Traffic congestion in the Bay Area is brutal. These students at Northeastern in Silicon Valley want to help.

Aerial view of traffic jam. Photo by iStock.

Traffic congestion in California’s Bay Area is brutal. San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose have been ranked among the worst U.S. cities in which to drive, and freeway congestion in the Bay Area has increased by more than 80 percent since 2010, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Now a team of five Northeastern graduate students has won first place in a competition that challenged software developers, students, and programmers to help solve this problem. Their idea: improve the flow of traffic at schools as students are being dropped off in the morning.

The students, who study at Northeastern in Silicon Valley, reasoned that traffic often bottles up around schools because there’s typically only one drop-off point for buses and cars. They proposed establishing several drop-off spots around schools, such as at parks and other open spaces. Students would then walk in groups the rest of the way to school, and adults would volunteer to help get them there safely.

Their solution to helping improve traffic around schools by decentralizing the drop-off zone is akin to how some airports have responded to increased traffic from Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing companies. San Francisco International Airport, for example, has begun diverting ride-hailing pickups and drop-offs away from curbsides at the terminals and toward less-congested areas.

Five graduate students at Northeastern in Silicon Valley won first prize at a competition focused on finding solutions to reducing traffic in the Bay Area. Courtesy photo.

“The goal is to decentralize the drop-off point at schools,” said Shen Wang, one of the Northeastern students who created the plan.

The Northeastern students developed a prototype of an app called FootBus to encourage students and volunteers to participate in their proposed program. Wang said students could use the app to check in when arriving at the drop-off points and track the number of steps they take while walking to school. Schools, he said, could reward students who take the most steps, and use the data to develop other incentives or physical education programs.

Their idea won first prize at the “Hack the Bay Area Traffic Congestion” event, where competitors had less than 48 hours over the course of a weekend to conceive, develop, and present their ideas. The students on the team, Vadakke Veetil Sreerajatha, Siddhant Varyambat, Qing Liao, Kiran Bilgundi, and Wang, received $4,000 for besting the competition.

The students plan to continue developing their app. They said their next step is to gather feedback from middle school students about the app. Their longer-term goal is to establish partnerships with schools or school districts to implement their idea.

“We want to give it to students to get feedback on the look and feel [of the app] to see if they like it and if they would want to use it,” Sreerajatha said.

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