Can TomTom help solve the congestion problem?

By Felix Salmon
December 8, 2011

Traffic congestion is one of those problems to which there is no single silver-bullet solutions. If a city has too much congestion, the main thing it needs to do is build out much better public transportation infrastructure — something which takes many years and many billions of dollars. But failing that, or in the mean time, is there anything else?

Balaji Prabhakar reckons he can try to give prizes to people who drive at non-peak hours; it’s a cute idea, but I don’t think it scales. And then there’s congestion pricing, of course. But right now, there’s surprisingly little evidence that it actually works, and some evidence that it doesn’t, at least in the medium term: in London, congestion went up after it went down, and much of the small decline in congestion can be attributed to better public transportation rather than the congestion charge itself.

The people at GPS maker TomTom, however, have another idea about how to reduce congestion, at least at the margin. TomTom has a lot of Live devices, which are constantly transmitting their location; on top of that, every time the old-fashioned GPS devices get plugged in to a computer and upgraded, they also upload details of where they’ve been and when. And TomTom also has data from cellphone companies about how fast various phones are moving on certain streets at certain times of day.

Put it all together, and you get a very rich database of where to find congestion, both in terms of geography and in terms of time of the day and week.

This information can reduce congestion in one of two ways. Firstly, the information can directly change driver behavior. TomTom claims that it can reduce travel times by up to 15% — which obviously reduces overall congestion in and of itself a little bit, since that car is on the road for less time. And if we ever reach a point at which 10% of drivers are using that technology, then you see further benefits: enough cars get rerouted from busy to less-busy streets that the busy streets clear up a bit and move faster. Overall, TomTom reckons that congestion gets reduced for everybody by 5%, even if they’re not using any GPS device at all.

And then there’s bigger changes which can be made at the municipal level. TomTom has a whole business which sells congestion information to cities, which can then use that information to inform minor decisions like traffic-signal timings, and major ones like rebuilding roads. Historically, cities have needed clunky hardware like cameras and in-street loops to detect how much congestion there is; the TomTom data is cheaper than that, it’s much more precise, and it covers all roads rather than just the main arteries.

This is great news, right? Yesterday, for instance, we got detailed information on pedestrian congestion in NYC. The “pedestrian volume index” has now reached 113.2 from 100 in 2007, and we know about individual blocks with great specificity: on West 14th Street between Hudson and Eighth, for instance, there were 11,166 pedestrians per day between 4pm and 7pm in September, compared with 8,911 in May and 7,055 the previous September.

That’s very useful information — but it pales in usefulness when compared to equally detailed information on automotive congestion. Finally, we can settle once and for all whether the pedestrianization of Broadway has resulted in higher or lower traffic speeds. We can find out what happens to congestion when bike lanes are installed. And we can measure congestion overall in the city, with an eye to working out how much the deadweight cost of congestion is, and whether some kind of congestion charge might make sense. Most obviously, the real-time TomTom data is good enough that it can and should be used to adjust traffic signals in real time, as and when traffic jams appear.

So, is this happening? Turns out, that question is very difficult to answer. I spoke to a couple of TomTom executives three weeks ago, and they told me that they had done a little study, just for their own edification, on the Herald Square area, to see what happened to traffic speeds there when Broadway got pedestrianized. I asked if they would send it to me, and they said that they’d be happy to — they just wanted to check with the city of New York first.

And then, last week, I was told that a New York Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner asked TomTom not to share its data with me.

TomTom is still looking for some data, somewhere in the world, that it can share with me — but I don’t have anything yet. And this data is very hard to find, for anybody outside TomTom: the company informs me that even TomTom’s own non-profit, The Traffic Foundation, which says that it will be “tapping into TomTom’s community of 50 million users”, has no access at all to this wonderful and enormous traffic database, which now has more than 4 trillion datapoints.

If this data were a little more public, researchers could plug away at it to see what the effects of infrastructure changes are on congestion, for instance, and to help create a set of best practices for what kind of interventions get the best congestion-reduction bang for the buck. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. And TomTom is very quiet indeed about which municipalities have bought its data, and what those municipalities are doing with it.

There’s an amazing opportunity, here, to use advanced statistical and quantitative techniques to painlessly improve city life: it’s exactly the kind of thing that the TED people got so excited about when they decided to award their TED Prize to The City 2.0. But I worry that TomTom is keeping this data far too close to its chest, and that cities like New York are similarly unhappy about the idea that it might become public in any way.

Of course, TomTom is a public company, with an obligation to its shareholders to maximize the amount of money that it can generate from its database. And it doesn’t want to annoy potential clients, especially not when its share price has been bumping along at very low levels for the past couple of years. Sooner or later this information is bound to start getting used widely — can’t Google just buy TomTom, already, and make it much more public? The entire company, after all, has a market capitalization of less than a billion dollars. The profit motive, here, shouldn’t get in the way of the massive public good that can come from this database.

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