How Technology Transforms Public Transit
When residents of Camden County, Ga., need a ride to their doctor's office in Chatham 100 miles north, they can dial a toll-free number and supply their address. The next day, a Coastal Regional Coach will transport them to and from their destination.
While these passengers ride up and down Georgia's pristine coastline, they're also traveling along the cutting edge of technology. Each vehicle contains a 10-inch Android tablet that helps keep the buses on track and on schedule.
Last spring, the Georgia Coastal Regional Commission (CRC) began equipping its fleet of 85 shuttle buses with Motorola Xoom tablets. The CRC Transportation Department uses the tablets' GPS to track the location of each bus and its 3G wireless connections to update routes for drivers.
For years, the CRC has contracted with private transit companies to provide door-to-door transportation for county residents. Before the tablet rollout, the CRC relied entirely on transit operators to ensure buses reached their destinations on time, says Barbara Hurst, director of transportation services.
"Prior to implementing this system, we had no way to track the services we were providing. We were at the mercy of the transit operators," says Hurst. "Now, if someone calls and asks, 'Where's my bus?' we can check to see exactly how far away it is."
If someone misses their ride or the bus is delayed due to mechanical problems or an accident, the call center can locate and route the closest bus by sending an updated manifest to the driver electronically.
The CRC generates and schedules routes every 24 hours based on the phone requests made the preceding day. RouteMatch software calculates the most efficient routes, coordinating up to 1,200 trips per day across 10 counties.
Chief Technology Officer Brandon Westberry says the agency chose Android tablets in part because a RouteMatch app was available for the platform. It took a few months of testing and tweaking before the app was ready to hit the road.
There were other implementation challenges as well. Westberry and Network Administrator Simon Howard had to figure out where to mount the tablet so that it was accessible to drivers without posing a distraction. They also used the accelerometer to lock down each unit to prevent unapproved apps from being installed, but they haven't chosen a mobile device management solution yet.
CRC also uses mounts and clip locks to guard against theft. "Unless you have a hacksaw or a blowtorch, those Xooms aren't going anywhere," Westberry says.
Hurst says a larger obstacle was getting some transit drivers on board with technology that can track their location and speed at every moment. "Some drivers aren't the most tech savvy, so when you put a piece of equipment like this in front of them, there's a bit of anxiety," she says. For example, the tablets allow the agency to track their speed, deviations from assigned routes or extended stops. "We're not trying to spy on them, it's just an extra safety measure."
The transportation department countered the trepidation by training drivers on the system and providing instruction sheets to carry in the buses. "Most of them seem to like it now," she says.
Mobile technology such as the type used by the Georgia CRC is changing how public transit agencies do business, says Joerg "Nu" Rosenbohm, chief technology officer for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.
"Internal employees will be able to get data on a mobile device in a form that's meaningful to them, whether they're maintenance staff or managers," Rosenbohm says. "And customers will be able to get end-to-end data from where they are starting to where they want to go."
Most people know tiramisu as a delicious, high-calorie confection. But in Pittsburgh, it's a way to avoid long waits and overcrowded buses. Developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Tiramisu (Italian for "pick me up") is a mobile app that uses crowd-sourcing to determine how full buses are and where they are on their routes.
Passengers download the app to their Android smartphones or iPhones, then rate each bus on a four-point scale (full to empty). The app transmits ratings and GPS locations to servers at CMU. If no Tiramisu users are riding on a particular line that day, the app uses historical data to make predictions.
Tiramisu was created to help Pittsburgh's disabled population use public transit more efficiently, says Aaron Steinfeld, co-director of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Accessible Public Transportation (RERC-APT).
Trying to get a wheelchair onto a crowded bus is no picnic, Steinfeld says. What's more, all riders want to know when the bus is coming and if there's a seat available. "It's like curb cuts for wheelchairs," he says. "They're also great for moms pushing strollers and kids on bikes."
The free app also benefits the cash-strapped Port Authority of Allegheny County, notes Spokeswoman Heather Pharo. While users can download the app from the Port Authority site, Tiramisu is hosted and supported by the RERC-APT.
"People with disabilities are an important demographic with special considerations," Pharo says. "If you're in a wheelchair, you need to use one of the priority spaces near the front, which is hard to do if there's no room on the bus. Unfortunately, we don't have the resources to deliver that kind of information, so we're extremely lucky to work with the people over at Carnegie Mellon, who are invested in helping the community as a whole."
30 million Number of commercial vehicles that will be connected to the Internet by 2016
SOURCE: ABI Research
Mobile solutions are a natural fit for public transit systems with tight budgets, in large part because the passengers supply the hardware.
Lan-Chi Lam, interactive design and strategy manager for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, says its new Go Metro Los Angeles 2.0 app makes sense for its customers, 85 percent of whom carry mobile devices.
"Our goal is to leverage that audience and convince even more people to give public transit a try," says Lam.
The Go Metro app identifies the bus or rail stops closest to a rider's location and indicates when the next vehicle will arrive. Riders can download route maps to plan their trips and view them offline, and receive instant alerts on bus, rail and road closures.
Although more than 50 third-party applications already use Metro schedule data, the department commissioned its own app to establish a direct line of communication with its customers. "With third-party apps, you can't control the content, the advertisements or the information they might be soliciting," says Lam. "Our app is clean, there are no ads, and we don't solicit anything from our customers except feedback about how good a job we're doing."
Ticket to Ride
Like the vehicles themselves, transportation innovation isn't standing still. Georgia CRC plans to install smartcard readers to accept payments, surveillance cameras to enhance passenger safety and an automated callback system to confirm rider reservations. The Port Authority's Pharo hopes to bridge the digital divide and bring real-time data to people who lack smartphones. Within a few years, using mobile data will become second nature to most public transit users, says ITS America's Rosenbohm.
"If passengers are in an area without sufficient public transit, they'll be able to type their destinations into a mobile device that tells them, 'Drive to this parking lot where there are spaces available, take this bus to that rail station to catch a train to where you want to go,' " he says. "And it will provide similar instructions on the other end."
Read more about how the state of Georgia is keeping buses on schedule with tablets.