Stanford offers cash for off-peak commutes

University engineers turn talents toward addressing vexing Palo Alto traffic problems

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.

Chris Kenrick


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Posted by Nice Idea
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Just think how cool it would be if they did that for people riding bikes as well. Since bikes actually REDUCE the amount of cars in town, not just stagger the times they are around, every day citizens might start to see the benefits, not just drivers having trouble getting onto campus at the usual choke points. Great start, not lets broaden it so it actually makes a difference.

Like this comment
Posted by AJ
a resident of University South
on Apr 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Stanford already rewards commuters who bike or use other non-driving modes. I get paid $300/year for biking and not driving to my job at Stanford!
Web Link

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Posted by SLAC Employeee
a resident of University South
on Apr 2, 2012 at 8:37 pm

This, and other programs such as the ECO Pass, are only available to "eligible Stanford drivers". I am appalled that SLAC drivers are never included in these programs.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 2, 2012 at 9:16 pm

As a former Stanford employee who later worked at SLAC I was also very disappointed that none of these programs apply there. The fact is, though, that SLAC is in San Mateo County and campus is in Santa Clara County. The GUP and all the agreements made to deal with campus traffic simply don't apply to SLAC. One joke I heard a lot was that SLAC's way of solving parking problems in 2008 was to lay off 1200 people. Whether true or not, they don't seem to have a parking shortage and don't even charge for permits so they can't reward cyclists who don't purchase a permit.

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Posted by Before/After Numbers, Please
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 2, 2012 at 9:24 pm

> "We couldn't think about doing this kind of thing in
> the 20th century," Prabhakar said.

Electronic tolling came on-line on the East Coast in 1991, known as E-ZPass:
Web Link

So, this technology could have been applied to this sort of problem on the Stanford campus since that time.

There is a lot of missing information in this story. For instance, what are the vehicle volumes on Palo Alto streets that are headed for Stanford, measured on 15-minute intervals? Most Silicon Valley companies offer "Flex-time"--meaning that people can come and go as they wish, as long as they are on-site during "core hours". This is more typical of professional jobs, than hourly people, but it does tend to take a lot of traffic off the streets during the 0700-0800 time frame. So, what about Stanford? Does Stanford offer "Flex-time" and how many people are coming to work/leaving for home at what times now?

And then there is the little problem of sharing information with the public about the use of the US Dept. of Transportation money. What will it be used for, and what access to the records of this project will be available to the public?

It would be nice if this program did move some traffic around. But without publishing before/after vehicle counts, we will never know if it did anything but move $3M into some pockets on the Stanford Campus.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 2, 2012 at 9:26 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Richard
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 3, 2012 at 7:00 am

Stanaford is required to peform vehicle counts at each campus entrance at least once a year as part of their deal with the county. The information is available, although perhaps not to the reporter.

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Posted by Before/After Numbers, Please
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 3, 2012 at 9:03 am

> Stanaford is required to peform vehicle counts at each campus
> entrance at least once a year as part of their deal with the county

That's nice. But what is needed is a street-by-street count. Counting traffic once a year does nothing to determine whether a program to time-shift commuting hours is working. Even if this program worked as intended, the total count of cars would be the same, per day, and per year.

Like this comment
Posted by Ray
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 3, 2012 at 11:26 am

"This could incentivize people to avoid the peak commute."

The word is "motivate."

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 3, 2012 at 11:49 am

Please follow-up with all the great suggestions in the comments: What costs $3 million to study a few cars with RF tags? What progress is being made at specific roadways? Any data on bikers and incentives to expand biking beyond what's currently offered. We have a marvelous community that could resolve a chronic problem and share our learning with other (almost all) communities with traffic congestion.


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Posted by stanfrd worker
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I'd love to come and go when I please working around the "rush hour" commute-- but be practical! A lot of employees I see rushing out at 5 are PARENTS going to pick up their kids from Daycare or other places. Stanford could put some effort in the work/life balance and actually provide such services it's employees

Like this comment
Posted by SLAC Employee
a resident of University South
on Apr 3, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Yes, SLAC is in Menlo Park, but many many of us drive through and live in Santa Clara county.

Like this comment
Posted by Oenoman
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Prediction: Gridlock at entrances to campus each morning at 8:58am.


Like this comment
Posted by That's not how it works
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 4, 2012 at 9:14 am

"Peak commute hours" means the times when the most commute trips happen. If EVERYONE decided that they would go to work an hour earlier and leave an hour earlier, peak hours would be 7-8am and 4-5pm instead of 8-9 and 5-6. THe whole point of off-peak is that it spreads the traffic out.
Stanford should make their grad students eligible for commuting programs, as well.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2012 at 9:32 am

Many people are locked into the 9 - 5 routine and for some it is impossible to work outside these hours. However, many people are doing it for traditional reasons only. There is no reason why many can't work what was used to be called flexi hours and start at say 10.00 and work til later, or alternatively work earlier and finish earlier. In the global economy in which many of us work, aligning with European or Asian hours may make off peak work hours more sense.

However, saying this, there are secondary factors to consider. For those with children, it is hard to work outside traditional hours becaue of school and daycare schedules and those schedules are there for the good of the children, not the parents. Additionally, spouses often want to work the same hours as each other so that they can have the same time to spend together.

I think this is a good start and many more employers should be encouraged to follow suit. But for those who want to work traditional hours because it fits in with their outside work lifestyle, they should not be frowned upon for not doing it. Their reasons for traditional hours are probably what suits them best.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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