"Collecting travel time is very difficult to do with fixed infrastructure, such as loop detectors that only measure spot speeds and extrapolate segment travel time," Bullock says. "Our Bluetooth technique provides direct measurement of a sample of the population that we believe provides a much more robust indicator of travel time."
While this may resemble another devious way Big Brother has found to invade personal privacy, by using our cell phones to follow where we go, in actuality only the anonymous MAC address is transmitted. Since MAC addresses are not associated with individuals, personal information is unavailable. However, unlike video surveillance, bar codes and radio frequency identification tags, skeptics have ultimate control over this tracking system; Bluetooth transmission is disabled when cell phones are turned off.
Eye in the sky
Another cell phone-based traffic management idea has emerged in Japan.
Researchers at Kyoto University are working on an emergency evacuation system based on GPS-enabled mobile phones. The Kyoto system shifts the emergency management paradigm from one information push to all users to information individualized to each user.
"Current evacuation or navigation services simply broadcast the same instructions over a large area; but what is needed is a system that can provide individualized instructions to each person," explains Toru Ishida, a professor in the Kyoto Department of Social Informatics. Ishida says the use of GPS-capable cellular phones enables the provision of personalized navigation instructions to suit each user circumstance.
"In this system, each user receives updated maps and instructions from a central control directly on their mobile devices," Ishida says.
Under the Japanese system, evacuees can check their current position, indicated by red dots, on maps transmitted to them on demand. Evacuation sites are indicated by blue rectangles on the map. The movement of other evacuees is shown by green arrows, making it easier to avoid crowded areas. Other areas to avoid, such as collapsed buildings or structure fires, are also depicted on the maps.
Neither Bullock's Bluetooth tracking or Ishida's GPS scheme are panaceas for law enforcement or emergency managers charged with developing complex mass evacuation strategies, but each may play a role of some kind in future efforts.
No wheelchair left behind
Developing effective mass evacuation will require input from many desks, including coordination across all levels of government agencies, as well as non-government organizations.
"Disasters do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries or socioeconomic status," says John Renne, a professor of transportation studies at the University of New Orleans. In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Renne launched the Transportation Equity and Evacuation Planning Program at the UNO Transportation Center, the goal of which is to provide research and outreach to improve evacuation planning and practice for all members of society.
Renne is especially concerned about evacuating the low-mobility population — people in low income areas, and people with physical and mental disabilities.
"The poor and infirm are usually more impacted because they have a higher level of dependence on government for evacuating," he says. Renne recently authored a 110-page study for the Federal Transit Administration, titled "National Study on Carless and Special Needs Evacuation Planning: A Literature Review."
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, seven cities had carless populations even higher than the 27 percent in New Orleans, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco — all with carless populations between 29 and 37 percent. Nearly 60 percent of the population of New York City has no car.
Nationally, approximately 10 percent of the population is disabled and many of these individuals don't drive, even if a family car is available. As the population ages, more and more people will become mobility-restricted.
"Even the elderly who have cars may be reluctant to drive them during a mandated long-distance evacuation," Renne says.
Disabled and low-income groups face disproportionate risk. During Katrina, for instance, more than 1,300 (71 percent) of the 1,836 deaths were people over age 60, and more than 860 (47 percent) were over age 75.