Chasing Away Urban Congestion

Last April, in an Earth Day speech at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a sweeping plan to clean up the city and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Dubbed PlaNYC, it focused on areas such as housing, water quality and transportation. PlaNYC encompasses more than a hundred initiatives, including a controversial plan for traffic-congestion pricing.

The proposal calls for a per-use fee charged to vehicles that drive through a certain cordon of lower Manhattan during peak traffic hours. The hope is that commuters will consider carpooling or using public transportation to avoid the fee, mitigating both traffic and air pollution. The city issued a request for ideas on how to implement a congestion-pricing system. Several technology companies sent responses, which a city commission is now reviewing. A pilot could start as soon as 2009 if state legislators approve it.

Last August, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $354.5 million grant to New York for traffic-mitigation research. Miami, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Washington’s King County also received multimillion-dollar grants. Worldwide, London, Singapore and Stockholm all have active congestion-pricing programs. Amsterdam and Seoul are exploring the concept.

While traffic-mitigation projects are gaining steam, other municipal efforts have been floundering—namely, plans to offer ubiquitous wireless Internet access throughout entire cities and towns. Earthlink, once the champion of municipal Wi-Fi network deployments, has dropped many of its plans. Throughout 2005 and 2006, Earthlink won nationwide contracts with a deal in which the company would foot the bill for a citywide Wi-Fi network infrastructure in exchange for the right to sell Wi-Fi services to city residents.

But last July, Earthlink announced that the model wasn’t working: The networks were simply too expensive, and the company needed municipalities to help foot the bill. A month later, Earthlink backed off even further, laying off half its workforce, including the head of the municipal networks division. Earthlink then shelved a municipal Wi-Fi deal with Chicago and pulled out of a partnership with Google to provide Wi-Fi in San Francisco. Since then, prospects for big-city Wi-Fi networks have been dim.

What do gridlock and Wi-Fi have to do with one another?

Plenty, according to entrepreneur Robin Chase, who aims to address traffic congestion and municipal Wi-Fi in one fell swoop. She has a plan for urban vehicle congestion pricing systems that double as enormous wireless hotspots.

Here’s the gist: Drivers who intend to travel into a city’s congestion pricing area will install Wi-Fi “white boxes” in their cars. The devices will communicate with the traffic-congestion system (like an E-ZPass device, but in the 802.11g 2.4 GHz band) and act as wireless access points in an open-source mobile mesh network.

“The intersection is brilliant,” Chase says. And for the past year, she has spent a lot of time talking to technology executives, city officials, academic experts and open-source evangelists about her idea.

Chase is well-respected in the transportation technology industry: She co-founded Zipcar, the world’s largest car-sharing service, which relies on wireless links to record hourly usage and mileage data. She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, where she studied transportation and urban design. And Chase is now CEO of GoLoco, an online ride-sharing community, and Meadow Networks, a transportation consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass.

When Chase talks tech and transportation, people—from urban planners to world leaders—tend to listen.