GIS for Transportation: Principles, Data and Applications

1.1 Introduction to GIS-T


Among the many areas and disciplines to which GIS has been applied, transportation has been particularly fertile ground, and the development of specialized GIS applications has been an area which has seen a lot of activity. This important interdisciplinary field is commonly referred to as GIS-T. The significance of this field is evidenced by the fact that there are two conferences devoted to it, one annual and one biennial. Each year the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) sponsors the annual GIS for Transportation Symposium. The symposium draws over 400 registrants from federal, state, and local government and the private sector. The Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) sponsors a conference called GIS in Transit which is held every other year. The 10th GIS in Transit conference was held last year.

A key reason that GIS-T is so important is that transportation is a huge industry upon which many other industries depend. In 2015, the federal government spent 85 billion dollars on transportation-related initiatives. That represented 2.22% of our total federal budget for 2015. The National Priority Project (NPP) website presents some interesting charts which put federal transportation spending in perspective.

Additional Learning

In their own words, the NPP “is a national non-profit, non-partisan research organization dedicated to making complex federal budget information transparent and accessible so people can prioritize and influence how their tax dollars are spent.” Their website also offers a number of very educational videos if you’d like to understand our national budget, deficit, and debt.

In addition to federal dollars, there are many billions of state and local dollars spent on transportation. If you want to see how states are using transportation dollars, the Track State Dollars website gives you access to data for each state.

In the U.S., federal agencies have helped to promote GIS use for transportation analysis purposes through geospatially-enabled initiatives such as the U.S. Census Bureau’s TIGER program and the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS). Software vendors have continually updated and improved their GIS products to include additional GIS-T functionality and tools. Today, GIS-T is an integral part of transportation operations around the world.

The natural synergy between GIS and transportation is at least in part due to the fact that transportation is inherently spatial, and while it’s true that GIS plays an important role in transportation, one can also argue that transportation plays an important role in GIS. Transportation features are frequently included on maps for context and orientation even when the fundamental purpose of the map has little or nothing to do with transportation.  Take a few minutes to review this recent blog from GeoSpatial World which briefly examines some important applications of GIS to transportation.  In this course, we'll cover these application areas as well as many others.