VERGE Boston: How private sector innovation will ease urban congestion

With public funding for transportation infrastructure expansion or upgrades stuck in neutral across many regions -- often barely able to keep up with maintenance needs -- innovative alternative transportation schemes are critical for easing urban congestion and reducing emissions.

But the success of those initiatives will depend on close collaboration on a large scale: Both the public and private sector will need to work with mobile and big-data technologies that help citizens with route planning -- regardless of whether someone is using public transit systems, a private vehicle, bike paths, car-sharing services or other options to get from Point A to Point B, said experts speaking Monday at VERGE Boston.

"If it's too complicated, people will just get in a cab," said Monica Tibbits, executive director for 128 Business Council, an association founded almost 30 years ago by GTE Laboratories, Polaroid and The Nelson Companies to address traffic issues on the Boston area's crowded Route 128 corridor.

That realization has prompted 128 Business Council to invest seriously in software and systems that help keep riders up-to-date about schedules.

Wondering when your ride will arrive? Send a text directly to the vehicle, and it will provide an update on its status -- using machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. Have a gripe about service? Use social media to communicate your opinion to the 128 Business Council staff.

Next up: the association is developing a way to expose its data and algorithms so that they can be used by developers who are creating transit information applications that aggregate information across multiple systems and agencies.

Examples include Smart Ride, which offers up bus schedules from cities around the country using the GPS in your mobile phone, or Hubway, which offers bike-sharing services across the Boston area.

"We want to make this open source," Tibbits said, noting that it will probably take at least 12 months for the project to reach fruition.

Providing potential riders with information about all of their options for a given commute or trip is a massive big-data challenge, noted Bill Knapp, chief operating officer of car2go, a service that manages and shares fleets of cars across urban zones -- and that relies heavily on the data that it collects from the fleets' global positioning satellite systems to help provide would-be renters with information about where vehicles are available.

Next page: Making alternative transportation cool

Traffic jam photo by pistolseven on Shutterstock.