Stanford University engineers have turned their talents to solving one of Palo Alto's most vexing traffic issues -- the road-clogging impact of thousands of Stanford employees coming and going at rush hour.
Importing techniques tried in India, Singapore and elsewhere in the United States, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Balaji Prabhakar is seeking to nudge workers toward off-peak commutes through games with cash incentives.
With radio-frequency identification tags clinging to the inside of their windshields, eligible Stanford drivers are rewarded for avoiding the 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. rush hours. Scanners installed at the 10 main points of entry to campus monitor the time of travel.
For drivers avoiding peak times, the system awards credits for an online game that pays random cash prizes of $2 to $50.
"You probably wouldn't jump out of bed early every day for 10 cents," Prabhakar said. "But the raffle effect -- where a small amount of money seems like a lot -- is well-established."
Many drivers will not change their behavior for the odd chance of winning $50, and others will be rewarded for coming and going during the same off-peak hours they've been driving for years. But that's fine with the people running the program, which includes graduate students Deepak Merugu, Chinmoy Mandayam and Tom Yue.
Reducing peak-time traffic by even a few hundred cars would be a success, they said. About 12,000 Stanford drivers are eligible for the program.
"You have to work on conditions," Prabhakar said. "What is the right price? How many vehicles do you want to move?
"Congestion is a 10 percent phenomenon. A certain number of people drive off-peak because peak isn't pleasant. If we solve the 10 percent problem, they may move into peak. So now you have a new equilibrium."
If the new situation fails to meet targets, the researchers and the university will look to tweak the program.
In recent years the number of evening rush-hour departures has approached the limit of about 3,600 the university agreed to with Santa Clara County, according to Brodie Hamilton, director of Stanford's parking and transportation services.
"We have all kinds of incentives to get people to use alternative transportation, like riding bikes or taking the train, but some people have to drive," Hamilton said.
"This could incentivize people to avoid the peak commute."
In a related project slated to begin this fall, the engineers will reward Stanford drivers for parking at less-used campus parking lots to alleviate wasted time and energy at chronically full ones.
"We couldn't think about doing this kind of thing in the 20th century," Prabhakar said.
"With today's technology, it's feasible to install low-cost sensors on a wireless network and make use of new Internet technology."
Prabhakar's study of a similar program aimed at employees of Infosys in Bangalore, India, found a doubling of the company's commuters arriving before 8 a.m. Initial results of a similar program in Singapore suggest participants' shift to off-peak commuting is nearly at the target of 10 percent, he said.
The Stanford project has received $3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the university, according to a Stanford press release.