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University of Arizona

Drivers Avoid Traffic, Earn Rewards

If in the near future a complaint about too much traffic congestion is met with the response ‘there’s an app for that,’ Yi-Chang Chiu will be a happy man. He’ll be even happier if it’s his novel phone app, Metropia, that drivers and communities are using to better manage local traffic flow.

"For the last 30 years, no one has thought about managing demand, only about increasing roadways,” says Chiu, who has a master’s degree and a doctorate in transportation engineering, the latter with a focus on mathematics and computer science. “Metropia is here to work with transportation departments to find a way to change behavior."

Managing Demand
After years of working on transportation projects, the civil engineering professor at University of Arizona (UA) took a novel approach to solving traffic bottlenecks: he developed a mobile device application (also referred to as a smartphone app) and computer software to actively manage traffic demand. The idea for Metropia — which involves the use of traffic-predicting algorithms and driver incentives — occurred to him after working on a traffic study in the mountains of Colorado.

"I was hired to study I-70 in Denver that feeds the ski resorts in Vail and Breckenridge where there’s a huge problem when people head back to the city at the end of their ski weekend,” he says. “They all leave their hotels Sunday afternoon and a 40-mile drive can become a five-hour crawl back home.”

Frustrated by lack of a cost-efficient solution to solve the 15-weekend problem, Chiu had a light bulb moment.

Hotels have one check-out time, which forces everyone to leave at the same time,” says Chiu. “I thought what if you incentivized drivers to leave their hotels at different times so that departures were spread out? It would be a win-win situation.”

To implement his idea, Chiu would need a system that could predict traffic flow, a means of communicating with and coordinating drivers and a reward system.

"Everyone is married to their cell phone so it’s the best way to distribute information,” he says.

As a transportation engineer, Chiu knew how to access traffic data. For the reward system, he imagined both personal rewards such as gift cards and retail discounts as well as a way to donate reward points to community-based projects.

More Than Tech Transfer
In 2011, Chiu shared his idea with UA’s technology transfer office Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), which helped him file a disclosure and found $30,000 in internal funding to work on a prototype.

"Yi-Chang’s idea was to create proper incentives that could change the behavior of commuters,” says Lewis Humphreys, M.A., Msc., TLA Software and IT Licensing Manager.

TLA helped Chiu file for two patents, each of which were granted in just two years: one for the concept and method of using predictive routing that requires a commitment to a specific selection in order to earn a reward, and the second on a computer server software system known as advanced traffic prediction and vehicle routing technology to support the method.

"The internal funding was key because it meant our research wasn’t delayed too long,” says Chiu. “I didn’t have to apply for a grant for money and wait a year or two.”

Using TLA incubator space, Chiu and a graduate student were able to create a prototype and prove the concept by the end of 2011.

"Tech Launch Arizona provided a lot of critical business resources, including mentoring, training classes and internal and external PR,” says Chiu. “Then a few angels stepped up with funding.”

In 2014, he licensed the technology from UA and established a startup company to commercialize Metropia.

"Yi-Chang needed advice on how to take the company to market,” says Humphreys. “We had a big role in developing the initial business model, which has really grown. They have a great story to tell.”

How Metropia Works
After downloading the free Metropia smartphone app from the Apple app store or Google Play, drivers plan ahead for a specific trip by entering their starting location and destination. Algorithms within Chiu’s software and the database of traffic data for the area produce a detailed look at travel times for that commute throughout the day. Drivers are provided a choice of color-coded departure times (green for traffic-free, orange for moderate traffic or red for heavy traffic) that reflect that best time to travel and fastest routes. Departure times that are furthest away from peak traffic congestion offer the user the most reward points.

For example, a driver who plans on heading to work during the morning rush hour inputs their location and destination the night before. Metropia’s server will display departure times in 15-minute intervals such as 8:00 a.m., 8:15 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. and the travel time expected for each trip. Points attached to each option incentivize the driver to choose a time that will balance the flow of traffic based on Metropia’s congestion predictions.

"Metropia actively manages traffic demand and diverts enough drivers away from congested routes during peak hours to make the system work smoother and more efficiently,” says Paul Tumarkin, TLA Marketing & Communications Manager.

The time and route used by the driver is verified by the GPS data transmitted to the Metropia server and points are awarded. Reward points can then be exchanged for retail discounts or gift cards or donated to community-based projects within the Metropia app.

The Metropia Ecosystem
In addition to its predictive capabilities, Metropia is different than other navigational apps such as Google Maps or Waze through the ecosystem the company develops prior to launching the app in a metropolitan area.

"Solving the social problem of traffic congestion will take more than an app,” says Humphreys. “An ecosystem of partners has to be involved.

For Metropia’s first launch in Tucson, the company established partnerships with the region’s metropolitan planning organization, the Pima Association of Governments (PAG), as well as Tucson retailers and a local reforestation project. The system effectively connects drivers, businesses and local government — and produces benefits all around.

At the regional level, the company shares its traffic data with PAG to use in planning future road projects, forecasting pollution levels and ensuring compliance with air-quality regulations. In addition to accumulating reward points to obtain gift cards or retail discounts — or have a tree planted — users are reducing their commute-times.

Expanding and customizing the ecosystem is something the Metropia team — now 20 employees strong — is constantly working on.

"We’ve hooked up with food trucks in Tucson so that their fans can find their location in real-time,” says Chiu. “We’ve also partnered with musicians who will download songs only through Metropia. Again, a win-win."

Long-term Impact
Since unveiling Metropia in Tucson in March, the company has also launched in Austin, Texas and New York City (in partnership with the Pioneer Program)  — and has thousands of users in each city. Chiu hopes those numbers continue to grow to at least a 10 percent market penetration, when his long-term vision for Metropia can be implemented.

"You start with the lone driver and take baby steps,” he says. “The next step in our ongoing partnerships with cities is ride-sharing and car-pooling where both the driver and passenger can earn points.”

At UA, Metropia is already a success both on its own merits and for the inspiration it has provided other civil engineers.

Faculty have responded to Chiu’s success by coming up with new ideas for apps,” says Humphreys.

To help those faculty members be equally successful, Humphreys says TLA will continue to provide a variety of resources beyond licensing and patent filing — from tapping in to community groups and providing business intelligence to analyzing where a technology might fit in the market.

"At UA, we’re about creating social and economic impact,” adds Tumarkin. “We want to take knowledge that comes out of research and put in the world where we can have a positive affect on people’s lives.”
—Mary Henderson

Cover photo caption: Yi-Chang Chiu stands alongside some of the highway traffic congestion he hopes to reduce with the Metropia mobile app.
Photo credit: Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona
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