TxDOT Cuts Down the Commute with Traffic Updates via Programmable SMS and Notify

October 06, 2017
Written by
Jacob Talbot
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Can a text message create a safer, shorter commute? Researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) think so, and they’re proving it to thousands of Texas drivers each day through a support contract with TxDOT to bring innovation and best practices to a major highway reconstruction effort.

Some 60,000 to 132,000 vehicles travel the hundred-mile stretch of I-35 from Hillsboro to Salado daily. An eight-year, $2.1 billion project is currently underway to increase mobility and facilitate economic development along the corridor, as well as make commutes safer for Texans. During construction, getting timely, accurate information to travelers about slow-downs and traffic incidents has been a primary goal.

As part this communications effort, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) recently implemented real-time alerts about construction-related issues via text. The system notifies drivers about lane closures, incidents, and other events that affect their commute.

Taking Traffic Alerts to Commuters’ Preferred Channel

TTI develops solutions to the challenges facing all modes of transportation. Recognized as one of the premier higher education-affiliated transportation research agencies in the nation, TTI’s research and development program has resulted in significant breakthroughs across the transportation system, with a particular focus on helping to save lives, time and resources.

Recently, TTI’s Senior Research Scientist Bob Brydia and Software Applications Developer James Moughon approached the challenge of improving the My35 traffic alert existing system. The TTI team found that commuters prefer receiving traffic alerts by text message, so Brydia and Moughon knew they needed to add SMS as a channel for real-time alerts. To implement SMS alerts, Moughon turned to Twilio due to the platform’s flexibility, the accessible documentation, and the ease of use for developers.

“Twilio has thought through so many aspects of the solutions for mass text messaging,” says Moughon. “There’s a lot of support and examples…and they’re willing to work and talk with people to use their services.”

Happy Drivers and Rapid Scale

After incorporating Twilio Programmable SMS into TxDOT’s text-based alert system, the response was immediate. Within 24 hours, 600 drivers had subscribed to the text-message service. Within a month, more than 2,500 had subscribed, exceeding the number of email subscribers that had signed up over the previous two and a half years. Now with over 5,700 subscribers—65 percent of whom use the service daily—the system is keeping travelers in the Waco District better informed.

Part of the system’s popularity is its personalization. My35 alerts are highly customizable, allowing users to selectively receive alerts according to when and where they drive along the 96-mile stretch of highway. Tailoring the information to meet individual users’ needs makes the experience far more useful and more personal. “It’s almost a conversation,” says Moughon. “At any period of time I can renegotiate how I receive messages by simply texting one word back.

By delivering commuters timely, relevant information, the My35 system supports key organizations goals for TxDOT. “TxDOT wants to be as responsive and helpful as we can to our fellow Texans during the reconstruction process,” says Jodi Wheatley, TxDOT’s I-35 public information officer. “That would be much more difficult without TTI’s Traveler Information System. The Institute’s expertise has made I-35 construction in the Waco District safer, easier to negotiate, and more predictable for travelers.”

Scaling the System with an Eye on the Future

Of course, rapid popularity and scale are not without their challenges. Sending notifications to thousands of subscribers simultaneously began to cause delays in distribution for TTI. To meet commuters’ demand, Wheatley turned to Twilio’s Notify product to enhance the system for scale. After implementing a few upgrades, alerts that once took 20 minutes to get to subscribers fell to less than 60 seconds.

Rapid delivery makes TTI’s alerts even more timely and effective. “It’s been tremendously well-received by the driving public,” says Brydia. “I have messages saved from people saying, ‘Thank goodness for all the work that you folks are doing out there to keep us informed. These messages and the alerts have saved me countless hours of time.’”

Brydia sees mobile communications continuing to grow as a delivery mechanism for time-sensitive alerts. Looking forward, TTI plans to continue to enhance the My35 system with a focus on decreasing text message delivery speed. “Timeliness, accuracy, and reliability—these are our guiding principles for how we keep Texans informed,” says Wheatley. “Twilio has helped us continue to meet that commitment.”