A Kinder, Gentler Commute

Tired of sitting in traffic till your butt turns to granite? This French guy may be able to help you.

On a crisp fall evening in downtown Palo Alto, Andre Gueziec sweeps into a University Avenue coffeehouse and immediately apologizes for arriving 20 minutes late. "Traffic was terrible," says the 35-year-old Gueziec, coupling his thick French accent with an abashed grin. "I guess I should have checked my site before I left."

His site is sfbaytraffic.com, an ingenious clearinghouse for up-to-the-minute information on Bay Area highway congestion, and Gueziec's tardiness provides a perfect, if painfully ironic, illustration of the Web site's potential ability to help drivers beat the traffic. "The truth is, you have to be pretty lucky for the radio to inform you of what's going on," says Gueziec, running a hand through his wispy, wind-swept hair. "Drivers aren't very well-informed, just as I wasn't tonight."

But sfbaytraffic.com, which Gueziec launched in November 2001, aims to ease congestion by alerting drivers to delays before they begin their commute, not after they're already stuck in a bumper-to-bumper crawl. Feeding data from the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, and freeway drivers themselves into what is apparently a first-of-its-kind database, Gueziec's site posts all manner of slowdowns -- whether caused by accidents, construction work, debris spills, rock concerts, or just heavy traffic -- along with continually refined estimates of when the problems will clear. Gueziec, who earned a Ph.D. in engineering in Paris and has worked as a researcher for IBM, believes that traffic delays in the United States typically stem from crashes and other such incidents, not simply the number of cars or lack of lanes on the highway, and that helping drivers choose alternate routes will greatly alleviate congestion, frustration, and pollution.

Gueziec, though, has taken his traffic notification system one step further: For about $5 a month, drivers can subscribe to personalized alerts, which his Web site sends, in the form of text messages, to subscribers' cell phones, personal digital assistants, pagers, or e-mail accounts. Gueziec's database has divided the Bay Area highway system into about 10,000 two-mile segments, which allow drivers to specify, in great detail, the route and time of their daily commute. Gueziec, who still has a day job as an engineer, has filed for a patent on the technology, and although he has so far used family funds to build the site, he recently received a $100,000 small-business grant from the National Science Foundation that will enable him to work full time on sfbaytraffic.com.

"This is a business, so I hope it can become profitable, but making money is not the Number 1 priority at this stage," says Gueziec, who moved to Northern California three years ago. "This is just something I'm interested in, and we're trying to push the frontier a little bit."

And the Bay Area is, unfortunately, one of the best spots in the country to push it: Gueziec's site posts an average of 30 significant incidents on local highways at any one time during busy traffic hours. According to a recent study by Texas A&M University, peak road travelers in the San Francisco-Oakland area waste a staggering 92 hours a year in traffic, ranking second in the nation behind Los Angeles drivers, who squander 136 hours per year. And the situation is worsening: Between 1994 and 2000, the number of hours San Francisco drivers sat in traffic jams jumped by 38, the sharpest rise among American urban areas. These delays translate into wasted fuel and lost time, and Texas A&M has calculated that Bay Area residents lose about $800 a year to congestion, again second only to drivers in L.A. On top of everything else, the average Bay Area driver faces the third most time-consuming commute in the country (about 30 minutes), behind only those in New York City and Chicago.

Listening to Gueziec spout statistics about traffic -- "I did some measurements on Highway 101 in the Bay Area, and it averages 64 incidents a day," he says at one point -- it's obvious he takes his service very seriously. Because reliability is crucial, he often checks his site's effectiveness by reporting a jam or accident from his cell phone, then counting the seconds until it pops up on his site. The database automatically sifts through raw data from government agencies, editing it for clarity and presentation, and continuously deleting any information that has become stale or uncertain. Although other Web sites have attempted similar services, none updates as frequently or in as much detail, he says. Nor do any offer Gueziec's personalized alerts.

"It's actually very hard to do for traffic because the data becomes old very quickly," says Gueziec, who got the idea for the site after developing a simulation program for traffic conditions. "That's one of the problems with the radio -- it takes awhile before the information reaches you, and how long an incident lasts, or whether it's still accurate, is a big question mark. We try to publish as soon as possible, and when the information is confirmed, we repeat it and enhance it."

Though about 5,000 people a month visit his site, he has fewer than 100 subscribers so far. But those he has are appreciative. Frank Viggiano signed up for the personalized alerts about six months ago, seeking to avoid the traffic jams that clog his daily trip from Palo Alto to Milpitas, where he works at Cisco Systems Inc. "I never find radio reports very useful, so I was a bit skeptical," says Viggiano, 45. "But it's much more useful than the generalized reports you hear on the radio. I just have it set up where I'll get a buzz on my pager, and it has definitely helped me avoid some traffic jams."

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