There are two competing approaches—both very expensive—to solving traffic problems: Build more roads, or build more public transit. Yi-Chang Chiu, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Arizona, has another idea: Hand out gift cards.
It is possible to reduce vehicle congestion, Chiu's research shows, if drivers take different routes and drive at slightly different times—from about 15 to 45 minutes earlier or later. "[Currently] we turn on our navigation systems when we get in the car," says Chiu. "By that time it is already too late." Getting as little as 10% of people to change their schedules would lead to a "measurable improvement," he says.
Chiu's startup, Metropia, uses a location-tracking smartphone app (tied to traffic data and a routing algorithm) that encourages people to take the small steps of changing routes or leaving at different times—or even take buses—with modest incentives such as gift certificates.
In Austin, Texas and Tucson, Arizona, where Metropia has just begun operations, simply saving time has been incentive enough for thousands of users.
In about two weeks, Metropia will embark on its latest challenge as a launch partner in DriveSmart, New York City's data-driven plan to encourage people to drive more safely and efficiently in the nation's largest city.
Metropia won't specify how many users it has in Austin and Tucson, but there must be at least 4,000, because the company provided us data on what that many people have done in the past few months. Those drivers have completed 60,936 of Metropia's suggested routes (covering about half a million miles), which the company reckons has saved 2,505 hours of travel time and 65,697 pounds of CO2. Not bad for a program that just started in March in Tucson and in May in Austin.
The startup's field tests in Austin and Los Angeles found that up to 30% of drivers have flexible schedules that would allow them to adjust the times they drive by at least 15 minutes. (Metropia aims to expand to L.A. in 2016.)
"I'm not going to try to get everybody to ride on buses tomorrow," says Chiu. "I'm only asking them to leave a little earlier or later or to follow a recommended route by Metropia." But he says that the bus will sometimes turn out to be the best option, not just in dense mass transit-centered cities like New York, but also places like Austin and Tucson.
Metropia is hardly the first smartphone traffic app for drivers. Waze, founded in 2008 and bought by Google for a rumored $1 billion in 2013, has attracted more than 50 million users. Users of these apps provide information both passively, with their phones acting as GPS "probes" for speed and location data, and actively, by reporting conditions like accidents or police speed traps.
The basic end-user mechanism for each app is the same: People enter the destination they aim to get to, and the app uses GPS data to figure out how the driver got there and how long it took. That data gets crunched to model traffic patterns and suggest best routes for users.
The biggest difference between Metropia and Waze is that Metropia starts at the local level. "Before we launch in a city, we [talk] to chambers of commerce and downtown business associations," says Chiu, "to see if there's any way we can help them."
Metropia coordinates tightly with local governments. Although the Austin program officially launched in May, Metropia began working with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority on a six-month beta test in September 2014.
Unlike Waze, Metropia doesn't take manual reports from users, but instead partners with municipal transit agencies to combine its probe data with local government sources such as sensors, traffic cameras, road-construction schedules, and police accident reports. A recent upgrade feeds data about flooding conditions from the record rainfall in Texas into the Austin routing. The partnership isn't just to help with day-to-day traffic, but to provide long-term insights for transportation planners.
Waze has also started similar government partnerships. In October 2014, it launched the Waze Connected Citizens program, which now has partnerships with about 40 government agencies around the world, including the cities of Boston, Rio de Janeiro, and Tel Aviv, as well as the New York Police Department.
Both Waze and Metropia utilize that tech buzzword: gamification. Waze participants gain points and move up in user rankings for providing good information. Metropia awards points that can be exchanged for goodies. The average trip earns about 35 points, with $5 gift cards starting around 1,000 points. Metropia brings local businesses into the act, getting them to provide offers such as discounts at restaurants or even on taxi fares. Local businesses participate not only for publicity, says Chiu, but because they have an interest in cutting local congestion so customers can actually reach them.
Metropia offers gift cards for national companies like Amazon, Starbucks, and Target, too. It also allows people to donate points to charity, such as sponsoring tree planting by the National Forest Foundation.
The company is planning to expand to other cities, such as El Paso, in early 2016. And Chiu still hopes to restart discussions with L.A., which began under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and are restarting with the administration of the current mayor, Eric Garcetti.
The immediate challenge, though, is New York City's DriveSmart program—an effort to reduce congestion and pollution and improve safety in the five boroughs. DriveSmart's basic strategy is a lot like Metropia's: collect data from drivers to map and analyze their behavior, while offering incentives for them to change behavior.
Metropia is one of four companies in the pilot phase of DriveSmart, which will start with 400 drivers in New York City. Another partner, Dash, will collect data on driving behavior, like braking and acceleration, from the cars' data ports. Insurance company Allstate is offering participants discounts on auto insurance if the data shows they are driving safely. The fourth participant, Commute Greener, is another rewards program. If the pilot goes well, the city will open DriveSmart up to more New Yorkers.
With Metropia, Chiu is betting that a little common sense on the part of drivers will make make it possible to tame urban traffic. While that may sound rather sanguine, it is ultimately more realistic than expecting billions of dollars in new infrastructure investment to appear in each city.