Using Data to Make Smarter Transportation Systems (and Happier People)

I’ll be honest; the transportation system in Pittsburgh is one of my least favorite things about this city. If I drive to work, I begin and end my day in a state of stress and frustration from sitting in traffic and yelling at signals. If I take the bus, I have to have exact cash and, like this morning, have to stand in the pouring rain waiting – who knows how long? My guess is that you may feel the same about your city, wherever that may be. However, it turns out it doesn’t have to be that way!

I recently attended an event where the smart folks at IBM shared some observations about how Pittsburgh could improve its transportation systems. These observations resulted from weeks of on-the-ground study, as part of IBM’s Smarter Cities program. Though the details of the recommendations are specific to Pittsburgh, the recommendations themselves could be valuable in any city. Here are three of their recommendations for creating a better transportation system in a few years, using mainly existing data and resources, and little creativity!

1. Making signals work for you

Transportation networks are complex things in and of themselves. Then add weather, sporting events, or constructions to the mix and it really gets confusing! Being able to control traffic signals using a centrally managed system, and having signals that utilize adaptive control technology means a shorter, less stressful commute. It also means cleaner air! A pilot project in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood saw that signals with the ability to adjust timing based on traffic conditions led to a 40 percent reduction in vehicle wait time, a 26 percent reduction in car travel time and a 21 percent cut in vehicle emissions! And dealing with congestion through changing signals as opposed to adding lanes is not only smarter, it’s cheaper.

2. Better data means better apps

Companies collect all sorts of data about us and our shopping preferences in order to, for better or worse, provide us with a more tailored shopping experience. So why can’t the city use data to give us a more personalized, up-to-date transit experience? Making data available in multiple formats will drive the creation of new apps to help us know when the bus is coming and how full it is, where there’s a parking spot downtown, or what’s the safest and easiest route?

3. Car owners should want to take the bus

As I already mentioned, at least in Pittsburgh, taking the bus is not exactly a pleasure, and if you have a car, it’s unlikely that you would choose to take the bus (unless perhaps you work downtown). Making bus stops more attractive, providing clearer route and scheduling information at stops (or even better – real-time data about when buses are coming!), and using smart cards that can be easily refilled and used for the subway and parking, too, are all ways to decrease a car-owners aversion to taking the bus. IBM suggested that these upgrades could be paid for with more advertising, subway station naming rights, and subway station concessions.

These are not revolutionary ideas. The IBM folks said so themselves. But they’re real ideas. Ideas that, if the city implements, would mean that I would be more likely to take the bus, and less likely to turn into a nut case when I decide to drive my car. And a city that can do that is a city I want to live in!

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