Can ‘Big Data’ figure out how to reduce CA gridlock?

Traffic freeway gridlockThe use of “Big Data” has transformed strategizing in baseball, given rise to microtargeting of individual voters in presidential campaigns and turned browsing the Internet into an unsettling experience in which users see advertisers guess what they might want to buy based on their history of online activity.

Now an effort is being launched to see whether “Big Data” might be able to reduce California’s often-awful urban gridlock. Fortune magazine has the details:

Los Angeles’ snarled, rage-inducing roads have been infamous for decades. And now, thanks to a tech industry-fueled population explosion, San Francisco is right behind L.A. in the title race for Worst Traffic in America.


AT&T, UC Berkeley and California’s state transportation authority are testing a new way to get a grip on the situation — by collecting and analyzing drivers’ cellphone location data. The study leads insist that users’ privacy is protected, and the information could revolutionize how we plan and manage highways and transit.


“The idea of using cellular data for mobility is not very new,” admits Alexei Pozdnukhov, assistant professor in UC Berkeley’s Smart Cities program. “What is new … is that our approach is much more detailed modeling. We can simulate very detailed scenarios, and answer questions.”

L.A. and Bay Area the initial focus

Traffic can be horrible in other parts of the state — San Diego and Sacramento freeways are often brutally clogged in the morning and evening rush hours, and the 75-mile section of the Interstate 15 corridor from Lake Elsinore to Hesperia is a common target of Sigalerts during daylight hours because of heavy commercial traffic. But the initial focus will be on the biggest population centers:

The new California projects — Connected Corridors in Los Angeles, and SmartBay in San Francisco — are something like Google Maps on steroids. They compile region-wide cell data into big portraits, not just of where traffic is most congested, but of overall daily patterns.


“[It shows] where people … work, where they go for shopping, where they go for leisure, and how they choose to get there,” says Pozdnukhov. Dr. Compin says that’s “the holy grail” of transit planning.


The data will help planners develop detailed responses to congestion events — Compin says there are a stunning 5,000 to 6,000 events per year on the I-210 corridor, making up about 50 percent of traffic delays. By working closely with local authorities and public transit providers, Caltrans hopes to make better decisions about how to re-route traffic onto parallel corridors and local roads, and communicate changes to commuters more smoothly. The San Francisco pilot is centered on Interstate 80, and among other things, says Pozdnukhov, hopes to determine the potential impact of increased development on the Treasure Island neighborhood the highway passes through.

Research can be basis of driverless-car grid

The effort depicted by the Fortune article could end up being as tantamount to a crucial first step toward establishing a grid for driverless cars. Such a grid could steer traffic in certain directions based on algorithms anticipating optimal vehicle flow. The theory is this could be done in a way that would dramatically reduce gridlock.

Studies also emphasize how an orderly computer-run traffic grid of autonomous cars could sharply reduce pollution, especially if the cars were hybrids or otherwise didn’t have internal combustion engines.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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