Carpool app adapted to aid with contact tracing

Funding held up for the last year

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

An innovative app that both improves traffic conditions and helps with contact tracing has been on the back burner for a year waiting on the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) for approval.

Approved a year ago, Hytch Rewards has been waiting on federal funding in order to be fully implemented. The app was approved to be a part of $4 million in federal funding for rideshare incentive programs, which could also serve as an economic stimulus during this pandemic, according to Cleveland.  

“One of the most innovative programs in the country is held up right now by bureaucratic peanut butter,” said Cleveland.

Mark Cleveland, CEO of Hytch (Photo: Facebook)
Mark Cleveland, CEO of Hytch (Photo: Facebook)

It’s nothing like Uber or Lyft. In a city with a population that more than doubled in the past few years, traffic has become unbearable and few options exist outside a couple of train stations and buses that are only available in certain areas.  Until Nashville is able to get a sophisticated transit system, Hytch Rewards provides a realistic alternative for relieving traffic congestion.  

Originally designed to provide incentive for  travelers into making smarter mobility decisions, Hytch Rewards seeks to collaborate with the state and private employers to reward people for moving away from single-rider vehicles, but the app could potentially have many usages. For instance, universities dealing with full parking lots could encourage students to carpool to classes, or employers could ask employees to run errands before or after rush hour and avoid the congestion. 

A recent collaboration between Hytch and Middle Tennessee State University found that paying riders two cents per mile was enough incentive for most employees to carpool. 

 It works like this: when wanting to travel with friends, app users send an invitation to carpool.

“it’s as simple as that,” said Nashville entrepreneur and Hytch co-founder Mark Cleveland.

COVID-19 arrived in Nashville, and in a city with rising COVID cases, ride sharing is a less feasible option than it was before March 2020.

During the pandemic, Cleveland has added another feature to the mobility-tracking app to aid in contact tracing.  Working along the same lines as a ride-tracking diary, the social distancing feature would make contact tracing easier by working as a tracking tool on destinations for anyone the infected individual may have come in contact with. The app will continue to provide incentives for travelers, whether that means wearing a mask or hitching a ride with a coworker. 

“Obviously we want safe mobility, we want safe transit and we want to be safe. Imagine Hytch is a little like wearing a mask. You do it for yourself first, you do it for others first and you don’t worry about the fashion of it. You do it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Cleveland.

 According to Michael Skipper, executive director of the Greater Nashville Regional Council, there’s  no particular reason for the funding hold up. 

“The board has discretion on how federal transportation dollars are spent across the seven-county area they represent.  We are working through TDOT’s process to get that federal grant under contract so that we can proceed with Hytch,” said Skipper. 

An incentive-based, mobility-tracking app has a lot of potential, according to Skipper. It could be used to encourage truck drivers to stay clear of urban areas. For instance, Spring Hill has used Hytch Rewards to battle traffic congestion and encourage drivers to take alternate routes. Skipper also hopes to collect data on travelers around the region to find out how social distancing is impacting their behaviors.  

It just takes a project as big as this, as with any novel idea, time to figure out how to implement it, said Skipper.  

“I think, by and large, companies in middle Tennessee are looking for ways to be part of the solution for traffic congestion and this gives them a very easy way to get involved and be part of the solution,” said Skipper.