For Tech's Sake: 'Multimodal' software easing angst, if not traffic

Gary Arlen

Whenever I'm in California, colleagues there inquire about the Washington situation ? as if I can spout exceptional political insights and diplomatic gossip. Invariably, they are disappointed when I explain that the perpetual Beltway talk is about traffic chaos, which has been exacerbated in recent months by rain delays, security roadblocks and unexpected transportation inconveniences.

Traffic woes are not what California road warriors want to hear ? as if they had a lock on that problem. To be sure, traffic and, more specifically, traffic and transit management are top priorities for officials in communities nationwide. And they're caught in the increasingly predictable chasm between mandated services and tight budgets.

LogicTree Corp., a College Park, Md., software developer, contends it has an answer, or at least one step toward easing the transit mess and, at the same time, creating a security tool. Its "multimodal" solution serves traffic information to customers via PC online networks, personal digital assistants and dial-in phone systems.

LogicTree is working with local agencies and technology developers on projects ranging from distribution of real-time highway condition reports to automated paratransit dispatch and management.

The company's software will be deployed next month for an Ann Arbor, Mich., Transit Authority paratransit service. Such systems, which are often mandated to assist disabled residents, traditionally have 25 percent no-show factors, requiring payments for services not rendered.

The Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, another LogicTree client, spends about $25 million annually on paratransit services and has been using LogicTree's software to streamline its operation. WMATA also uses LogicTree software for its "Ride-Guide" phone-in system, which handles up to 1,000 calls per day for trip directions, about 10 percent of the queries that WMATA receives daily.

Fred Korangy, LogicTree's president and co-founder, says he's negotiating with 35 other municipalities and organizations for customized versions of the transportation information software. One feature he emphasizes is the user's ability to jump from one device to another during the same session. A customer could start reviewing local traffic conditions online via PC, but then maintain an update en route through a mobile phone. An XML gateway recognizes the type of access system being used.

"Complexity should stay on the platform to avoid complexity at the application layer," Korangy says.

Armed with one patent and six more pending, LogicTree is evangelizing the value of integrated technology to develop local solutions to traffic and transit problems. In addition, Korangy is focusing on software applications that can be used for security alerts. He knows local authorities fear that a true crisis could make summer Friday afternoon traffic look as light as Sunday dawn.

Korangy says he is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local agencies to develop "up to 200 different layers for outbound alerts."

For a small company ? recently downsized to a few dozen employees ? LogicTree has big visions. Its core VoxLinx Enhanced Services Platform provides advanced information features to wireline or mobile telephone users and also delivers identical content to Web-users. It new Mobile Multimodal Technology (M3T) allows users of 3G and WAP wireless phones to interact with an application in voice and data modes simultaneously.

511 travelers advisories

The magnitude of traffic and transit troubles is generating a variety of public-private initiatives. Many of them merely treat transit pains but don't offer long-term transportation cures, which will require personal actions and government policies. There are services such as the new 511 call-in application, akin to 411 directory assistance or 911 emergency lines. Metro One, a traffic data service owned by Westwood One Corp. (which in turn is run by a subsidiary of Viacom Inc.), collects real-time traffic reports in about 70 centers nationwide.

Most of Metro One's services are carried as drive-time radio station reports. But it is now setting up an on-demand, dial-in service, enabling commuters to find advisories for the routes they are traveling. Additional technology allows text messages to appear on mobile phone screens, using the SMS (short message system) format of new digital phones. Again, all the data can be sliced and diced for any delivery systems. LogicTree is working on the multimodal backend for the system.

Using predictive software tools, these systems are being developed in ways that can deliver the level of information users need ? pertinent highway or public transit options based on today's travel requirements.

Although many of the systems are aimed at commuters, the tools, which are already being implemented in corporate environments, enable efficient, fuel-saving routing for delivery trucks and patrol vehicles.

On the day I wrote this, it was pouring rain. As soon as I got in the car, the radio traffic reporter advised that the Beltway was hopeless, and all the nearby streets ("surface roads," as they're called in California to differentiate them from freeways) were overwhelmed. If only I had thought to plan that trip using alternative transit options.

That was another reminder that traffic information is just the first step. Convincing travelers to take advantage of such systems, or even letting them know the systems are available, is the first big roadblock facing software developers and highway authorities alike.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm. His e-mail address is GaryArlen@columnist.com.

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