[00:00:00] Announcer: The following research is part of the National Institute for Congestion Reduction funded by the United States Department of Transportation through the University Transportation Center program. Learn more at www.nicr.usf.edu
[00:00:29] Wayne Garcia: Welcome to Out of My Lane, a podcast of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. I'm Wayne Garcia, your host. This podcast is devoted to make your time getting from point A to point B more efficient and more enjoyable. Each episode will look at a different aspect of mobility and transportation, as we examine ways to make traffic less congested and travel options, more plentiful and safe. Our episode is titled "Will This App Get Me in the Carpool Lane?" and our guest today is Sara Hendricks from the USF Center for Urban Transportation Research. We're gonna talk to her about her work as part of the National Institute for Congestion Reduction or NICR, which USF is part of along with a number of other universities. And you'll hear all those names at the end of the podcast, but it's a multi university, multi researcher, multi grants carved up from this, one large program. Sara, thanks for joining us today.
[00:01:39] Sara Hendricks: Thank you for inviting me.
[00:01:41] Wayne Garcia: Unlike some of the guests we have on here, who are engineers, Sara comes, at this, from a planning perspective. That's her background. She's senior research associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research or CUTR as we call it around here. Ms. Hendricks brings over 25 years of experience to her primary research interest in transportation, demand management for those in the field. That's your good old TDM- transportation demand management growth management, and incorporating TDM into the planning processes. She is also a researcher into bicycle and pedestrian planning. She has a master's of regional planning degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sara, we always start off with our guests talking about their own commute to work. We're just kind of getting back to that now, I guess these days, what's your commute, to work here, like?
[00:02:41] Sara Hendricks: Yes. So prior to the pandemic, I would ride my bicycle to work about three times a week, depending upon what my day would look like. Sometimes I have meetings in other areas. If I have meetings downtown, I could take the 2 75 LX Heart bus from my home to the downtown. So I'm always looking for opportunities to take alternative transportation options, for my travel. During the pandemic I switched to full time telecommuting. I do go into the office from time to time today I walked to USF campus. I live about two and a half miles from the campus. So it's an easy walk. I really appreciate how you introduced this topic as, how do we, get to work or wherever we wanna go more efficiently and more enjoyably. It's rare to hear somebody talk about travel as something that can be enjoyable. And I, think that. That is one of the most important, elements to travel that we should be promoting because we spend a lot of our time traveling. And so walking is one of the most enjoyable ways of traveling. You get outside. You observe your environment, you run into people, you know, you get exercise. It forces you to slow down. It gives you time to meditate or just think about what's going on in your life or what you're planning to do during the day. And so for me, that 45 minutes in the morning, walking to campus is precious.
[00:04:15] Wayne Garcia: And I, I couldn't agree more. I think that I've always thought of among the problems that Florida faces most is that difficulty in building community, just from having people either walk or have a front porch and I don't wanna sound like I'm yes you know, turn of the previous century kind of guy, but, you know, and especially from your perspective as a planner, the State of Florida's gotta be both a nightmare and a great opportunity for someone who is, passionate about the things that you look at, how much of a role, does planning play in the transportation equation?
[00:05:00] Sara Hendricks: So planning is ideally the thought process that precedes the development of. Capital facilities, infrastructure such as sidewalks, rail lines, bus lines, highways, et cetera. As well as the development of services, such as bus services. And so it's. It is the it's a collaborative process amongst partners that looks at various alternatives, looks at the pros and the cons and attempts to figure out the most feasible way to provide, the best possible service, for the least possible cost. So looking at that benefit to cost analysis is very important. And one of the challenges of doing that is oftentimes the costs are, considered externalities and we don't know how to measure those externalities, particularly the negative ones. And so oftentimes the costs that go into, let's say building a highway has to do with the cost of concrete and not the cost to our, our mental frame of mind when we're stuck in traffic or yeah. Or having to breathe polluted air because no one is walking or bicycling, everyone's driving their internal combustion engine cars. And so figuring out ways of better measuring what we're doing so that we can understand the decisions that we're making and what the consequences are, is all part of planning.
[00:06:32] Wayne Garcia: And it is not just Florida. I'm sure that every large urban area and urbanized states have the same problem of aren't we, with, in terms of looking at the planning, that's supposed to come first, and now yet we're dealing with so many of these systems that are already in place, entrenched -interstate road systems, um, existing attitudes of drivers and people.
[00:07:02] Wayne Garcia: Are we trying to close the barn door after the horses have already gone out? And if so, where, what does that leave us with?
[00:07:10] Sara Hendricks: Mm-hmm . Yeah, so Florida was, kind of came of age after World War II. The, the automobile age where private cars became affordable to the middle class and in Florida, you know, prior to air conditioning, and the interstate, and the automobile, Florida was primarily, a number of relatively small and isolated towns and small cities. So then when the interstate was developed and Disney World came to Florida, all of a sudden it became a tourist destination. And for other reasons, there was a, a lot of people wanted to retire to where there was, warm weather and so forth. So at that point, that's how, Florida suddenly started to see this explosion of population and the desire on the part of, local and state governments to figure out how to accommodate, the infrastructure and services needs of this, growing population. And so we don't have these large legacy, public transportation systems that you'll find in the northeast with subways. We can't have a subway down here, the Tampa Bay area.
[00:08:22] Wayne Garcia: No, submarine.
[00:08:23] Sara Hendricks: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And, there's I think because everyone, not everyone, the middle class primarily enjoys driving and because we developed an interstate system, which was originally meant for national defense, that became something more of people generally drive the interstate to get to the downtown it's it's not just a regional, facility anymore. People there's a lot of different types of traffic that the interstate system was not originally intended for. Mm-hmm and so, driving is, it's very easy and convenient if you can afford it, but it has a lot of costs. And in the meantime, what we neglected to do as we were developing the highway system was also invest in our public transportation system. So for example, in many areas throughout the United States, including in Florida, we, we have public transit systems that have suffered from an under investment for decades. And as a result, the, the ability to get from point A to point B riding the bus is very difficult. And so if you don't have to ride transit, you won't. And that's the unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in, oftentimes in many places in the State of Florida. And so we're playing a game of catch up, with regard to the development of a more multimodal transportation system. And it's a difficult ship to turn around because perhaps a bias on the part of the general public. I like my car. I like the air conditioning inside my car. I like being able to get places as fast as possible. And so with that are of course other problems that occur. Everybody wants to travel at the exact same time in the morning. And they get stuck in congestion. Although if you were to look up at the road along Bruce B Downs Boulevard, say 10 o'clock in the morning on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, that's an eight lane facility that has very little traffic on it. So what you're seeing there is a lot of capacity that's not being used. So we spend a lot of money building highways to accommodate the capacity needs at the peak period, which that's very expensive to do.
[00:10:42] Wayne Garcia: Yeah. And to get people to understand that, that, in that larger picture that the planning process continues. This isn't like a Florida sort of, this is the way it is.
[00:10:52] Sara Hendricks: Exactly.
[00:10:52] Wayne Garcia: On top of that, we have a renewed interest in climate change and the role of car exhaust in that.
[00:10:59] Sara Hendricks: Yes.
[00:10:59] Wayne Garcia: We have a renewed interest in social equity and
[00:11:03] Sara Hendricks: absolutely
[00:11:03] Wayne Garcia: ...people who are not car owners, not car users, as you've said. So that brings me to, and when you talk about eight lanes of traffic, you know, I think about, I grew up in South Florida and I've returned every once in a while, usually at gunpoint. No. Kidding, kidding, South Florida. And, you know, I see, these, HOV lanes and, and carpooling lanes and specialty lanes that are encouraging. So what we're trying to do is get the most out of that limited resource, that limited resources, the width of the asphalt or the concrete
[00:11:37] Sara Hendricks: That's right.
[00:11:37] Wayne Garcia: that the road has been made in.
[00:11:39] Sara Hendricks: Yes.
[00:11:39] Wayne Garcia: And. I, you know, everything driving drives me crazy. I'm one of those people I need to really work on my, my, my, level of dealing with, people in traffic. But one of the things I know is kind of universally loath is, you know, you carpool up, you have a number of people in your car, so you can use that lane and here comes somebody past you with one person in the car. And that's a really tough thing because those dedicated or managed, I guess, lanes, really can have a difference in terms of the overall traffic of the system. And yet, how do you enforce that? Are you gonna have your troopers out there giving tickets for that? So part of the research under NICR that you're involved in is looking at some ways to make that a, a more equitable and a more, user friendly and a, and a, and a less scoff loss system. Right?
[00:12:39] Sara Hendricks: That's right. Absolutely right. And so, what we are attempting to do is instead of moving as many cars through the system as possible, we wanna move as many people through the system as possible. And so if you have many cars where there's just one person in each vehicle, or buses or other vehicles where there's just the driver and there's all these empty seats. That's very inefficient. And so the idea is to fill those seats with passengers. And so you had mentioned transportation demand management. That is a field of transportation that looks at the development of incentives, disincentives programs, and services, information, and outreach partnerships that remove the barriers to the use of alternative transportation, including carpooling and van pooling and riding the bus. And so you mentioned managed lanes. The idea there is to, to encourage and incentivize the use of specifically. Identified lanes, HOV, which is high occupancy vehicle lanes for use by carpools, van pools, buses, school buses, motor coaches, and the incentivization, for example, in, in managed lanes, meaning they are, they tend to be toll lanes with dynamic pricing. And so as the congestion builds on such a facility, the pricing will begin to increase. And the idea there is, as the price goes up, fewer people will choose to, drive in those specific managed lanes.
[00:14:20] Wayne Garcia: Yeah. So that, that, that managed lane might be, a $1. 50 to take at, at, at a, at a non-PE time. And at a peak time, it, it can go dynamically up to, you know, $3.50, $5 whatever,
[00:14:33] Sara Hendricks: Exactly.
[00:14:33] Wayne Garcia: Whatever that number is.
[00:14:34] Sara Hendricks: Exactly. A good example is in south Florida, which is the interstate 95 express lanes that begin in downtown Miami and go northward towards Broward County. There are, in some places, one and other places, two express lanes that provide free travel to registered carpoolers. And so those who, who would like to carpool to and from work for example, will apply for a, a carpooling decal and they are able to get free access to the, the managed lanes.
[00:15:13] Wayne Garcia: So you must like an Easy pass or a sun Pass.
[00:15:15] Sara Hendricks: Exactly.
[00:15:16] Wayne Garcia: Yes. Kind of thing that you get, you get this and says you can go in these lanes.
[00:15:19] Sara Hendricks: That's right. That's right. And so right now, these types of lanes and they're becoming more common in urban areas throughout the United States. Right now, it's, it's challenging to enforce high occupancy vehicle lanes and high occupancy toll lanes. In some places they try to use camera systems, but the camera systems are very expensive to maintain. They break, because these systems are outside in the elements in the heat, in the humidity and cold and rain. So, they break easily. It's difficult to see inside cars to determine how many people are in that vehicle. So it's a very imperfect way of figuring out how to enforce. If you use law enforcement personnel, that's a really, inefficient way to use law enforcement time and, resources. Flagging down people who are by themselves claiming to be a carpool, stopping them, causing perhaps a risky situation. People rubber necking, and slowing down. It can actually be quite, quite dangerous. We don't want law enforcement personnel to be spending their precious time and resources basically pulling single occupant vehicle drivers over.
[00:16:38] Wayne Garcia: Yeah. And, and some of those lanes are, they're not, you know, they've repurposed existing lanes; sometimes they've built them, but there's not always, especially if it's a single lane, there's not really an ability for law enforcement to
[00:16:51] Sara Hendricks: That's right.
[00:16:51] Wayne Garcia: to really even pull someone over or get to them.
[00:16:54] Sara Hendricks: Exactly. And so what that really means practically speaking is that, enforcement is pretty minor. And depending upon what reference materials do you look at with regard to high occupancy vehicle lanes or, or high occupancy toll lanes, is the enforcement, or, or the, abiding by that law is maybe 30 to 50% violations. And so there are a lot of people who are driving by themselves, in the HOV or, or, or hot lanes, and they shouldn't be there and they're using up some of the capacity in those express lanes. And that's, that's the free flow capacity of those lanes that we should be giving the benefit, to, to carpools. Yeah. And vanpoolers.
[00:17:40] Wayne Garcia: Cause we're getting banged for the buck there. Exactly. We're not moving one person per vehicle. We're moving multiple.
[00:17:46] Sara Hendricks: Exactly. Exactly.
[00:17:48] Wayne Garcia: And so what, what is your research gonna look at in, in terms of trying to come up with a solution to that?
[00:17:56] Sara Hendricks: Yes. So we have partnered with a private vendor who has developed something known as vehicle occupancy detection. It's a mobile application that someone can download on their smartphone and the way it works, it, it, it, uses a technology that measures your facial dimensions and determines whether or not when you take a snapshot of yourself and your carpool passengers, whether or not the, the faces are actually real. So they have this patented technology known as Real Face and they have, they have, tested on an interstate, system in Utah. They're right now, testing it in San Francisco. And we're gonna be testing it in Miami as well. And so the idea is this is a wonderful opportunity to use a mobile app to enforce the, the express lanes. And we wanna know for sure, does this really work? So that we can say, if it does or doesn't. If it does work, then this is something that the Florida Department of Transportation will take a lot of interest in. And so my project, my research is looking at testing this to see if it's, if it actually works as it's as it's intended to work.
[00:19:17] Wayne Garcia: So can't take a picture of a bunch of mannequins in your car; you have to have real people in your car. You, you take a selfie of everybody. It verifies that you're real live human beings.
[00:19:30] Sara Hendricks: That's right
[00:19:30] Wayne Garcia: in that car. And then you are allowed to use the lanes, the system, designed for that, HOV high occupancy. Where's so that's a couple of steps.
[00:19:43] Sara Hendricks: Mm-hmm
[00:19:43] Wayne Garcia: I assume then there's gonna be some kind of carrot, an incentive, at the end of the stick for people who would use that app. It, it could be anything from lower, lower access costs, you know, maybe they, they don't get charged, you know, as much as as they would have before, or, or some other things I would assume. And, and you're gonna look at that as well.
[00:20:08] Sara Hendricks: That's right. And so the idea is, is if we can use this to verify and validate carpools, we can also deliver to them digitally through their smartphone instant rewards. And so for example, it could be free access to the express lanes, or it could be other things like free or discounted parking at their destination. And so with that, of course, that will entail partnerships, intergovernmental partnerships, but, other types of, of, of rewards that enable their, their commute travel, to be. Easier more efficient, quicker, more pleasant. So that's the idea behind this.
[00:20:52] Wayne Garcia: And so how, how do you go about testing such a thing? You, you just go down to Miami and you get a bunch of people to use the app.
[00:20:57] Sara Hendricks: Right. Yes. So, so this project, we are partnering with South Florida commuter services. This is an organization that is the commuter assistance program for south Florida. And they actually handle the registration process for the carpoolers that are, registered to have free access to the express lanes presently. So they have a database of carpoolers. So we're working with south Florida commuter services and through them, we are reaching the carpoolers and inviting them to help us test this app. So what our, our test participants will be doing for us is downloading this app. And basically before they begin their, their trip to work, they will use the app, turn it on, and put every face the driver and the passengers inside a single frame and take a snapshot on their smartphone and the, the app will, apply the, the real face and determine that it's a valid carpool. And then on, on they go on their trip. And so they would gain the free access to the express lanes by passing over a geo fence. That is a polygon essentially that, is drawn around the, the I 95 express lane. So once they pass across the geo fence, they'll get a, a message on their smartphone saying, yes, you have a valid carpool. You can have free access to the express lanes, enjoy your trip. And then at the end, when they pass out of the, the geo fence and they park. From time to time, they may be audited. A message will come up on the screen saying something, something to the effect that, we would like for you to, re-verify that you are a carpool. And so the carpoolers then take another snapshot to make sure that, that it, it is in fact a carpool.
[00:23:00] Wayne Garcia: Excellent. And, and so if someone doesn't have that and they get on, on there, that same geo fence is going to be able to alert the
[00:23:08] Sara Hendricks: That's right and so
[00:23:09] Wayne Garcia: the managers of the expressway, Hey, you gotta charge this person.
[00:23:13] Sara Hendricks: Exactly. And so you really don't have to enforce, and, uh, penalize, basically, all you do is you just charge 'em the full price
[00:23:23] Wayne Garcia: And, because it, I would assume that. Because people have all kinds of ways around different different systems that, that these kind of the, the authorities, the expressway authorities and others DOTs who are running these kind of systems, do they, are they missing out on a bunch of revenue? In addition, I mean, we talked about the benefit of increasing the people capacity of roads. But those roads don't build themselves. Those HOV lanes don't build themselves. So are they, you know, is that a documented fact that like there's a lot of money out there to be recovered?
[00:24:03] Sara Hendricks: Yes. Simply put: yes.
[00:24:07] Wayne Garcia: ...like millions of dollars.
[00:24:09] Sara Hendricks: Yes. And so that's one of the other reasons why we're interested in this. We want to make sure that the expressway authority collects all the revenues that are due to them so that they can maintain the facility.
[00:24:23] Wayne Garcia: So. When the, the urban and regional planner in you looks at this now, you, you've gotta be thinking also of some incentives beyond this that maybe aren't directly under the control of the D O T that are gonna help increase carpooling, like preferred parking spots at your work, or like other places. I don't know. There's some places that that are already doing this. Is that part of the big picture of, of trying to encourage more people in each vehicle?
[00:24:53] Sara Hendricks: Absolutely. And something that goes hand in hand with express lanes or managed lanes is parking management. So here in Florida, we are used to seeing a sea of parking, parking, lots parking garage and oftentimes the parking is free and we have a certain mentality that parking should be free.
[00:25:14] Wayne Garcia: ... and right in front of the business, we want to go to the way.
[00:25:16] Sara Hendricks: Exactly right, exactly. Right by the front door. The only problem there is that parking is not free. Parking is never free. There are costs to parking to build it, to maintain it. And all of the externalities, such as all of that, impermeable surface that is creating heat islands, et cetera. And so, the other problem there is at major destinations, such as downtown, you don't want any more parking than you absolutely need, because if you've got parking, basically these are cars that are taking up valuable real estate in the downtown that could be generating much higher tax revenues. If it is office commercial restaurants, residents, et cetera. And so if you develop a parking management system that, that assigns the correct price to, to parking, then you're, you're. You're able to manage, the, the, the supply of parking and the use of the parking, so that you're getting the most revenue, for the smallest amount of parking that you absolutely need
[00:26:24] Wayne Garcia: Applying that free market solution to this ... at, at, to a to a product that most people think of as free. And that's part of this whole education and why we do this podcast, because everybody is a traveler, most everybody commutes in some way or another. And, so, when will you be in the field with this wonderful research project?
[00:26:46] Sara Hendricks: Yes, we're we are getting very close to beginning it, and we're hoping to start the carpool testing later this month and hope to have it finished by the end of June.
[00:26:58] Wayne Garcia: So if you're in south Florida, especially, down in Miami, you know, keep your, if you're a, carpooler keep your ear to the ground, because, you might have a chance to be part of this, research that could benefit everybody, not only in this country, but all over the world. It, you know, these are, these are solutions that many many places, could benefit from, Sara, I greatly appreciate you coming today and talking about, this really cool. There's always an app for something, right?
[00:27:29] Sara Hendricks: That's right. That's right. Yes. Well, thank you so much for inviting me. This was, this was a fun conversation and I really enjoy being able to share my research with others.
[00:27:38] Wayne Garcia: Excellent. And so, for Out of My Lane, the podcast from CUTR at the University of South Florida, Tampa, I'm Wayne Garcia. We'll see you next episode.
[00:28:01] Announcer: The National Institute for Congestion Reduction N ICR is a transportation research center focused on innovative congestion strategies. The center is composed of researchers from the University of South florida, the University of California, Berkeley, Texas, A and M University and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez and funded by the United States Department of Transportation.
[00:28:23] Announcer: For more information, please visit www.nicr.usf.edu.
It sounds like app randomly verifies carpools at the end of some trips – How is this any different than random law enforcement checks?
Thank you for listening to the podcast and posting your question. For the pilot that we are conducting now, in which we are testing the accuracy of the app, we are verifying all trips logged through the app by our volunteer testers to validate these trips as carpools. The verification process requires the testers to use the app to take a ‘snap shot’ of all faces of carpoolers in the vehicle at the beginning of the carpool trip, then again at the end of the trip. The bio-metric facial dimension data from the beginning and end of each trip are compared to determine, first, whether these are real faces (not photos, mannequins, etc.) and also whether they are the same real faces at both the beginning and end of the trip. This is important because if someone wanted to fool the app, they might take a snapshot of a passenger at the beginning of the carpool trip, but then that passenger might exit the car and the driver travels alone. At the end of the trip, the driver could enlist someone else to momentarily hop in the car for the exit verification snap shot. At some point in the future, after the pilot is over and the expressway authority were to decide to use the app to validate carpools, then it is possible that the app might be programmed to randomly ask for end-of-trip reverification. If carpoolers anticipate that they might be required to reverify, they will think twice about attempting to fool the app. The exit reverification is an extra step for the carpoolers, which only takes about 10 seconds but still might be experienced as an inconvenience; therefore, random reverification is an effective way to keep people honest while minimizing the amount of time required from them to use the app. Use of the app eliminates the need for expensive law enforcement because if the app determines that the carpool claim is false, then the motorist is simply charged the full toll for that trip. – Sara Hendricks, CUTR