Jul 25 2023
Data Analytics

Public Transit Agencies Analyze Ridership Data to Better Serve Customers

Transportation systems seek to ensure their buses travel routes that meet residents’ needs.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority wants to augment its bus routes in the Georgia city, including on-demand options, if feasible. To make any determinations, the agency must parse lots of data from varied sources, including ridership requests and usage metrics across the transportation system.

“The idea behind this project is for us to really understand how on-demand transit can work,” says Anthony Thomas, MARTA’s program manager for customer experience innovation. “We want to understand how people use on-demand transit, what types of trips people use it for, and how the service might work from both an operations and a technology perspective.”

MARTA has partnered with Georgia Tech to launch a pilot program supported by Microsoft Azure. For the pilot, Georgia Tech doctoral candidates used Azure capabilities to improve MARTA’s data processing.

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A growing number of public transit agencies are tapping cloud-based solutions to gain a deeper understanding of their ridership. They’re leveraging the speed and scale of cloud infrastructure to analyze data and to gain insights to improve services.

“Transit agencies collect a tremendous amount of data on their passengers and their vehicles,” says Greg Newmark, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute. “The added computation on demand that you can get in a cloud service, where you can just add on more servers when you need them, does offer a real benefit.”

A range of technologies support the public transportation mission. Internet of Things sensors help monitor activity. Agencies use computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location, along with intelligent transportation systems, smart cards for fare collection and geographic information systems for vehicle tracking. 5G cellular devices help to keep all that data moving.

Cloud infrastructure can help transit agencies to get the most value out of those investments.

Anthony Thomas
The idea behind this project is for us to really understand how on-demand transit can work.”

Anthony Thomas Program Manager for Customer Experience Innovation, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority

How Can Data Make a Big Impact for Transit Routes

From bus route analysis to scheduling decisions, cloud applications can help MARTA to meet its mission more effectively. MARTA depends on data collection and analysis to understand how it can best deploy its assets.

“If we need to move a stop, then we have to reroute all of those different algorithms,” Thomas says. “There is a lot of different data that goes into a system like this, and it all has to run correctly the first time, because people are actively waiting for those vehicles to get to their doctor’s appointments or go to work.”

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Azure cloud provides secure storage for all of that data, along with the massive computing power needed to generate meaningful insights. MARTA is tapping that power to align bus routes with potential on-demand offerings.

Following a six-month pilot, an internal team “will apply what we’ve learned to understand where we might apply on-demand services longer-term, and how it should coordinate and interface with the changes that we’re making to our fixed route bus network,” Thomas says.

142.9 million

The total number of weekly riders using U.S. public transit as of April 9, 2023

Source: transitapp.com, “APTA Ridership Trends,” May 31, 2023

Using the Power of the Cloud to Enhance Performance

At Tennessee’s Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), CEO Gary Rosenfeld also needs the computing power of cloud to make sense of ridership data.

“Every time we open the door, there’s a data point. Every time a bicycle is put on a bike rack, there’s a data point,” he says. All that data “gives you the basis to make positive changes in your routing and scheduling.”

MATA partners with an outside vendor to ingest that data into the Amazon Web Services cloud and apply analytics. “It’s important to be able to have a quick and easy way to get to the data, look at the data, interpolate the data, understand and take action on the data,” Rosenfeld says.

Cloud makes all that possible, generating the insights that help MATA elevate its services.

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“If you see that every bus along the line has a delay at a certain point, then it’s a route problem. If you see that Joe is having a problem every day at the same point, then it’s a driver problem,” Rosenfeld says. Cloud-supported data analysis “helps you to define what is necessary to effect positive change in the customer experience.”

Looking ahead, MATA leadership plans to use cloud capabilities in support of predictive analytics. “Our maintenance program is probably close to 150 million data points a day. We can predict when the next breakdown is going to occur on a bus and we can take action before that happens to avoid the situation,” Rosenfeld says.

“We hope to be able to do the same thing with ridership trends, and origin-and-destination analysis,” he says. For example, as remote work shifts ridership patterns, “we can adjust our schedule on the basis of that two-days-per-week schedule, and reassign assets and resources.”

How the Cloud Supports a Better Customer Experience

In Washington County, Pa., public transit agency Freedom Transit is using cloud to support a mobile app to provide a better customer experience for bus riders.

“As an agency with minimal technological capabilities, we had been struggling with providing riders a convenient and simple way to plan their trips, buy their tickets and track their buses,” says Freedom Transit Executive Director Sheila Gombita.

Using an outside vendor, the agency is leveraging Azure cloud to support a new mobile app that riders can use to buy tickets, plan journeys and get real-time information.

“Smart cards are also available for those who do not have mobile phones to load tickets and passes,” Gombita says. “Each bus is equipped with an electronic validator: Smart cards can be tapped on this hardware to register the trip, and QR codes on the mobile app also can be read for trip verification.”

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About 35 percent of riders now use the app, and reaction to the smart cards “has been very positive,” she says. Cloud-supported functions such as computer-aided dispatch and an automatic vehicle locator have been “a tremendous benefit to dispatchers monitoring service and to our customer service team responding to calls about whether the bus is running on time.”

While all of these agencies are tapping the scale of cloud to manage vast amounts of data, Newmark says there’s an added benefit: Cloud security helps keep data safe and readily accessible.

For transit agencies, “I can see the advantages in ensuring that your data is backed up and robust to injury,” he says. “The cloud also is helpful in being able to share your data, giving people access to it in different ways.”

Photography by Darin Givens

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