Pa. Turnpike, Waze app team to map out best routes

Motorists drive on Route 19 near the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Motorists drive on Route 19 near the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Photo by Tribune-Review
| Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, 11:12 p.m.

When the season's first major storm covered Western Pennsylvania with snow and ice last week, a multi-vehicle crash jammed up the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Somerset in the afternoon.

More than 140 miles away at the traffic operations center in the mid-state town of Highspire, operators had a new tool to get real-time information about roadway conditions. Since May, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has paired with Waze, a smartphone app that lets drivers report road conditions and traffic problems as they get customized directions.

Under the partnership, the turnpike's traffic operators can see the shared information.

“We were looking at social media and Waze and getting photos from the incident, which allowed us to know what conditions motorists were dealing with and what the condition of the road was,” said Bob Taylor, manager of traffic operations with the Turnpike Commission.

Waze's Connected Citizens Program has more than 65 government partners across the globe. PennDOT joined in December.

Waze shares its user-generated reports on roadway incidents, potholes, traffic congestion and other conditions. In return, Waze receives updates from agencies about planned road closures, restrictions or emergency management, so Waze can better direct drivers.

More than 500,000 Pennsylvania drivers use Waze, including around 80,000 in the Pittsburgh area, according to the company.

For Taylor and the turnpike's traffic operators, Waze is another way that digital communications and social media have changed roadway monitoring. Other information comes from traffic cameras, maintenance crews, or turnpike monitoring systems such as the TripTalk app.

“We pull all that information together. That's what makes us more aware of what's going on in the roadway system,” Taylor said.

In a previous incident, traffic operators received the Waze report of a stalled vehicle 19 minutes before an emergency call came in. Another Waze report came up eight minutes before traditional incident management monitoring picked it up.

PennDOT, the Turnpike Commission and Waze collaborated to help map roads and monitor traffic during the papal visit in Philadelphia in September. With planned detours in place, turnpike employees detected 20 percent less traffic on its road than it did the prior year.

At Waze, Paige Fitzgerald runs the Connected Citizens Program. She said some cities have used Waze data to fix roads or ease congestion, such as Washington, D.C., taking advantage of Waze's pothole reporting tool to target repairs, or Rio de Janeiro using a traffic heat map during elections.

Waze, an Israeli-born company bought by Google for a reported $1 billion in 2013, hosts forums for members to swap tips on using Waze data.

“Our government partners now have access to more information about exactly what is happening on their roads in real time,” Fitzgerald said. “This allows them to make smarter transportation and smarter infrastructure decisions.”

Connecting navigation apps with transportation agencies is mutually beneficial, said Sean Qian, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who runs the Mobility Data Analytics Center.

Historically, roadways are public priorities, Qian said, but social media and crowd-sourcing have created a new era. In the long run, apps such as Waze working with state agencies can optimize traffic flow to avoid points of congestion, he said.

“It will be a very efficient complement,” Qian said. “Everyone feels very excited about seeing the private sector and public sector working together to leverage their own powers.”

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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