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New York Times Makes Up a Traffic.com Scandal

A story in today's Times about Traffic.com would have me outraged, if I didn't know there was more to the story.

The story, "U.S. System for Tracking Traffic Flow Is Faulted" makes the case that somehow Traffic.com rigged the system and got a huge pile of government money, and then wasted it all.

(Full disclosure, I sold MyTrafficNews to Traffic.com in 2006, but I no longer have any involvement with that company. I was a traffic nerd before I started MyTrafficNews, however, and I still am, having just written at length comparing traffic services.)

The story cherry picks some bits from a forthcoming government report, but that report isn't available so we have to trust that the Times did a good job of analyzing it. I haven't seen the report either, but I'm guessing it won't be nearly as dramatic as the Times makes it sound.

The heart of the controversy is that Traffic.com secured a deal with the government that it would get federal money to install traffic sensors, and then share the data. Without this deal, there would be hundreds of congested miles of highways in metro areas all over the country that would never get speed sensors. That's the big picture, and something that is easily overlooked.

Now the way Traffic.com set up the deal, it gets to use a small portion of that data first, but share nearly all of it all the time. Here's my recollection of how that worked in the real world: Traffic.com would instal a sensor and then share speed data that would show red-yellow-green on the traffic flow to everyone, including any local government and even the Traffic.com competitors. Traffic.com would keep for itself and its partners the exact speed data in exchange for putting in the sensors. My memory is that the federal money paid for some, but not all, of the cost, so Traffic.com was putting in the rest.

The bottom line for me is that the whole world got new data that it didn't have before. That's a good thing.

It's the kind of data you see right now on Google Maps -- the color coding is all you really need to know if a highway is rotten.

But because Traffic.com had some competitors, jealous that they didn't have whatever it took to put that deal together first, they howled like stuck pigs. They were doing that when I was involved, and it looks to me like they are still doing it, which is how that hit-piece ended up in the Times.

That hatchet job, by the way, doesn't even mention the fact that expansion of the program has already been stopped. I learned that only by doing a quick search this morning, but the program was shelved nearly two years ago. So why this manufactured scandal in today's paper? Good question.

Now, Traffic.com is not blameless, but you certainly can't blame the people there for implementing a program that was approved by Congress, and running it in the way that Congress directed.

I wish the people at Traffic.com were doing a better job of singing the praises of this program, which is a huge win for people who want to know about traffic jams before they get stuck in them. Somehow now the Times has turned that into a bad thing.

As I said, I haven't talked to anyone at Traffic.com for a while, but if I did talk to them I would tell them that they should have spoken to that reporter, and told him that this program is providing great data, is working, and will continue to make more information available to more people than was available before. It's doing its job for the taxpayers, the people implementing it are being fairly paid, and the congressional mandate is being fulfilled. This is a government program that is working. 

Why is that a scandal?