Traffic congestion is an important problem both on an individual and on a societal level and much research has been done to explain and prevent their emergence. There are currently many systems which provide a reasonably good picture of actual road traffic by employing either fixed measurement points on highways or so called "floating car data" i.e. by using velocity and location data from roaming, networked, GPS enabled members of traffic. Some of these systems also offer forecasting of road conditions based on such historical data. To my knowledge there is as yet no system which offers advance notice on road conditions based on a signal which is guaranteed to occur in advance of these conditions and this is the novelty of this paper. Google Search intensity for the German word stau (i.e. traffic jam) peaks 2 hours ahead of the number of traffic jam reports as reported by the ADAC, a well known German automobile club and the largest of its kind in Europe. This is true both in the morning (7 am to 9 am) and in the evening (4 pm to 6 pm). The main result of this paper is then that after controlling for time-of-day and day-of-week effects we can still explain a significant additional portion of the variation of the number of traffic jam reports with Google Trends and we can thus explain well over 80% of the variation of road conditions using Google search activity. A one percent increase in Google stau searches implies a .4 percent increase of traffic jams. Our paper is a proof of concept that aggregate, timely delivered behavioural data can help fine tune modern societies and prompts for more research with better, more disaggregated data in order to also achieve practical solutions.
Askitas, N. (2016). Predicting road conditions with internet search. PLoS ONE, 11(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162080