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Could Smartphones Help Clear China’s Congested Roads?

The extraordinary growth of China’s cities is well-known. Today, 160 Chinese metropolises have over one million inhabitants and more than half the population lives in urban areas, which are growing at two to three times the rate of Western cities.

One sector feeling the weight of this unprecedented demographic shift is transport. In a country where the number of cars grows by more than 10 percent each year, urban planners and transport authorities need innovative techniques to address road congestion.

Though cities such as Beijing already have several radio stations dedicated to providing traffic updates, they did not manage to prevent the two-week long gridlock in 2010, or the slew of Autumn Holiday traffic jams throughout the country in 2012. China needs alternative approaches.

A recent study by the New Cities Foundation has particularly interesting implications for urban China. Working with technology company Ericsson and the University of California, Berkeley, we used smartphone apps to connect travelers who take the same daily route to and from work, allowing them to share relevant, useful information with each other.

The report, based on a year-long pilot project in San Jose, California, presents an opportunity for transport agencies, local governments, and mobile phone app developers around the world to identify new ways to improve the commuter experience. It examined the effects of tools like Waze and Roadify, two innovative smartphone apps that allow drivers and public transit users respectively to share information in real time.

Such apps are based on a passive contribution model—simply by driving with the app open on your phone, you passively contribute traffic and other road data that helps the system provide other commuters with the optimal route to their destination. There are opportunities to supplement this information with more detailed traffic reports, and it is the responsibility of the commuter not to put others at risk and drive responsibly, by entering traffic information while the car is stopped during a traffic jam, for example.

Connected Commuters, Happier Commuters

A key finding of the project is that encouraging and using crowd-sourced information sharing can be an efficient, cost-effective way to build a community of commuters who themselves provide solutions to the burdens of daily travel.

The benefits extend to both individual commuters and organizations working on transportation and mobility. We found that commuters’ ability to receive or share real-time information with other travelers effectively reduced commute-related stress and provided a sense of community. Moreover, car drivers connected to other commuters via social apps tended to be happier with their commutes than unconnected drivers. This was because of the timely information they received and the information they shared with others, which gave them a sense of satisfaction at helping fellow commuters.

Finally, crowd-sourced data from commuter apps was found to be highly relevant to transport agencies and mobile app developers. Real-time information-sharing can be a useful tool for identifying where commuters are experiencing problems and at what time of day. In turn, this provides feedback on routes that need to be better managed by authorities.

There are cultural, demographic, and technological reasons why these insights have the potential to improve urban mobility in China.

First, the popularity of smartphones among the Chinese urban middle class, and a keen appetite for mobile phone apps, means commuters are likely to engage actively in connected commuting. Crowdsourcing enterprises like Zhubajie, which has four million workers signed up (arguably making it the biggest employer in the world) are already very popular in China. China’s enthusiasm for social networking and crowdsourcing suggests its commuters will be receptive to sharing information with others.

Second, like commuters in San Jose, Chinese commuters tend to drive alone. As the data analysis of connected commuters in California indicated, drivers valued the ability to share their feelings—and useful information—with fellow commuters. Similarly, the staggering number of lone commuters flooding China’s roads each day could benefit from a more enjoyable drive to work enabled by these mobile apps.

Cutting Chinese Road Emissions

Finally, at the city level, connected commuting could provide millions of Chinese people with the necessary information to make better commuting choices, with positive environmental, social, and economic ramifications.

Research shows that people’s perception of the efficiency of different kinds of transport influences commuters most when deciding how to travel. For example, an undecided commuter, seeing the warnings of other drivers before leaving the house in the morning, might be encouraged to use public transport instead, or depart at a different time. Even if the commuter ultimately decides to drive to work, he or she may have a more efficient commute thanks to information on alternative routes from other commuters.

If this behavior is replicated across even a small percentage of China’s urban population, it could have significant impacts on reducing carbon emissions, either by boosting use of public transport or cutting time spent in traffic. These potential environmental impacts will assume increased importance as China explores innovative ways to decrease the pollution being emitted by its 200 million automobiles.

In fast-growing Chinese cities like Wuhan and Shenzhen, the rapid rise in car ownership makes it difficult to assess how traffic patterns will change in the future. The need to evaluate and react to a fluctuating situation has already elicited a variety of responses from local authorities.

Wuhan, for example, has installed traffic lights that react to the flow of traffic to minimize the disruption typically caused by intersections. Similarly, data gathered from smartphone apps could provide more clarity on pain points for drivers—by location, time of day, or day of week, for instance. The authorities could then use this information to develop commuter programs, adjust regulations to optimize traffic, or incentivize commuters to avoid overloaded junctions.

As Chinese cities and infrastructure investments grow, the mix of qualitative and quantitative data generated by apps like Waze or Roadify could help authorities address areas that consistently cause stress for commuters and are a source of pollution.

The power and potential of connected commuting is evident: both individuals and city authorities can benefit from the information generated by smartphone apps designed for commuters. Although our study was conducted in San Jose, California, the tech-savviness of the Chinese urban population, combined with government efforts to cut both congestion and carbon emissions, make Chinese cities particularly well placed to apply its findings.