Tracking cell phones for traffic reportsIf you can get past the privacy concerns, this is extremely cool technology.
These new traffic systems can monitor several hundred thousand cellphones at once. The phones need only be turned on, not in use. And sophisticated software now makes it possible to discern whether a signal is coming from, say, a moving car or a pedestrian.They're not kidding. Imagine real-time synchronization of traffic lights, identifying and adjusting for bottlenecks on the fly. Imagine immediate calculation of the optimal route between any two points based on current - and projected - traffic conditions.
State officials say the systems will monitor large clusters of phones, not individual phones, and the benefits could be substantial. By providing a constantly updated picture of traffic flow across thousands of miles of highways, they argue, cellphone tracking can help transportation agencies spot congestion and divert drivers by issuing alerts by radio or on electronic road signs.
"The potential is incredible," said Phil Tarnoff, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland. He said the monitoring technology could possibly help reduce congestion in some areas by 50 percent.
If the lights get timed better and people can quickly see alternate surface street routes that have similar travel times, we can take a load off the freeways. I think a lot of people in Houston just head to the freeway by default. Even if it's not necessarily that much faster in the case of shorter trips, people perceive that it's faster since they're not stopping and starting all the time - even if the surface street route is more direct. If a real-time system told them an equivalent surface street route with shorter distance but a similar total time, I think they'd take it.
How about this? Register a few of your most common destinations on a web site, then, when you get in the car, you call a number, tell an automated system where you're going (picking one of those pre-registered destinations), it calculates where you are and the optimal route based on current measured speeds (freeways, arterials, everything), then you put it on speakerphone and throw it in the passenger seat to give you verbal directions as you drive. Cell phone companies should be all over this just for the extra minutes you'll burn (and the minute plan upgrade you'll have to buy).
Even if this system costs tens of millions of dollars to install, it's a whole lot cheaper than adding any new capacity. The bang for the buck would be incredible.
Finally, how much do you think this would have helped during the Hurricane Rita evacuation?
Houston has long been an innovator in transportation with frontage roads, EZ-Tag-only toll roads, real-time freeway information, and HOV and HOT lanes. Let's hope we're one of the early innovators with this technology too.