArcGIS Experience Builder allowed for the analysis that was needed as well as the ability to query data, and it offered ease of use for students. The students developed a user-friendly site for the county that bikers can use too, and we're continually working to improve the data."
University of Maryland Students Develop Interactive Site with Web App Tool to Improve Cyclist Safety in Prince George's County
The Office of Planning and Capital Programming at the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT)—in cooperation with state, regional, and local agencies and residents—works to plan, program, and develop a balanced transportation system. This work includes addressing bike and pedestrian access issues. As part of its mission to maintain safe roadways, MDOT wanted to examine the level of traffic stress (LTS) throughout the state. The LTS rating of a road segment or crossing indicates the traffic stress it imposes on bicyclists.
According to Nate Evans, a transportation planner for MDOT, a lot of existing state infrastructure was not necessarily geared toward cyclists of all abilities. As such, the data collected for this LTS project would help inform recommendations to MDOT, such as adding shared-use bike paths or protected bike lanes, to see where safety improvements can be made.
The LTS project would also provide MDOT and individual counties with a single authoritative biking roadways data source, which is helpful when counties and jurisdictions apply for grants and submit their transportation plans. According to Andrew Bernish—a geographic information system (GIS) planner for consulting company KFH Group, which works with MDOT—previously, some counties and jurisdictions had their own reliable data while other counties did not. Thus, MDOT developed an authoritative dataset for the entire state by calculating an LTS score for each roadway segment throughout Maryland.
Shortly after this statewide data was released, Prince George’s County, the second-most populous county in the state, requested a bike stress map. A group of students at the University of Maryland (UMD) got the opportunity to create the map and an accompanying site as part of their coursework. The student group, led by Bernish, utilized ArcGIS Experience Builder to create a customized application with valuable LTS data for the county and its residents.
A PALS Partnership
Bernish saw a unique opportunity for the small group of students in a class he was teaching, Recent Developments in Urban Studies: Intermediate Geographic Information Systems. The Parks and Recreation Department of Prince George's County put in a request to UMD's Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS) program to create a bike stress map.
PALS is a campus-wide program designed to provide high-quality, low-cost assistance to local governments and real-world learning experiences for UMD students. Kimberly Fisher, PALS program director, asked Bernish if he would be interested in any of the available county projects, and he knew the stress map would be the perfect student project because of the recently completed dataset.
The county wanted the map for staff and residents to see the county bike network. Fisher says the partnership will help the county make roads safer.
"The Prince George's County Planning Department and the Department of Public Works and Transportation have both been working hard to reduce crashes involving bicycles. In addition, the county staff wants to understand where obstacles exist to safe biking," says Fisher.
Bernish adds, "[MDOT] just released this data, and this was a good way to showcase it to one of the counties and get the word [out] about this dataset. To have a county request something that could use this data soon after we released it was a great opportunity," says Bernish.
Site Building Blocks
To begin creating the bike stress map, Bernish selected ArcGIS Experience Builder, which he felt was a straightforward and user-friendly solution that would provide a more interactive experience for users than other web applications. ArcGIS Experience Builder allows users to create web apps that integrate their maps and data with flexible layouts and drag-and-drop widgets. Bernish had prior experience with different web application builders but chose Experience Builder because it offered more visually compelling graphics, was immersive, and provided a more seamless experience.
Bernish and his students met with the parks and recreation department at the beginning of the semester to discuss the interactive map, again during the midterm, and at the end of the semester for the final presentation. He explains that since the dataset was already available, students could plug in the data and start building the map in Experience Builder.
Jeff DelMonico, a community planning specialist for the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, was a student in the class. DelMonico says the class covered a range of subjects including geodatabase design, web map development in ArcGIS Online, scripting in Python, and ArcGIS Pro tutorials to ultimately create the application. He adds that Bernish exposed the class to real-world Experience Builder examples and encouraged the students to think critically about what made the applications intuitive or successful and what could be incorporated within the final project.
"By the end of the semester, we felt knowledgeable enough to apply many of the skills that we had learned from our prior lessons into this final project," says DelMonico. "You could feel the excitement from the students as we came together and began theorizing about what the best model was to get a project like this done. We ended up developing a unique application specifically attuned for these circumstances, and it only came together because of our collaborative efforts."
In addition to the physical development of the application, one of the key parts of the project was determining what's relevant for the LTS map to display. DelMonico says the class decided to communicate the specific types of traffic stress by using images and explaining—with minimal text—what each LTS score means. The students also discussed what information might be relevant to cyclists—for example, not just showing the bike path or road but also high-frequency destinations like parks and public schools or where bike-share locations are. DelMonico says he found this to be a valuable learning experience because it demonstrated to the students just how useful GIS can be in a real-world planning situation.
"With PALS, students have the opportunity to practice professional communication, work with real messy data, and make significant contributions to their state's residents. The partners receive professional and cutting-edge answers to their sustainability problems," says Fisher.
The Final Result
The bike stress map and site was officially released in May 2022 and recent metrics from the university show more than 2,000 hits. Bernish describes the site as a mapcentric application. It lets the students highlight a large amount of data, which had recently been released by the state, on one online site, allowing for easy updates. Experience Builder enabled the student team to customize the site by adding images and features like a button to download data. External users can also easily share the link to the site.
The map shows the LTS on roads throughout Prince George's County and allows users to perform searches by address or bike trail name. The map also shows road-separated bike routes—facilities for bicyclists' exclusive use that are located adjacent to a roadway, as well as more traditional trails, such as former rail right-of-way easements that have been converted into trails. The site also has a splash screen explaining what LTS is along with example images.
"The users can be a little bit more engaged and active in it. We tried to make it more user-friendly for folks that are not GIS savvy," says Bernish. "I really like the ease with which you can turn on and off different layers. It's simplistic and easy for the students to use."
DelMonico explains that the ability to add customizable widgets to the site let them convey the different LTS levels in a “visually pleasing way." The students decided to use a bookmark widget that lets users click on an LTS score to turn the individual LTS layers on or off in the interactive map. Customized buttons were placed within the map application to provide additional information to users should they need it. For LTS scores 0–5, the lower the number, the better the biking conditions are, says Evans.
"All throughout the development, I found Experience Builder to be effective and intuitive. For example, creating a splash screen to provide a brief overview of the application took only minutes to design. Developing widgets, which were programmed specifically to accomplish customized tasks, was similarly unambiguous," says DelMonico. "In the end, I enjoyed my first experience with Experience Builder."
DelMonico adds that the student group also used ArcGIS StoryMaps to create a website detailing the story behind LTS methodologies. ArcGIS StoryMaps is an application that lets users combine authoritative maps with narrative text, images, and multimedia content. Because the site involves elements key to community planning, DelMonico brought the project to the attention of his current colleagues.
"For planners, tools such as the these are important to have because the ease of analyzing information can help planners make long-term policy decisions and programmatic estimations for capital budgets," says DelMonico.
Fisher believes this particular PALS project gave the students a unique learning opportunity while also allowing Prince George's County to understand more about bike stress mapping and the conditions on the local roadway network.
"The students not only practiced their GIS skills with the map, but they also worked on how to present information for an informed audience and the general public," says Fisher. "The project was very successful, and a second project using newly developed network capabilities will take place this spring."