11/19/12

Should Austin develop a social-centric traffic management system?

I submitted a proposal to the Austin Dept of Transportation (http://j.mp/AustinTraffic) a somewhat far-out alternative to traditional traffic management strategies (road-widening, etc).  In it, I loosely outlined a plan to create a government regulated social-transportation and traffic management platform; one designed to relieve Austin's intensifying traffic problem by radically increasing the human density of each Passenger Car Equivalent "PCE" on IH-35 and similarly congested Austin roadways.  Of course this system, to the extent it has merit, could be of equal use to any metropolitan area besieged by traffic.  

I proposed the development of an online utility to incentivize and simplify the conversion of vehicles – specifically the exceedingly large percent of single-driver vehicles congesting our roadways – into a marketplace of fast-moving micro-shuttles. 

While no small undertaking, the relative cost to develop this network would be negligible in contrast with traditional stopgap measures employed by cities like our own, most notably the undertaking of centi-million dollar roadway expansions. 
One might be tempted to immediately dismiss the following proposal overview as a glorified ridesharing scheme.  I would suggest however that while this proposal does bear some similarity to such a program, advances in technology have rendered the topographical landscape of opportunity in the rideshare vector almost indistinguishable from any contemplated and/or deployed in the past.  This plan, quite simply, would not have been technologically feasible even a short five years ago.
Success of a government sponsored traffic mitigation network would hinge upon factors such as compelling incentive(s) to both driver and passenger, an extremely high-degree of participatory safety, network usage simplicity (for both driver and passenger), as well as sufficiently ubiquitous public awareness and participation in the system upon launch. 
There are a number of means by which to incentivize a driver to pickup a passenger, and a similar number that could compel individuals to participate as a passengers, including the following: 
Economic - for most, the idea of offsetting costs of fuel as well as wear-and-tear on their vehicles is an attractive one 
Social - a novel program incentive would be the result of an intelligent vehicle-grouping model, one that contemplates doing away with the traditional "stiffs" and strangers that comprise the stigmatized rideshare or carpooling passenger.  Instead, through the use of highly sophisticated modeling (based upon the systems knowledge of each participant, their publicly disclosed preferences, privately disclosed ones, behavioral analysis, and other variables), the system could autonomously select and tune its passenger grouping in real-time, with the goal of creating dynamic, interesting, fun, and valuable driving companions which consistently pose a more attractive alternative to driving alone. 
Environmental - fewer single passenger (or severely underutilized passenger carrying capacity) on the road means fewer resources expended and corresponding – potentially significant – environmental benefits to be had.
Obligational - the most controversial of incentives (but worth considering) is one that would tie-in local law-enforcement and the proposed system to allow for (at the discretion of the offender) offsets of monetary penalties for traffic and/or parking related violations through participation as driver or passenger on the network.
Any consideration paid for transportation, or "fares", transacted between passenger and driver would benefit greatly from a friction-free system which autonomously tabulates each fare and seamlessly exchanges payment (in whatever form(s) ultimately decided upon) with little or no effort required by either party. 
From a technological "how to" perspective, I believe mashing-up existent technological infrastructure to comprise the super-majority of the network is more than a possibility, it's now practical.  I envision using geofencing technology, accelerometers, and wireless payment technologies (be they "near field", "RFID", or other even simpler technology) among other technology already embedded in present-day mobile phones to comprise the hardware-backbone of this proposed system.  
Should a plan like this find success, funding to incentivize passengers (to the extent required) could in theory require no public participation.  However, as a practical matter, the enormous public savings realized in radically increasing more efficient use of existent infrastructure could almost certainly provide sufficiently compelling financial incentive in the form of fully funded or partially subsidized fares to encourage broad participation amongst both driver and passenger.
Should this concept find traction, questions such as "do we measure fare-increments in feet, miles, or minutes", or "should the quality of a vehicle be modifier to fare-increments", and all such matters I'll leave to be debated by those more qualified than myself.  
From an elevated view however, the proposition is uniquely Austin in that it leverages and enhances the city's technological sophistication, its open-mindedness, and our public desire to retain a small-town interconnectedness against a significant and ever-mounting problem as the city grows.  Best of all, it promises to do so without expending any additional resources or further taxing our environment.
While this is clearly a niche topic, I'd appreciate any thoughts and input you may have.
Christian Hunter
Austin, Texas