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Practical Magic

VERGE Boston: How private sector innovation will ease urban congestion

<p>Data analytics, mobile apps will be central to success car-sharing networks and other sustainable transportation alternatives.</p>

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.

Traffic jam photo by pistolseven on Shutterstock.

"People need to have the flexibility to make their decision based on what is cool for them," Knapp said. Likewise, that data can be used to "rebalance" the cars to make sure they are in the right place at the right time, he added.

Making alternative transportation cool

Much of the innovation behind sustainable or alternative transportation solutions is coming from the business world, often driven by necessity.

Stephen Russell, Massachusetts Clean Cities Coordinator with the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, offered the example of a large employer in Worcester, Mass., that faced a need to build more parking spots to support an expansion.

The company instead decided to encourage its employees to use public transit, and provided a free pass to everyone who could be reasonably served by the local bus routes. "This solution turned out to be far more cost-effective," Russell said.

Not to mention the goodwill that the gesture created within the community.

How else can you convince citizens to leave their personal vehicles at home and more sustainable alternatives that might take far longer?

The VERGE panelists pointed to the need for frequent communications -- 128 Business Council connects with its public-sector counterparts two to three times every week -- as well as the development of policies that help support them. One example is the special parking permits that car2go must arrange in the cities where it does business, which helps provide a new source of revenue for municipal governments.

"You have to educate not just the members, but also the citizens," Knapp said.

Right now, car2go is available in nine U.S. cities.

128 Business Council encourages ridership by providing wireless network services in its vehicles, which riders can use either to work while they are commuting or to play interactive games against each other. Often, members are in its shuttles for 35 minutes to an hour after getting off the train or another form of public transportation. Rather than being alone in taxi to their final destination, they can interact socially.

"We try to make it like a club," Tibbits said.

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