Blog Microsoft’s Rob Bernard On “Zero, Shared, And Efficient Miles”

We’ve now got a full transcript (at bottom, here) of the address given by Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Strategist Rob Bernard last month at Cascadia Center’s “Beyond Oil: Transforming Transportation” conference. Stressing the growing potential of information technology to shape decisions about commuting and travel, Bernard outlined what might be called a hierarchy of mobility preferences. Or, as he put it, the best miles are zero miles, followed by shared miles and then efficient miles.

So, zero miles….how do I leverage the information in my calendar to keep me from coming to the office? Because if I can stay home I can get a lot of work done. So by literally looking at the blocks of time, and there’s color-coding options within Outlook that I use as well, you can say, hey, look, within this calendar, if (you) just move around a few meetings, or make them tele-presence meetings, (you’ve) got an opportunity to work from home two, two-and-a-half days a week right off the top. Now, we do a lot of work with BT (British Telecom), out of the UK. BT has taken the idea of calendaring and moved to the idea of meeting-free days and moved on to the next level. Forty percent – 40 percent – of their workforce does not go to the office. Forty percent of their workforce works at home.

Microsoft has also started its own employee transit service, the Microsoft Connector, so that employee travel miles can be shared, and environmental impact and traffic congestion reduced. Bernard (pictured, right) explained:

…..we’re all familiar with the paradigm of mass transit. I take a bus, I take a subway, Seattle’s light rail, all these things are great, but they’re only great if you live close to ….a pick-up and a drop-off. This is really difficult. Like in my case I’d actually have to take three buses to get to Microsoft from my house, and it would take me about an hour-and-a-half to get here. So it’s great, and the vision is, get lots of bus and lots of mass transit and get lots of people off the road. But that model only works so well, because lots of people like me don’t have a direct line, so the convenience trade-off does not work.
…one thing we did a as a corporation is, we said, wait a second. We have lots of centers of population who are disconnected, that can’t really take mass transit effectively to get to work, but are actually on the road every day. So we actually rolled out, last year about this time the (Microsoft) Connector buses. People have seen them around, I’m sure, the buses are all over. We did it for about four months as a trial and it was so successful that we doubled the fleet… go online and reserve your (seat), you get on the bus, and what’s great is, it’s not only convenient, it’s wired. So I can actually do work while I’m going to and from work…Today we are now saving….250,000 car miles every single week in the Puget Sound area thanks to the Connector system, which is…pretty impressive….And we think that that number is going to increase. As gas prices have increased, ridership has increased and we’re looking at having more routes and more people.

Microsoft subsequently announced an expansion of its Connector service, which was to have taken effect yesterday. But what about employers lacking the company’s vast resources? More efficient and flexible ride-sharing is an alternative to traditional, static-schedule carpooling, said Bernard.

“….the problem with rideshare is it’s a great concept, but unless you have a static job, which says I’m going to be coming and going at these exact times, and everybody else in my carpool is the same, it doesn’t work because it doesn’t take into account the dynamic reality of life…So Microsoft researched, and…we said, what do we do to actually take this concept that I talked about earlier of calendaring, geographical information and presence, and put these things together and say, wait a second, what if we use smart carpooling, or smart-pooling, and said, look, we can look at everybody’s calendar who signs up for the program, and we can find and accept matches, based on a schedule? So today if I happen to be leaving at 3:30, great, who else is leaving at 3:30 who lives in my zip code?
Now all of a sudden I start to have a dynamic processing system that says I’m going to match you on the fly (with) other people who have a similar schedule and geographic location. You can have different riders in both directions, and you can reschedule, so I’ll see that a meeting comes up and I’ll say, oh, I’m going to take that meeting at 3:30, I’m now leaving at 4:30. System needs to go in and change who my riding partners are. So we’re experimenting with this at Microsoft, we believe that this will be the wave of the future. We’re getting people to carpool. Car-pooling is a great concept but it really doesn’t work at scale today.

Microsoft sponsored a global student competition on transportation applications of software, and one entry was a real eye-opener, said Bernard.

…there’s a team out of New Zealand that has created and looked at this thing that’s basically a taxi bus and what it does is it says based on your presence and your information in the city of Christchurch, they have a bunch of vans and a bunch of drivers, and they use route optimization and they were basically able to get wait times…down to about…two minutes…from seven minutes. Down to two minutes in a major city. Very cool stuff. So we’re working to see how can we take this and apply it to other cities.

Efficient miles result not only from the peak-hour congestion pricing in managed lanes, something Cascadia Center has long advocated and which is now gaining steam in Central Puget Sound and nationwide. Efficient miles also result from the use of congestion-avoidance technology. Bernard:

…there’s a new service on our maps, it’s based on a technology called Clear Flow, which says, actually give me a route, based on traffic. And as you can see, this map has actually been re-routed based on the dynamic information that’s happening in real time. This type of information should be and will be in cars in the future, so that your routes can recalculate, not just based on theoretical, but based on actual data. Now, it becomes even more interesting, and this is where Microsoft research is looking at it…if I gather this data over time, and we’ve been doing this in Seattle, I can predict, with high accuracy, what the road will look like in 15, 30, 45, 60 minutes….each of those dots tell me different types of things….there’s a grey dot with green in it…telling me…in about 15 minutes (Interstate 405 north) is going to be jammed up. So if you’re actually going to get through 405, you’d better leave now, or expect a delay….we’ve been working on this algorithm quite a bit…it is highly accurate and getting better as we get more data.

Of course, other companies and independent software developers are involved in the push to green the daily commute. But by concentrating some of its considerable resources on a whole set of tools to improve surface transportation, Microsoft adds considerable forward momentum. The questions for employers, commuters and service providers who stand to benefit, are: how soon, how broadly, at what cost, and with what degree of user-friendliness will next-generation commuting and telecommuting software applications become available?
And, can we please just install WiFi on public transit buses and commuter trains everywhere?
Read the whole Bernard transcript. And courtesy of TVW, Washington state’s public affairs cable channel, view video of Bernard and all of the other Day Two “Beyond Oil” speakers, including former CIA chief James Woolsey and Better Place CEO Agassi, here.
Microsoft Introduces Tool For Avoiding Traffic Jams,” New York Times.
Microsoft’s “Live Maps” site (click on “Check Traffic” and select region).