13 Investigates the $18 million transportation app you paid for

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Wednesday, November 23, 2022
13 Investigates the $18 million transportation app you paid for
Despite millions of taxpayer dollars going toward developing a transportation app, it only has about 3,800 active users, data released to 13 Investigates shows.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Robert Harris spends three to four hours every day driving around Houston.

He said he typically relies on the Uber Driver app to get around, but sometimes he'll use Apple Maps.

He doesn't use any other navigation apps, like Google Maps or Waze, and when 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg asked if he's used ConnectSmart, Harris said, "No, never heard of it."

Despite millions of taxpayer dollars going toward developing and promoting the transportation app that the Texas Department of Transportation launched in September, it only has about 3,800 active users, as of the most recently available data TxDOT released to 13 Investigates.

"The information that we can get from it and the information that we can provide to others to create a better, safer travel experience and help to relieve congestion, we think it's a good investment," Catherine McCreight said, a TxDOT planner who has been involved with the project since the beginning.

The project was initially going to be a partnership between public and private entities that would include nearly $7.5 million in private and university funds but is now being paid for with $8.9 million in state taxpayer funds and another $8.9 million in federal money. TxDOT said no revenue is being generated from the project.

"We've thought so long and so hard about this that to see it not adopted in this region and to see people not pick up and see the benefit of it would hurt my heart," McCreight said.

The app offers directions and re-routing around crashes or delays, but TxDOT readily admits Google and Yahoo do the same.

"We think we have competition. They've been around a lot longer, but they don't offer what we do," McCreight said.

She said one thing that makes the app unique is that in addition to providing updates for people traveling by bus, rail, bicycle, or foot, it also allows users to buy bus and transit passes directly on the app.

According to a ConnectSmart report last month, 94% of users made trips by car using the app. Another 3% used the app for bicycle routes and the remaining 1% used it for transit or walking.

Critics say time and effort would have been better spent talking to community members about their transportation needs and making sure there's better transportation options for non-car users.

"If we all of a sudden had all electric vehicles overnight, waved a magic wand, we would still have congestion. We would still have tire particulate matter. We would still have disconnected communities and we would still have a really poor community engagement process from TxDOT," said Molly Cook, an organizer with Stop TxDOT I-45. "I celebrate anything that gives me updated bike routes. Google Maps does not necessarily immediately update it. What I am disappointed by is the constant insistence on trying to 'tech' our way out of decades of racist policy making, decades of poor decisions, poor planning in our transportation infrastructure. As an example, I can see the updated bike way, but the final parts of (of the route) still don't connect ... so it doesn't matter as long as there's not safe infrastructure existing."

Still, TxDOT says the app was developed by Houstonians for Houstonians.

Part of their marketing plan is to reach out to corporations, who can encourage their employees to create carpools and "be part of the congestion-relieving decision," McCreight said.

Ultimately, she said the goal is to distribute traffic more evenly across time, space and mode.

"Time meaning that the individual driver can choose to leave at an earlier time or a later time and not be part of the congestion. They can choose to take a different route to work or to their destination and then ultimately, once we learn people's behavior, we want to provide personalized mobility options for the user so that they can explore alternative modes such as carpooling, van pooling, and ultimately transit because transit produces the highest efficiency," she said.

TxDOT shows a decline in app downloads after the app rolled out in September.

The application for the federal grant suggests they need 50,000 eventual users in the next two years.

But, Cook pointed out that not everyone in the Houston area will have access to the app and said TxDOT should be focused on providing safe infrastructure for non-car users.

"The reality is that a lot of people don't own smartphones, can't pay for them," Cook said. "Some people don't even have reliable numbers, and those people still need to move around the city and whether that's the elderly or folks who don't have enough money to continue using a smartphone month to month - we all know how expensive they are - those folks also deserve safe, multi-modal transportation options, and this app is not meeting their needs."

But, TxDOT says the app is the first step in getting people to think about other modes of transportation to help get more people out of single-occupant vehicles and onto buses or the rail.

"Our goal truly is to move people, not cars and we want to empower and incentivize smarter travel. If we can help to shift people's thinking toward different mobility services such as transit, carpool, biking, etc., then we're winning," the ConnectSmart team told us. "There is zero doubt about this, growth and history has taught us that we cannot build our way out of congestion. Transportation involves a multi-pronged approach with a variety of strategies and services deployed within a transportation system to meet the needs of a major metropolitan area like the Houston region. Our goal is to meet the demand and relieve the pressure derived from the growth while empowering people to make wiser, congestion relieving choices."

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