New study says congestion could be lessened by reducing a small number of trips from certain neighborhoods

A new study suggests a targeted reduction of trips from certain locations could greatly reduce congestion:

To learn more about traffic congestion in the hope of finding ways of relieving it, an international team of scientists analyzed road use patterns in the San Francisco Bay area and the Boston area. They used mobile phone information from more than 1 million users over the course of three weeks to map out where drivers were concentrated on roads. (The data was rendered anonymous before the investigators looked at it, the study authors noted.)

Based on their analysis, the researchers suggest that certain neighborhoods in these urban areas were home to drivers that caused major congestion. The scientists found that canceling just 1 percent of trips from these neighborhoods could drastically reduce travel time that was otherwise added due to congestion.

“In the Boston area, we found that canceling 1 percent of trips by select drivers in the Massachusetts municipalities of Everett, Marlborough, Lawrence, Lowell and Waltham would cut all drivers’ additional commuting time caused by traffic congestion by 18 percent,” said researcher Marta González, a complex-systems scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In the San Francisco area, canceling trips by drivers from Dublin, Hayward, San Jose, San Rafael and parts of San Ramon would cut 14 percent from the travel time of other drivers.”

The location of these neighborhoods apparently makes it easy for them to impact their cities. “Being able to detect and then release the congestion in the most affected arteries improves the functioning of the entire coronary system,” González  told TechNewsDaily.

There are many ways people might reduce the number of drivers hitting the road from these key neighborhoods, the scientists said. For instance, the authorities might encourage alternatives “such as public transportation, carpooling, flex time and working from home,” González said. Mobile phone apps that connect people using the same roads might help them coordinate carpooling, she added.

Two things stand out to me:

1. It seems like the advantage to this method is that it allows officials and drivers to target traffic flows from particular locations and then plan accordingly. More often, we settle for traffic solutions like adding more lanes over a stretch of highway or extending mass transit to a particular location. But this kind of analysis is able to help people target particular areas rather than having to apply catch-all solutions.

2. Collecting and using this data sounds very interesting. This is big data at work: taking information that is collected about over 1 million cell phone users and then using that information in a new way. It also allows researchers to see the system as a whole.

My next question would then be is it be easy politically to target particular areas for congestion reduction?

Study finds cell phone usage linked to addiction, materialism, and impulsiveness

A new study in the Journal of Behavior Addictions argues cell phone usage can be linked to other concerns:

“Cell phones are a part of our consumer culture,” said study author James Roberts, Ph.D., professor of marketing at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. “They are not just a consumer tool, but are used as a status symbol.”…

Roberts’ study, co-authored with Stephen Pirog III, Ph.D., at Seton Hall University, found that materialism and impulsiveness are what drive cell phone addiction.

Cell phones are used as part of the conspicuous consumption ritual and also act as a pacifier for the impulsive tendencies of the user, according to Roberts. Impulsiveness, he noted, plays an important role in both behavioral and substance addictions…

Some studies have shown that young adults send an average of 109.5 text messages a day or approximately 3,200 texts each month. Furthermore, surveys suggest that young adults receive an additional 113 text messages and check their cell 60 times in a typical day…

Data for this study come from self-report surveys of 191 business students at two U.S. universities. Cell phones are used by approximately 90 percent of college students, and said Roberts, “serve more than just a utilitarian purpose.”

New technologies tend to have the potential to allow us to do new things in new ways, often working alongside a narrative of progress, but we need to continually ask whether the use of new technologies can also lead to negative outcomes. We don’t have to be Luddites to suggest that we should evaluate the social changes that accompany technological change.

One question about addiction and mass culture: if a majority or large number of people have more addictive relationships with their cell phones, does it at some point then cease to be addiction and comes to be seen as “normal”?

Cell phone users now comprise half of Gallup’s polling contacts

Even as Americans are less interested in participating in telephone surveys, polling firms are trying to keep up. Gallup has responded by making sure 50% of people contacted for polling samples are cell phone users:

Polling works only when it is truly representative of the population it seeks to understand. So, naturally, Gallup’s daily tracking political surveys include cellphone numbers, given how many Americans have given up on land lines altogether. But what’s kind of amazing is that it now makes sure that 50 percent of respondents in each poll are contacted via mobile numbers.

Gallup’s editor in chief, Frank Newport, wrote yesterday about the evolution of Gallup’s methods to remain “consistent with changes in the communication behavior and habits of those we are interviewing.” In the 1980s the company moved from door-to-door polling to phone calls. In 2008 it added cellphones. To reflect the growing number of Americans who have gone mobile-only, it has steadily increased the percentage of those numbers it contacts.

“If we were starting from scratch today,” Newport told Wired, “we would start with cellphones.”…

Although it may be a better reflection of society, mobile-phone polling is more expensive, says Newport. They have to call more numbers because the response rate is lower due to the nature of mobile communication.

As technology and social conventions change, researchers have to try and keep up. This is a difficult task, particularly if fewer people want to participate and technologies offer more and more options to screen out unknown requests. Where are we going next: polling by text? Utilizing well-used platforms like Facebook (where we know many people are turning every day)?

Driving today is much safer than in the past

An article (“Safer Passage”) in the latest issue of Time has shows that the fatality rate from driving has dropped a lot over the years. Here is a description of the issue:

America’s roadways are safer than ever. The latest data show that traffic fatalities are at their lowest level since 1949 and that the death rate based on miles traveled is the lowest in history. But technologies such as active safety systems and advanced air bags are being offset by auto safety’s newest enemy: distracted drivers using electronic devices behind the wheel.

“We lost over 3,000 in 2010 to distraction-related crashes,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland says. “It’s a heightened risk to the public, and it’s growing exponentially.”

Some of the statistics cited in the story:

1. In 1950, there were 7.2 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 2010, the rate is 1.1. While Americans might be driving more on average today than in 1950 (I couldn’t find figures on this), the fatalities while driving has dropped nearly sevenfold.

2. Here is what causes traffic fatalities: 32% killed by drunk driving, 31% by speeding, 16% by distraction, and 11% by bad weather. It is interesting that much of the current debate about making driving safer deals with cell phones and distractions (see a recent article from the Chicago Tribune about new efforts in Illinois) while it is the third biggest threat. Perhaps policymakers could argue that getting rid of distractions if the cheapest or easier route compared to dealing with the first two issues.

3. According to this CDC report, there were 36,216 deaths in 2009 in motor vehicle accidents for a death rate of 11.8 per 100,000 Americans.

Americans seem willing to accept some risk in driving and generally welcome efforts to make cars safer. And the numbers have gone down quite a bit since 1950: driving is safer. At the same time, the fight over cell phones in cars is just heating up and we need more data to know whether cell phones are more distracting than other features found during driving (passengers, fiddling with the radio/GPS devices, talking to passengers, tiredness). In the end, this may be an odd costs-benefits tradeoff: restricting cell phone use may limit deaths but some will argue that too much is being given up (assuming that only others get in accidents while using cell phones?). Of course, one solution is to simply go to driverless cars but there are other hurdles to overcome there.

Indicators that loyalty among family members is up in America

Even though we supposedly live in a disconnected and fragmented age, there are some indicators that suggest Americans feel more loyal toward their families than in the past:

“There’s been a social and economic change that’s actually made us more dependent on family loyalties,” says Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, A History” (Penguin).

“You don’t know your neighbors. It would be crazy to be loyal to your employer in the same way you used to be because your employer’s not going to be loyal to you. All of those things have simultaneously made us want more loyalty — long for more loyalty — and try, I think, to have more loyalty in our personal lives.”

Loyalty itself is difficult to measure, but likely indicators such as family closeness appear to be on the rise. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of Americans say their family life is closer now than when they were growing up, and only 14 percent say it is less close. Another Pew study showed that the percentage of adults who talked with a parent every day rose to 42 percent in 2005 from 32 percent in 1989.

The family loyalty picture is complex, with Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, saying that though couples who marry today are less likely to get divorced than couples that married in the 1970s, more people are forgoing marriage or delaying it.

The article suggests several reasons why people would be feeling more loyal toward their family today: rapid economic and social change, different expectations about family life, and people are entering intimate relationships more cautiously.

There could also be a few other factors at work:

1. I wonder if there is some social desirability bias in answering a question about family closeness. What adult today would say they are doing a worse job in creating family closeness than their parents did? Also, there is a memory issue here: how many current adults can accurately remember or assess the closeness of their family when they were younger? Their current family status is much more immediate.

2. I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned in the article: it is relatively easier to communicate in families with the advent of email, cell phones, and text messages. However, I wonder if these easier methods of connection mean that people are confusing connected with closeness or if they are indeed one and the same.

Even if loyalty isn’t truly up compared to the “golden era” decades ago (at least in our popular culture we have this image of an era where the nuclear family never let each other down), the perception that loyalty is more important or stronger matters. This is an expectation that many people will bring to relationships and affect their actions.

(A side note: Wilcox and Coontz get interviewed for a ridiculous number of news stories about family life and marriage.)

Sociologist: phone call or text like “catnip” for humans

Amidst a larger conversation about using cell phones in vehicles, a sociologist gets at an interesting question: why can’t people resist the allure of cell phones?

The lure of multitasking may be, in at least one respect, more powerful for drivers than for other people, said Clifford Nass, a sociology professor at Stanford University who studies electronic distraction. Drivers are typically isolated and alone, he said, and humans are fundamentally social animals.

The ring of a phone or the ping of a text becomes a promise of human connection, which is “like catnip for humans,” Nass said.

“When you tap into a totally fundamental, universal human impulse,” he added, “it’s very hard to stop.”

Humans are indeed social animals and driving is uniquely isolating. On one hand, it is an oddly social activity as drivers must interact with other drivers and there is an interesting set of non-verbal interactions. On the other hand, one is in a sealed, moving vehicle and it may be one of the few regular moments people have where they are not near enough to talk to other people. Couldn’t someone examine this hypothesis by looking at how many cell phone caused or influenced car accidents took place when there was a solo driver?

It would be interesting to see how people respond to cell phones differently when alone opposed to in more social settings where they have opportunities to interact with people.

I imagine this could easily become a marketing campaign for cell phones: your phone is “a promise of human connection.” Indeed, a number of cell phone campaigns have stressed how they bring people together. The commercials might not add this but here is the kicker: sometimes this urge to make a human connection might be be problematic…

The shopping malls that track your shopping patterns

Two shopping malls are starting a new program where they track the shopping patterns through shopper’s cell phone signals:

From Black Friday though to the end of the December, two malls in southern California and Richmond, Va., will be following shoppers by tracking their cell phone signals. When somebody walks out of the Gap, into the Starbucks, out through the Nordstrom and on to the Auntie Annes pretzel stand, the mall will be monitoring.

Creepy? Maybe. But the information is anonymous and won’t be used to target individual shoppers. Instead, it’s part of a quiet information revolution among retailers to figure out how crowds move, where they cluster, and what stores they ignore. Tracking crowds isn’t new. Tracking crowds through their cell phones is.

If you’ve got a problem with malls paying attention to your smart phone, you might want to stay away from the mall for, say, the rest of your life. The future of shopping, according to retail analysts I spoke with for a recent special report, is malls and phones talking to each other.

When I saw this story last week, my first thought was “what took so long?” This doesn’t sound too different than what is going on while you surf the Internet: there are a number of people very interested in the data generated by your browsing and shopping patterns. You the shopper/browser are in a closed system and you are a very valuable data point. This is also a reminder that shopping malls are not public spaces: just like large stores, retailers and mall operators want to funnel you in certain ways such as past the food court (good smells can be positive for spending money) and past a number of attractive displays, advertisements, and storefronts (all meant to get you to open your wallet and act upon unrecognized desires).

One other thought: I wonder how shoppers at a mall might fight back. How about turning off one’s cell phone while inside? How about walking in “unusual patterns,” whatever that might look like? How about boycotting malls that practice this? How about using this as another rallying point for shopping local – they can’t (or at least shouldn’t) track you while shopping on Main Street. How about forcing malls that do this to post signs about what exactly they are doing? If the shopper does indeed have valuable information and money, why not get some concessions from the mall operators who would like to have this data?