There are two competing approaches—both very expensive—to solving traffic problems: Build more roads, or build more public transit. Yi-Chang Chiu, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Arizona, has another idea: Hand out gift cards.
It is possible to reduce vehicle congestion, Chiu's research shows, if drivers take different routes and drive at slightly different times—from about 15 to 45 minutes earlier or later. "[Currently] we turn on our navigation systems when we get in the car," says Chiu. "By that time it is already too late." Getting as little as 10% of people to change their schedules would lead to a "measurable improvement," he says.
Chiu's startup, Metropia, uses a location-tracking smartphone app (tied to traffic data and a routing algorithm) that encourages people to take the small steps of changing routes or leaving at different times—or even take buses—with modest incentives such as gift certificates.