Your city might start paying you to be late for work

Please stand clear of the closing doors.
Please stand clear of the closing doors.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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As any city commuter knows, there’s no worse way to start a day than wrestling with the human gridlock on a subway platform during rush hour.

Urban Engines is a new start-up making the case for skipping rush hour all together. Even better, they’d like to convince your city to pay you to do so. The company uses network analysis systems developed for internet traffic to understand where and why congestion occurs, and it is pressing cities around the world to reward commuters who ease it.

The approach was dreamed up by former tech workers who believe their experience working on data networks gives them a unique view on urban transportation. The company’s CEO Shiva Shivakumar, for instance, spent a decade at Google, “watching how people move around the web.”

The analysts start by gathering individual swipes from MetroCards or other city transit programs, which they feed into several computer programs. ”After that initial setup phase, our engines take over,” Shivakumar told Quartz via email. These “engines”—models and algorithms—turn card swipes into estimates of congestion, based on train arrivals and departures. 

The people behind Urban Engines think that cities should use this data to alleviate congestion, by offering travel credit on metro cards to riders who schedule their trips during less-congested times of the day. Interested riders would sign up for the program online, and receive alerts via an app when train platforms or bus stops are reach peak congestion levels. ”In a nutshell, commuters earn points for off-peak travel,” CEO Shivakumar told Quartz.

But even without commuter rewards, real-time congestion information could help public transit run more smoothly. Cities could use it to make smarter decisions about sending trains to chronically affected stations, and commuters could plan to avoid particularly bad rush hours. Transit systems could also see which sections of a bus route are causing buses to pile up, and instruct buses to leapfrog stops in order to even out the wait times.

Urban Engines is already operating in three major cities: Washington, D.C. is in the early stages of using it to learn about their trains; Sao Paulo is using it to improve their bus transit; and Singapore is already using the system to offer their commuters off-peak travel incentives.

Easing congestion on public transportation can be a big money-saver for cities. Adding subways and buses at peak hours is expensive. Also, short wait times and uncrowded trains and buses make transit systems more attractive to commuters.

But perhaps the best part will be an app that pays you to text your boss and tell her you’ll be late for work.