Innovator’s Highway

Innovation and user experience. These have long been mantras in hardware and software and, in recent years, have begun inserting themselves into our daily lives through well known services such as Uber and Airbnb. As a regular commuter on the Mass Pike I have grown accustomed to the frustration of a slow moving congested highway system run by a government that doesn’t appear to innovate nor have any consideration for the quality of experience of it’s users. That has changed.

In late October, Massachusetts officially moved to an all-electronic tolling system state-wide. While 75% of drivers already use electronic tolling systems (EZPass in Massachusetts) those are used as part of a toll-booth system that also handles tickets and cash. This results in multiple points of slowing, lane jockeying, rolling through toll booths and merging back again. This is slow and inefficient. Additionally, statistics have shown a much higher rate of rear-end collisions in toll zones. For so many of us that drive daily that adds up simply to wasted time and frustration.

About six years ago feasibility studies began on options for decreasing commuter times, increasing safety, reducing emissions, and maintaining toll revenue. Those were lofty goals and I applaud MassDOT’s desire to put safety and commute time as central points of of their innovative efforts. By the end of 2017 toll booths will be gone and tolls will be collected by high tech overhead sensors that will either detect an EZPass transponder or capture the driver’s license plate and issue an invoice that can be paid online (“No transponder? No problem, we’ll bill you”).

In a year or two nobody in Massachusetts will give much thought to the lack of toll booths or basic looking overhead gantries at intervals over the highway. We’ll be stuck in traffic cursing drivers around us, the potholes, the need for more lanes, my decision to live a marathon’s distance from Boston, the lack of good music, and solar glare. During those moments I hope that we can occasionally take a moment to appreciate big goals and innovative solutions — solutions that will make a generally unpleasant experience less so.