No, that’s not a typo in the headline. I want to pass on some intriguing ideas I’ve been hearing recently about how the mobile computing device that’s already ubiquitous – the cell phone – could become a “command station” for commuters trying to avoid congestion and spare the air.
Last year I wrote a short item in TR about a project at the University of Michigan called RideNow. Information science researcher Paul Resnick designed RideNow to help commuters around Ann Arbor, MI, coordinate shared rides. Participants who need to go somewhere at a certain time can post the details on the RideNow website. Drivers who wouldn’t mind having a passenger (or who need a passenger in order to use the faster HOV lanes) also post their destinations and schedules on the site. When the software finds a match it calls both participants’ cell phones and patches them together so they can make final arrangements.
It was a great idea, and someday soon I want to catch up with Paul and find out how the experiment is going. Meanwhile, I learned about a similar project, also called RideNow, that’s underway in the Dublin/Pleasanton area of the San Francisco Bay region. Every morning, people who live in Dublin, Pleasanton, Livermore, or San Ramon but work in the Oakland, San Francisco, midpeninsula, or San Jose areas can go online or call an automated phone system to let RideNow know where they need to go and when. The system notifies participants about matches by cell phone and instructs them where to meet.
Then, this week, a fellow in Palo Alto named Steve Raney contacted me. He’s a member of Cities21, a group of urban planning and transportation professionals who are promoting new ideas for making the Bay Area more livable by reducing traffic congestion and air pollution. Steve sent me a paper he’d published last year in the Transportation Research Record, the leading journal in the area of transportation planning. It was called “The Suburban Silver Bullet” and it outlined a vision for a system that would turn cell phones into “wireless commute assistants” with the goal of taking the chance, guesswork, social awkwardness, and risk out of carpooling.
GPS phones would be a key part of Raney’s proposed system. (I’ve written about these “missing devices” here before, and I just finished a review of two Nextel/Motorola phones with GPS capabilities for the September issue of TR.) “TrakRide” is Raney’s name for one feature of the system. Participants’ geo-aware phones would report their locations to a central server, and that information would be shared with other participants. For example, a passenger who has agreed to meet a driver at a pick-up point at 7:30 a.m. would receive a map on his cell-phone screen at 7:20 a.m. showing the driver’s location and an estimate of her actual arrival time.
Raney believes TrakRide would kill several birds with one stone: It would increase the social pressure to be prompt (on-time drivers would show up as green dots while late ones would show up as red dots). It would give all carpool members a sense of how long they should continue waiting for someone past an arranged meeting time. And it would give the people waiting a predictable amount of time to do other work, such as catching up on their e-mail. Raney also suggests features that would score participants on their punctuality and send automatic text-message reminders to habitual laggards.
Raney also proposes a feature that would ease safety concerns about carpooling with strangers. Called “HomeSafe,” this feature would check commuters’ actual locations against their scheduled arrival time at home. After a delay of a certain duration, Raney’s system would send a text-message to the commuter asking “Are you okay?” After a longer period, it would call the police. As with TrakRide, the idea is to make carpooling less frightening – or just less of a hassle. “A previously independent drive alone commuter who switches to carpooling finds herself dependent on her carpool partners of uncertain reliability,” Raney writes. His proposed system “removes this uncertainty, making the carpool experience more palatable to switchers.”
The ultimate goal of Raney’s scheme, of course, is to get so many people carpooling that far fewer vehicles wind up in parking lots around congested areas such as Stanford Research Park, a two-square-mile area in Palo Alto that Raney studied in detail. Fewer cars means fewer parkings lots, which (in Palo Alto, at least) take up incredibly valuable land that could be better used for densification (development minus the sprawl). In addition to the GPS-phone applications, Raney envisions a personal monorail system that would whisk workers from parking lots at the edges of the research park to any of 20 stations near the busiest workplaces. Several companies, including Taxi 2000, Advanced Transport Systems, and Megarail, are already working on such “personal rapid transit” systems.
To me, Raney’s ideas are a great reminder that “mobile social software” means much more than just software for socializing (e.g., Dodgeball). Enhancing our cell phones’ existing voice and text-messaging capabilities with simple geolocation technology – whether through GPS, radio triangulation, Wi-Fi, or some hybrid system – opens up applications that we’ve only begun to imagine. It will take people like Raney, who are steeped in the the practices and challenges of existing disciplines, to see exactly how geo-aware mobile computing devices could contribute to solutions. If GPS phones can ameliorate traffic congestion, could they also help us address other hassles in our everyday lives, such as parking, shopping, going through airport security, handling cash and credit cards, and dealing with public transportation?
Probably, and it’s fine for journalists and technologists to speculate how – but it takes experts in each field to gauge what’s realistic. So let’s make sure the experts know what technologies are available to them.