A Chicago Transit Authority El Train, pulling over into a station in the downtown loop.

Nov 10 2021

How the Chicago Transit Authority Benefits from Real-Time Data Analysis

A pause in one of the largest transit systems in the U.S. inspired an award-winning pilot project to improve public transportation.

Throughout America’s history, cities that have invested in a reliable and robust network of roads, bridges and public transportation have been key to the growth of the nation’s economy.

Take Chicago, for example. The city ranks third in economic output in the country. Chicago is home to one of the best and largest public transit systems, second only to New York City’s.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Chicago Transit Authority reported bus and rail ridership totaled 455.7 million rides in 2019 (237.3 million bus rides and 218.4 million rail rides). In 2020, ridership plummeted amid the pandemic, particularly during March, April and May.

By the end of 2020, the CTA reported bus and rail ridership had risen to 197.5 million (121.5 million bus rides and 76.0 million rail rides). While this reflects a 57.6 percent average drop in ridership from 2019, it is a steady climb from its lowest point during lockdowns, when most city buses and trains were empty.

Restoring ridership to pre-pandemic levels has presented a major challenge for cities across the country, and Chicago is no exception. According to the CTA, 1.6 million bus and train rides are taken on an average weekday across the regional CTA transit system that serves the greater metropolitan region, inclusive of the city and 35 suburbs. Certain routes operate around-the-clock.

Because it is viewed as the circulatory system driving the economic vitality of Chicago, the CTA recognized the urgent need for a way to collect and analyze vehicle capacity in order to optimize routes, increase rider comfort and improve the passenger experience —all cornerstones to bringing riders back.

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Chicago Gets Real-Time Data to Improve Transit Service 

As is the case for many transit agencies, much of the CTA’s data on transit vehicle capacity was incomplete, not available in real time or based on historic averages that may or may not reflect current realities, especially in the face of changing public health guidelines.

Without accurate real-time occupancy data and demand forecasts, the CTA had no insight into when and where to adjust service to ensure efficiency and reliability, appropriate social distancing, and shorter wait times.

To leverage its existing data and collect new data through advanced technology, the CTA turned to City Tech Collaborative, a Chicago-based urban solutions accelerator, which spearheaded a passenger-counting pilot project to understand vehicle occupancy in real time. The pilot was deployed on 10 buses from March to August along the CTA’s 79th Street bus route, one of the agency’s busiest, measuring the efficacy of various passenger-counting technologies.

The pilot served several purposes:

  • Capturing demand and using data from existing bus video assets
  • Using data management tools to support CTA operations
  • Applying analytics and predictive models for proactive demand management

Building on the CTA’s existing measures and passenger-counting technology to keep bus and train service timely, efficient and safe, City Tech and an ecosystem of partners implemented video analytics, onboard cameras and routers to provide real-time insights into occupancy across multiple vehicles.

The pilot project recently received the IoT Deployment of the Year Award from IoT World Today, demonstrating the value of IoT technology in helping the CTA proactively meet route ridership demand; reduce passenger crowding and wait times; and provide a safe, socially distanced rider experience.

RELATED: How transit agencies can improve their cybersecurity.

How to Streamline Technology Within Transit Agencies

A forthcoming report from the CTA will show how this model holds great potential for solving current challenges within core functions of society, as well as for building a solid foundation for future operations that prioritize the greater good.

Over the years, transit agencies have gradually added different applications and systems to their fleets of vehicles, such as:

  • Fare collection and payment terminal backhaul
  • Computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location (CAD/AVL)
  • High-speed passenger internet access
  • Passenger counters
  • Closed-circuit security cameras
  • Remote engine diagnostics and fuel consumption
  • Vehicle telematics, including information on speed and idle time
  • Digital maps, signage and advertising

However, implementing these applications and systems in a cost-effective way has been challenging. The municipal authority may have started with GPS navigation and vehicle tracking CAD/AVL systems, then later added onboard and in-terminal payment systems that needed backhaul to the central office. Then came passenger Wi-Fi, digital signage, security cameras and more.

The result for many transit agencies was a multitude of systems that do not integrate with one another and do not use the same internet connectivity methods and cellular carriers.

EXPLORE: How can smart mobility tech meet citizens’ needs?

For municipalities already burdened with managing large fleets while maintaining an IT infrastructure on a tight budget, the challenges can stack up. With even more hardware, software and connectivity to maintain and manage, the risk of system failure only increases. The better answer is to consolidate all vehicle connectivity through a single, robust connection platform.

As unpredictability becomes the new norm, the future of transit belongs to agencies, operators and authorities that can leverage smart, secure and cost-efficient connectivity to improve the rider experience, lower costs, and improve safety and performance. In doing so, they invest in the continued economic growth of their cities as well as the American economy.

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