Our near-constant online connection is making choosing when to drive a car, hop a bus or even pedal a bike an informed - potentially spontaneous - decision that might end up improving traffic for everyone.
On Monday, Austin-based RideScout expanded its free smartphone app in 69 cities, including Houston, which will give people an array of transportation options for moving around the city.
With a tap on the screen, services such as Metro buses and trains, taxis, ZipCar car rental locations and B-Cycle kiosks will be instantly available.
"Not only is there individual benefit but collective benefit," said Nick Cohn, global congestion expert for the mapping company TomTom.
Laying out the options could help some people avoid solo car travel by picking transit or a carpool.
"When people in Houston realize they can commute in and are going to be (a passenger) in a car and not behind the wheel and when they get downtown realize they can ride transit or take a cab ... it frees them up," said Joseph Kopser, co-founder and CEO of RideScout.
The hope is that better information will help people decide when their best option is to walk, grab a bus, ride a bicycle or share a ride. And when they drive, real-time information can help them choose the best route - and to find a parking spot.
Smartphones and the real-time data they provide have opened up transportation options and disrupted the cab industry. Houston officials are weighing whether to change city taxi and limo laws to authorize Uber and Lyft - two app-based companies that link riders with local drivers - to operate legally in the city.
The City Council is scheduled to discuss the taxi code changes Wednesday. Though some issues remain and the taxi industry is fiercely opposed, many council members said increased competition ultimately benefits residents, assuming the playing field is level.
"Anything that gets people out of their cars and trucks and into transportation that is already on the ground, be it another car or public transportation, is a good thing," Councilman Jack Christie said.
Metro and Houston B-Cycle have their own smartphone apps that help link interested riders to their services. The problem is these apps focus on one product rather than laying out all the options, Kopser said.
"This was no different than the airlines 15 years ago," Kopser said. "They all had websites, and when you were searching for flights you had to go to all the different websites."
Since then, sites have emerged that gather fares from all carriers and then show users options. Kopser said RideScout is aiming to provide the same service for travel around cities. The app displays all of the services, as well as ridesharing and traffic data, on one map.
According to a recent analysis of 2013 traffic data by TomTom, Houston drivers with a normal commute of 30 minutes waste 78 hours annually in traffic delays. Along freeways, Houston trips take an average of 18 percent longer than they would during free-flowing conditions. Along surface streets, delay adds about 25 percent to local trips during normal commuting periods.
At peak times, like the morning and evening rush hours, the delay is much worse. Evening commutes take 61 percent longer because of heavy traffic compared with free-flow conditions.
Interestingly, because freeways move large numbers of vehicles more effectively than city streets, the shortcuts many people use to avoid traffic - burdened by others trying to do the same thing - often take longer.
"It is close to 50 percent more time," Cohn said. "The message is that those of us driving without real-time information getting off on roads might be doing a disservice. We don't know how bad it is. Unless it is really bad, you are not going to be saving a lot of time."
In Houston's favor, Tran-Star, the local partnership between city, county and state transportation agencies and transit officials, is among the most extensive traffic-tracking systems in the nation. Sensors along area freeways relay up-to-date traffic information to anyone with Internet or phone access.
Although the new services are useful, Kopser cautioned that too much information can be a bad thing. "We can't put the entire transportation universe in your face," he said. "It'll be too much."
©2014 the Houston Chronicle