13 Investigate: What is ConnectSmart? TxDOT Claims $18M Traffic App Offered as Smarter Alternative to Google

HOUSTON, TX (KTRK) — Robert Harris spends three to four hours a day driving around Houston.

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

He doesn’t use other navigation apps, like Google Maps or Waze, and when asked by 13 Investigates’ Ted Oberg if he’s used ConnectSmart, Harris said, “No, I’ve never heard of it.”

Despite millions of taxpayer dollars going to the development and promotion of the transit app launched in September by the Texas Department of Transportation, it has only about 3,800 active users, according to the most recently available data TxDOT released to 13 Investigates.

“The information we can get from it and the information we can provide to others to create a better and safer travel experience and help ease congestion, we think it’s a good investment,” said Catherine McCreight, a TxDOT planner who has been involved in the project since the beginning.

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

“We’ve thought about it so long and so much that to see it not adopted in this region and to see people not taking it back and seeing the benefits would make my heart ache,” McCreight said.

The app offers directions and rerouting in case of crashes or delays, but TxDOT readily admits that 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.

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

According to a ConnectSmart report last month, 94% of users have taken car trips using the app. Another 3% used the app for cycling routes and the remaining 1% used it for public transport or walking.

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

“If we suddenly had all EVs overnight, waving a magic wand, we’d still have congestion. We’d still have tire particulates. We’d still have disconnected communities, and we’d still have really poor community engagement process from TxDOT,” he said. Molly Cook, a Stop TxDOT I-45 organizer. “I celebrate anything that provides me with up-to-date cycling routes. Google Maps doesn’t necessarily update it immediately. What I’m disappointed with is the constant insistence on trying to ‘tech’ get out of decades of racist policies, decades of bad decisions, poor planning in our transport infrastructure. For example, I can see the bike path updated, but the end parts of (of the path) still don’t connect…so it doesn’t matter as long as there is no secure infrastructure in place.”

However, TxDOT claims the app was developed by Houstonians for Houstonians.

Part of their marketing plan is to reach out to companies, who can encourage their employees to carpool and “be part of the decision to ease congestion,” McCreight said.

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

“Time means that the individual driver can choose to leave earlier or later and not be part of the congestion. They can choose to take a different route to work or to their destination and then eventually, once they learn the behavior of people, we want to provide customized mobility options for the user so that they can explore alternative modes such as carpooling, vanpooling and finally transit because transit yields the most efficiency,” he said.

TxDOT shows a decline in app downloads after the app’s launch in September.

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

However, Cook stressed that not everyone in the Houston area will have access to the app and said TxDOT should focus on providing a secure infrastructure for non-auto users.

“The reality is that a lot of people don’t own smartphones, they can’t pay for them,” Cook said. “Some people don’t even have reliable numbers, and those people still need to get around town and whether it’s the elderly or people who don’t have enough money to keep using a smartphone month to month – we all know how expensive they are – even those people deserve safe multimodal transportation options and this app doesn’t meet 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 railroad.

“Our goal is really to move people, not cars and we want to empower and incentivize smarter travel. If we can help shift people’s thinking towards different mobility services like public transport, carpooling, cycling, etc ., then we’re winning,” the ConnectSmart team told us. “There is no doubt about that, growth and history have taught us that we cannot build our way out of congestion. Transportation involves a multi-pronged approach with a variety of strategies and services implemented within a transportation system to meet the needs of a major metropolitan area like the Houston region. Our goal is to meet demand and ease the pressures of growth by empowering people to make wiser choices and easing congestion.”

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