Eric Jaffe introduced us a year ago to Waze, a route-planning app for drivers that leverages the experiences of other people on the road to help you optimize yours. The idea, as Jaffe wrote, implies a kind of "crowdsourced commute." And mobile social apps like it – connecting people by shared traffic routes, as opposed to shared interests, or shared college alma maters – have given way to what might be called the "networked commuter."
These people are, crucially, connected not just to information, but to each other. And with cars, this represents a basic shift in what it means to drive somewhere alone. A new study [PDF] released Monday by the New Cities Foundation, based in part on data provided by Waze from drivers in the San Jose area, suggests that networked commuters have a more positive experience of their slog around town than drivers who go it alone (or go it with non-networked apps like Google Maps).
On one level, this is unsurprising. Drivers alerted by such apps to traffic jams or accidents encountered by others can often get where they’re going faster and with less frustration. Waze, for instance, automatically takes such real-time data gathered from other cars using the app to reroute your commute. And drivers are also invited to more proactively share notes on a message system (although we’re hoping they do this while parked or stuck in stand-still traffic). But this obvious benefit – a quicker commute – isn’t the only reason why these networked drivers seemed happier.
"What was interesting is that they found benefit from being able to provide this information, being able to help others, and being able to affect the community in a positive way," says Naureen Kabir, director of the foundation’s Urban Lab.
These networked drivers also experienced a better commute simply by virtue of belonging to a network.
"What it sounded like was that there was a feeling of being able to help the community of commuters, others who are also traveling on the same path or take the same route every day," Kabir says. "There was that level of feeling a connection with those travelers."
This idea – commuting as a communal experience – sounds awfully familiar. That’s because public transit, by definition, has always been a networked experience. This study, conducted with the University of California's Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, also looked at networked public transit commuters (in this case, transit riders using the social app Roadify). By and large they seemed less impressed by the opportunity to virtually connect to other commuters (and their info) because, well, such people were sitting two feet away.
The study conducted sentiment analysis of user comments on these apps, as well as focus groups. As one transit commuter hinted, a social network is kind of redundant on a train: "A fellow commuter will tell me about an incident."
In the bigger picture, all of this suggests that social mobility apps for drivers can replicate some of the community of public transit while retaining the privacy of a quiet car. The study produced some word clouds drawn from the sentiment analysis of user reports filed in Waze. Here is what people were talking about under the “traffic jam” discussion (comments are filed by category):
Here’s the “police” category:
And here’s the more free-form “chit chat” section:
Clearly, these drivers are sharing more than utilitarian traffic info. Does this also mean they’re approaching their commute as a communal exercise instead of a battle of every man for himself? Next, we want to see a study measuring whether these people experience less road rage.
In some ways, this discussion is about improving car commuting by making it more like a ride on the train. And so – because we know you’ll ask – why not just get people to ride the train instead?
"Certainly that’s a valid thing, and we should be trying to encourage people to take the train," Kabir says. "However there’s a time and place for all different types of modes, and different people have different needs." When people use these apps, she adds, there’s the potential through efficiency for them to save gas and reduce carbon emissions. "There are some network effects that can be had from having a critical mass of people who are joined together into a community of drivers," Kabir says. "If and when they need to continue to use vehicles for their travel purposes, at least they can do so in a way that’s more efficient."