Are We There Yet? Data-Driven Transportation On the Way

May 19, 2014

At some point, all of us have been frustrated by U.S. transportation systems: waiting on a subway platform for a late train; standing at the bus stop watching the next bus go cruising past without room for more passengers; sitting in slow-moving traffic, wanting to chew on the steering wheel and get out and walk. In these situations, we’ve all asked, “Isn’t there a better way to do this?” Soon, there will be, and it is thanks in large part to data-driven innovations.

Take the example of the Bridj, a data-driven bus line currently being tested in Massachusetts in Brookline, Boston and Cambridge. Founded in a Middlebury College dorm room by 23-year-old Matthew George, the company seeks to offer a “pop-up” bus system that is tailored to where people work and live and can rapidly adapt to changing demand. Using the wealth of data online, as well as consumer input, Bridj predicts areas of peak demand and adjusts bus service to satisfy it. No more standing on a corner watching a packed bus zoom past.

“Instead of funneling people into traditional categories of public transit, we’re reinventing public transit to match where people actually are,” George told the Boston Globe. “We want people to open their phones and say, ‘Hey, I want to go to the bar in Cambridgeport, I know other people going to the bar, there’s probably going to be a Bridj that goes from my area to the bar.’”

Even as Bridj is still in the early days of rolling out this innovative product, these kinds of data-driven innovations are showing up in numerous transportation modes.

Google’s self-driving car is another example, expected to be ready for consumers as early as 2017. As well as the hardware and software needed for a computer to a drive a car, the autonomous vehicles rely on highly detailed maps giving the car an enormous amount of environmental data, including the height of traffic signals, the depth of the curb, and the difference between white, yellow, and dashed lane markings. This is, in a word, amazing. It is as also a quintessential example of what the data-driven world will look like in just a matter of years.

While there are important technological, legislative and consumer advances that are still required before everyone can take their hands off the wheel, the potential in using “smart,” networked cars is staggering and world changing. Imagine a freeway where cars “talk” to each other, adjusting speed, routes and space to keep vehicles moving and passengers safe. We are already speeding in this direction, as cars rolling off the assembly line are data-making machines, monitoring all aspects of the vehicle while also using GPS navigation.

When all this data is brought together in a dynamic, real-time flow of information, it will revolutionize how we travel. GPS systems today can tap into traffic feeds and adjust routes to help the driver avoid congestion; however, this can actually create a traffic jam. Nate Silver explains in his book, The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don’t, that if everyone’s GPS simultaneously re-routes to avoid traffic, it pushes a mass of cars into a single road, making the faster route not so fast after all. Yet, when GPS systems and eventually cars communicate with one another, the aggregated data can better usher traffic into the fastest and least congested routes.

It is not just about changing the transportation technology.  It’s common knowledge that America has an infrastructure problem—it’s old, deteriorating and insufficient to meet the country’s 21st century needs. That said, updating and expanding transportation infrastructure needs to be done intelligently and based on data. This is the concept behind a project started last year by researchers at Georgia Tech. Called the Transportation Project Investment and Evaluation Resource (T-PIER), the project measures “the performance of each objective in small and medium scale transportation networks with multiple interacting modes such as driving, biking, and walking.” With this data, planning for infrastructure repair and expansion can be based on the investments that will yield the greatest return on investment.

A similar effort is underway in North Carolina, where the Strategic Mobility Formula system helps prioritize transportation projects. It weighs multiple factors, such as congestion, safety, and cost, to decide which projects to pursue first on the local, regional, and state level. North Carolina needs this kind of data-based guidance as it looks at 1,300 highway projects that are still on the drawing board. At a time when all states and all levels of government are facing limited resources and great need, these kinds of data-driven approaches to improving transportation infrastructure are critical to keeping the country on the move.


Data Driving the Economy

It is important to remember that these data-driven improvements to U.S. transportation are not just about convenience. It has a significant impact on economic potential and competitiveness. Better roads and rails can carry more U.S. products to all corners of the continent and onto boats and planes for export to the rest of the world. Safer, more efficient cars will further help to cut down on fuel consumption, pollution and accidents while also allowing American workers to be more productive and efficient because they can get to and from work that much quicker.

As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Janet Kavinoky and Maj. Gregory Pace wrote in the January 2014 edition of the Business Horizon Quarterly:

“A national transportation network that meets current and future demand enables mobility and supports seamless, reliable and safe supply chains. Conversely, a disjointed, unreliable, unsafe, and inadequate transportation network will hinder productivity and growth…When transportation networks support predictable logistics, there is a positive and strong correlation with job-creating foreign direct investment. Without a first-rate transportation system, we cannot maintain a first-rate economy.”

Transportation needs impact all industries and citizens. This was a topic of discussion at the U.S. Chamber’s second annual Transportation Summit in February, where experts discussed how transportation infrastructure impacts the energy, manufacturing, agriculture, retail, and healthcare industries and what needs to be done to realize the country’s full potential. The video of the event is worth a watch. 

Beyond impact to the private sector, updated data-driven transportation systems are needed to address the geographic population shift occurring as more and more people move from rural to urban areas. The latest census data shows that nearly 81% of all Americans live in cities and suburbs. This ongoing movement of people demands transportation systems capable of handling and moving a growing number of people. 

 There’s the dumb way to address this challenge – throw money at it; or there is the smart, viable way – turning to the wealth of data available and letting it guide how we build the transportation systems that will carry us into the next century.

As we move ever farther into a Big Data world, it becomes clearer just how much every facet of our lives is going to change. Someday soon, the current U.S. transportation system will look like the days of horse and buggy, and while we will always need vehicles, the data will be doing the driving.