Drive I-275? You could earn $190 to participate in USF carpool study

The Center for Urban Transportation Research is testing new vehicle occupancy detection software — and they need your help.
An aerial view looking south on Interstate 275 towards Interstate 4 and downtown Tampa from just south of the Hillsborough Avenue exit in Tampa on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 in Tampa.
An aerial view looking south on Interstate 275 towards Interstate 4 and downtown Tampa from just south of the Hillsborough Avenue exit in Tampa on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 25, 2022

If you’ve driven Interstate 275, chances are you’ve sat in traffic. You’ve probably witnessed drivers tailgating at high speeds and changing lanes without signaling, too.

The Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida is studying the effectiveness of a new carpooling detection software, ultimately hoping to reduce congestion and emissions by encouraging alternatives to driving alone.

Sara J. Hendricks, a senior research associate at the center with over 25 years of experience in transportation and demand management planning, is leading the project.

The center has partnered with the National Institute for Congestion Reduction and the Florida Department of Transportation to test the accuracy of a private vendor, RideFlag, which has developed something known as vehicle occupancy detection.

On the RideFlag app, carpoolers take a photo of their group. RideFlag provides real-time validation of carpools by detecting the number of people in the vehicle, collecting location data by looking at the group’s highway route and then uses this information to grant the correct high-occupancy vehicle benefits to carpoolers.

Hendricks wants to know: Does it work?

At the moment, enforcement of HOV lanes is challenging. Camera systems can be expensive to maintain and vulnerable to extreme weather. It can also be difficult to see inside cars to determine how many people are in that vehicle, Hendricks said. And using law enforcement personnel is inefficient and potential dangerous, she added. RideFlag, she says, could help.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sara J. Hendricks
Sara J. Hendricks [ AIMEE BLODGETT | Courtesy of Aimee Blodgett/USF ]

How did this study come to be?

This is one of several studies under the purview of the National Institute for Congestion Reduction, a program conducted by the Center for Urban Transportation Research of the University of South Florida’s College of Engineering. CUTR won a competitively awarded national designation as a University Transportation Center to carry out several research studies under CUTR’s NICR program. My study is a NICR-funded research project that also received a matching grant from the Florida Department of Transportation and seeks to test the accuracy and reliability of a mobile application that uses a technology to determine the number of persons in a motor vehicle.

How were the Miami-Ft.-Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area, the Tampa Bay area and Utah selected as the locations for this study sponsored by National Institute for Congestion Reduction?

The Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area is key because the I-95 express lanes serves this South Florida region. Carpools containing a driver and at least two passengers can register with the South Florida Commuter Services to be granted free access to the I-95 EL dynamically priced toll lanes. This free access is meant to incentivize carpooling. More passengers traveling in fewer cars means less traffic congestion. The problem is that ensuring a driver claiming to be part of a carpool actually is one and not someone driving alone. We seek carpoolers who would like to volunteer to help us test a technology in a mobile application that verifies vehicle occupancy. In addition to carpoolers who use I-95 EL, we also seek carpoolers who drive along I-275 between Bearss Avenue and State Route 60 in Westshore to test the mobile app. Additionally, carpoolers in the State of Utah who drive along I-15 also are helping us test the app.

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What do you hope the study will achieve and what is the significance of the I-275 corridor?

We are using I-275 to simulate a highway facility that experiences traffic congestion and for which an increase in carpooling could reduce traffic congestion. If the mobile app works as intended, it could be used to ensure that true carpools can receive rewards, such as free or reduced-price parking and other incentives to encourage carpooling.

Accurate vehicle occupant counting will be an increasingly important tool to incentivize carpooling and vanpooling to reduce traffic congestion. The ultimate goal: reducing traffic congestion by moving more people in fewer vehicles.

What should people who are interested in potentially participating do?

We are still accepting new carpool testers to help us test the functionality of the mobile application that uses a vehicle occupancy detection technology. All a carpool needs is a driver with at least one other passenger, a mobile phone, and a travel route that includes any portion of I-275 between Bearss Avenue and S.R. 60. This portion on I-275 could be as short as getting onto I-275 at one entrance and getting off I-275 at the very next exit. Carpool testers who sign up will receive a gift card incentive of $5 per validated and logged carpool trip using the mobile app. You will be compensated up to $190 in Amazon gift card value for your participation.

More information and a sign-up form can be found here.