Cell phone data tracks traffic on Bayway, Causeway

MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – If you’re heading to the Gulf Coast beaches for some sunshine, The Lone Star state for a rodeo or California to watch your favorite football team play in the Rose Bowl, chances are if you’re driving, you’re taking Interstate 10. It travels from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast.

Kevin Harrison with The South Alabama Regional Planning Commission said a company named Airsage measured the number of drivers who take the Bayway and Causeway during a typical fall and summer day.

“The company has the ability to capture all the cell phones in the country, average them and archive them. So we asked them, ‘Since you have the average location of where these people live, can you capture everyone on the Bayway?'” Harrison said.

How is data collected?

Harrison said any time there’s activity on your phone, it’s sent to a cell tower. Airsage can archive the time and location of that activity.

“The cell phones they capture are anonymous encrypted frequencies. They (Airsage) don’t know who is who and we only get it at an aggregated level. In fact, the on data we got was in percentages,” Harrison explained.

In an e-mail Harrison explained how it all works:

“The ‘capture fence’ for this data is between the middle bay interchange and Meaher State Park for the Bayway and Causeway. The company Airsage has the ability to capture cell phone frequencies and average that frequency’s location. So they have the average work and home location of cell phone frequencies from a couple major carriers. When they pop up ‘in a fence’ and their average location is from another state, we know they are visiting. They process over 15 Billion pings a day throughout the country, and archive (and average) the location and time of that ping.”

“Just on November 13 there’s 96,500 people crossing the Mobile River. That’s the Wallace Tunnel, the Bankhead Tunnel and the Cochran Bridge. July 2nd there’s 107,000 crossing the river on that day,” he said.

The data shows on November 13, about 75 percent of the traffic was local from Mobile and Baldwin counties. But on July 2, just over half, about 55 percent of the traffic, was local. That means nearly half of the drivers on the Bayway and Causeway on July 2 weren’t from the area.

“Keep in mind these data points, these cell phone pings, are the Causeway and Bayway. So one can assume the predominately local traffic is on the causeway,” Harrison said.

Tolling the proposed I-10 bridge

He said the data gives a snapshot of who would use the proposed I-10 bridge and pay for a toll, if that’s the direction ALDOT decides to go.

“I think tolling has been brought up and I’m not going to say it’s an option, or it’s not an option,” said Harrison.

In August, Alabama Representative Bradley Byrne told FOX10 News he isn’t in favor of the idea of having to pay to use the bridge.

“You can just toll that bridge. We’d have to toll the George Wallace Tunnel, Bankhead Tunnel, and Cochran Bridge because if we leave those without a toll, all the traffic goes there and we just created a bottleneck there,” Byrne explained.

With or without a toll, people hope the new bridge will help alleviate the more than 100,000 people crossing the bay on those busy summer days.

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