Despite the Washington DC region’s efforts to reduce driving, cars are still the most heavily used form of mobility in the area. According to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll, 62 percent of the region’s residents drive their personal automobiles every day.
Transportation demand management (TDM) strategies, in tandem with transit, bike, and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure investments, will help make it easier and more sustainable to get around the nation’s capital in the future. But such change takes time.
So while those efforts continue, coders are building technological tools to better manage – and maybe make transportation a little more tolerable for – those who still travel by car. Coders showed off their projects at Playing with Traffic VI, a Transportation Techies event at DC’s Spaces NoMa.
Hey Alexa, how much will it cost me to get downtown?
Mike McGurrin shared an Alexa skill he developed that helps him obtain live information on toll rates and travel speeds on Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway. All of the inbound lanes on that section of the Virginia-to-DC highway convert to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes during the morning rush, and all outbound lanes are HOT during evening rush hours. While people carrying other passengers in their vehicles don’t have to pay to use the road, those who drive solo are charged demand-based tolls that can approach $50 during peak periods.
Mike McGurrin speaking at Playing with Traffic VI. Transportation Techies meetup. — Photo by M.V. Jantzen.
McGurrin’s Alexa skill prompts him to select his desired entrance and exit ramps, as well as inbound or outbound travel direction. The skill then provides live toll and congestion information, using Virginia Department of Transportation’s open data feeds for the HOT lanes. For recurring trips, McGurrin can save routes as favorites, and Alexa automatically determines which direction to report on based on the time of day.
McGurrin’s skill is currently only optimized for Alexa’s home- or office-based Echo, but he intends to extend the skill to the Echo Auto as he learns how to create more user-friendly digital assitant tools. For now, though, he must obtain toll and congestion information before beginning his trips, even though traffic conditions may change by the time he reaches I-66.
A slice of infrastructure for everyone
Raphael Reimann of Moovel Labs in Berlin (the company’s experimental, exploratory department) showcased ongoing projects that measure the impact of cars on the built environment.
In What the Street?!, Reimann’s team identified odd shapes on Google Maps that turned out to be parking structures, which got them thinking about the effects of unnecessary infrastructure on peoples’ transportation behavior. Reimann cited features that take up a significant amount of valuable space yet don’t seem to be in especially high demand – such as a gargantuan parking deck on Long Island on which only one car was parked – as particularly egregious examples.
This motivated the Moovel Labs team to explore how major world cities have allocated their surface space, translating that into how much residents “own.” For example, in New York, car infrastructure covers 24 times the amount of space that Central Park does. According to the team’s calculations, that car infrastructure occupies over seven times more space per resident than the city’s rail infrastructure does, and nearly 30 times more per-person space than the city’s bike infrastructure does. This discrepancy represents what Reimann calls the “arrogance of space,” in which public resources that could benefit many are misallocated to serve only a select few.
Writing a love letter…and turning cars into rainbows
In addition to What the Street?!, Moovel Labs developed their Open Data Cam to help people measure traffic in their city. A program called You Only Look Once (YOLO) – which can be added to a camera or data feed – has object recognition capabilities that allow users to count traffic volume. This includes measuring bike and bus traffic to provide a full picture of any street segment’s usage. These projects, Reimann explains, represent a kind of “love letter to open data” by helping city residents better understand their area’s built environment and how people use it.
Raphael Reimann speaking at Playing with Traffic VI. Transportation Techies meetup. — Photo by M.V. Jantzen.
The Open Data Cam project also inspired Reimann’s team to create the “Candy Crush of Mobility.” Players of their Beat the Traffic game have the ability to “poof cars into nicer things,” like unicorns and rainbows. Players’ scores – the number of cars they successfully poof away – translate into the number of buses that could have been used to transport the people in those cars. Those scores, of course, are much smaller than the amount of cars that clog the highway at the beginning of the game.
Going once, going twice…stopped
James O’Hara shared a project he and his colleagues are developing to help autonomous vehicles (AVs) navigate around each other. His props: a set of small rovers with a play mat and colorful blocks, which he used to represent the vehicles and the obstacles they need to navigate.
James O’Hara speaking at Playing with Traffic VI. Transportation Techies meetup. — Photo by M.V. Jantzen.
Because AVs cannot communicate with each other through social cues like humans do, engineers have to devise other methods for self-driving machines to determine who gets priority when both vehicles intend to occupy the same space at the same time. This led O’Hara and his team to develop an electronic “micro-auction” system in which vehicles bid blindly for a space that, without controls in place, both would try to enter at the same time, resulting in a crash. People in the vehicle that wins the auction are allowed to pass through unimpeded, while those in the loser must slow down and yield.
The idea is that, in a real-world scenario, occupants of vehicles or the businesses that own them would bid real money to obtain priority on the roads. Similarly, people could earn money from others willing – or financially able – to pay to reach their destinations a few minutes faster, in exchange for yielding to them.
To ensure vehicles adhere to their virtual bids, O’Hara’s team is developing a blockchain-based digital trust system that would rate a vehicle’s behavior. Cars with poor ratings in the system (e.g. vehicles that regularly try to go first despite submitting losing bids) would be assessed penalties in future auctions for road space.
The concept of auctioning off road space spurred an animated Q&A session. Attendees asked if, rather than bidding against each other, vehicle owners and occupants should pay people who use more space-efficient forms of mobility like biking and walking. Flying AVs could add further complications; if such vehicles ever become technologically feasible, O’Hara suggested that the greater number of variables their programming would have to account for could increase the need for cyclists and pedestrians to also become connected to the auction system.
Come to the next Transportation Techies event!
If you live in or are visiting the Washington, DC area, Transportation Techies Meetups are a great way to learn about the fascinating relationship between mobility and technology. You’ll also get to meet and hang out with lots of cool people.
To learn more about the group and register to attend future events, visit
. If you can’t attend in person though, no need to worry, as we’ll always post a summary of the presentations for you.
Also, consider sharing your own project! Reach out to Michael Schade, the Techies organizer, through the Meetup page.