Crowdsourcing Real-Time Traffic Congestion
By: Evan Brown
The days may be coming to an end when city planners and traffic reporters are the only ones to whom one can turn for information on – and solutions to – congested streets and highways.
As with so many other aspects of life that were once the exclusive preserve of bureaucrats, media elites and academics, crowdsourcing is revolutionizing the way traffic patterns are tracked, and may lead to street-level solutions – literally.
A new tiny device called TrafficCOM has been introduced by two developers promising the ability of anyone to “easily gather and share traffic count data for automobiles and bicycles.” It’s simple: buy a TrafficCOM for $139 (“1/10th price of the least expensive comparable product,” according to the company’s website), set it up at the curb of a street you want to monitor, extend an air tube across the street, collect readings for as much time as you’d like, then plug it into the USB port of your computer and upload the data. Just like that, your data become part of a database and map available for anyone to see, or add to themselves.
The idea itself is not new. Five years ago, MIT began experimenting with the use of mobile phone GPS systems to collect real-time data on where drivers were and how fast they were moving (if at all). Since then, a number of other institutions including our own SFMTA have turned to satellites to collect data on the effectiveness of its routes and keep riders informed of when their next bus can be expected. In fact, if you’re a Muni rider, it’s likely you have used NextBus and its GPS tech to navigate the San Francisco public transportation network.
However, TrafficCOM represents an evolutionary step forward, opening the world of traffic monitoring to anyone who can drop a hundred bucks or so to satisfy their curiosity, or indulge the amateur urban planner within. There’s no guarantee that TrafficCOM will solve all of our traffic woes, but if it catches on, we will at least have a lot more real-time information– and as a certain American hero once reminded us in the 1980s, “knowing is half the battle.”