Navigant Research Blog

Crowd Data Drives New Mobility Technology

— May 4, 2015

City planners and traffic management agencies are avid consumers of data, which is critical to both planning and managing transportation services. Traditionally, government agencies relied primarily on data from loop detectors installed in streets and highway. These sensors tell transportation officials how many cars pass by the sensors, allowing them to understand the volume of traffic on the roadways they manage. This then feeds into infrastructure plans, as cities understand where the heaviest demand is and where the pinch points are in the roadways.

This data is also used to report when traffic has stopped in the roadway, which is used for traveler information systems. What these sensors cannot tell you is where the traffic came from, where it ended up, or even how fast it’s traveling. And these sensors are not cheap. It’s a significant investment to install them in existing roadways, and even building then into new roadways is costly, given that the sensors must be highly robust and maintained throughout the year in challenging conditions.

Listen to the Crowd

Crowdsourced data, gathered from GPS navigation devices, cellphone records, or mobile apps, is becoming an increasingly viable way for cities and transportation agencies to acquire data without expensive infrastructure projects. And these crowdsourced data sources can supply new data points that help cities get a much more complete view of mobility, like pedestrian and bicycle traffic and parking usage.

Traffic data company INRIX has been incorporating data from a variety of sources to supplement its own vehicle probe data for years. The company aggregates data from GPS navigators and mobile phones in vehicles to provide a more complete picture of the traffic landscape in real time. AirSage utilizes cellular phone data for its traffic data offerings. Through partnerships with Sprint and Verizon, AirSage receives anonymized real-time data from cellular phone activity which the company provides to transportation planners and transit planners. AirSage provides origin and destination data, as well as speeds.

Cellular based traveler data also enables traffic managers and planners to see the movement of pedestrians and cyclists, as well as motorized vehicles Still, there are limitations: namely, that AirSage cannot tell what type of motor vehicle it is tracking.

We Know Where You’ve Been

But the most interesting new crowdsourcing data potential is from companies that aren’t even in the data aggregation business. Just as Google and Facebook have found data to be their most valuable assets,  app providers like Uber and Strava, are discovering the potential value in the data they amass.

Earlier this year, Uber announced it would offer its data to cities, with the Boston the first recipient. Uber is offering this as a free service, likely in part as an effort to present a kinder, gentler image after a recent spate of negative press. Uber has also partnered with the Starwood Preferred Guest program. Program members can receive reward points for using Uber; customers who opt-in to Uber’s Starwood point program agree to giveStarwood access to their Uber activity.

This sort of data exchange has huge revenue potential for Uber, as it’s easy to imagine how many businesses would be interested in tracking the travel habits of Uber users. trava, a company that allows runners and cyclists to log and share data on their athletic activity has also found a way to turn its data into revenue. The Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT) is buying Strava’s data to better understand the routes used by cyclists. This is another way for cities and states to fill out their picture of mobility and provide better services for their residents.  The potential for crowdsourced data is huge, and we expect to see more partnerships like these develop as transportation planners begin to grasp the full potential of crowdsourced data. You can also expect renewed privacy concerns, especially when the data comes from users who are not fully aware that they are opting in to share their data when they download an app.

 

No Clear Path to Highway Funding Solution

— May 4, 2015

The gap between the investment needed for U.S. transportation infrastructure and the available taxpayer funding continues to grow. And neither Congress nor the White House has not gotten significantly closer to solving this problem.  A new report from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), released just 2 months before the latest temporary Congressional funding patch for transportation is set to expire, provides further evidence that the federal funding transportation pool will continue to shrink unless Congress takes action.

Navigant Research has been writing about the problem of the Shrinking Gas Tax Fund for many years. Created by Congress in the 1950s, the fund was set up to pay for transportation from direct taxes, rather than from the general Treasury. The current tax rate of 18.4 cents per gallon was set in 1993, 22 years ago. Congress and the White House are loath to propose raising the gas tax, which has long been the third rail in American politics. Today, unfortunately, the drop in gasoline consumption combined with the shrinking purchasing power of 18.4 cents per gallon has made the unthinkable closer to becoming reality.

Tabled

Mainstream business groups have proposed raising the gas tax, and the Republican leader of the Senate Transportation Committee, John Thune, said that raising the gas tax would be on the table for the current Congress. The head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, climate change denier James Inhofe, agreed with that statement.

As of the end of March, though, there was still no clear legislative pathway to raising the gas tax.  The UMTRI report should set off alarm bells in Washington about the future of the Highway Trust Fund. The report points out that U.S. gasoline consumption has been dropping steadily since well before the 2008 recession. From 2004 to 2013, fuel consumption by light duty vehicles in the United States dropped by 11%. The report’s author, Michael Sivak, also noted that the U.S. passenger car population has decreased since 2008, which could be considered an artifact of the economic downturn, or a foretaste of millennials’ mobility habits.

Millennium Shift

This data confirms reports about the shift in attitudes about car ownership among millennials that have been widely reported, albeit mostly anecdotally. A 2013 U.S. PIRG report found that there is a permanent change in expectations about how to get around–with driving seen as just one of many options that millennials regularly use.  And increasingly stringent fuel economy standards are likely to further reduce total gasoline consumption.

Unfortunately, the White House’s proposal for the new transportation bill does not include a gas tax increase, so it will be left to Congress to determine whether the time is finally right to increase the rate–or find a new mechanism to pay for the maintenance and improvement of U.S. transportation infrastructure.

 

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