Real-Time Intelligence Helps Transit Agencies Improve Customer Experience, Better Manage Fleets

by Derek Brown

As our nation’s roadways become increasingly outdated and congested, public transit is more important than ever. According to the American Public Transportation Association, public transportation usage has risen by 30 percent since 1995, outpacing even U.S. population growth. To meet swelling demand, transit agencies are making system-wide improvements to better serve their customers. In addition to route expansions, new stations, new vehicles, and upgraded infrastructure, agencies are improving their communication, leveraging such innovations as mobile computing, global positioning, and data analytics to create real-time intelligence that keeps commuters informed and engaged.

Lack of timely information about the on-time or delayed arrival of trains and buses has long frustrated commuters whose mobile devices allow them to instantly access a virtual world of information. Commuters who rely on their phones to hail a cab, make a restaurant reservation or buy movie tickets also want fast, easy, reliable access to real-time information on their trains and buses—where they are, how close they are to arriving, and how long the commute will take.

Transit agencies are responding with advances in smart infrastructure, pushing technologies long used behind the scenes to the forefront of the customer experience. While the monikers vary from agency to agency, real-time vehicle location allows transit agencies to accurately pinpoint—and then communicate to riders—exactly where their trains and buses are. Commuters get this information via variable message signage and audio announcements at stations, from transit agency websites and social media, and through proprietary or third-party mobile applications such as Google Transit, Transit App, Moovit and Moovel. Such “smart communication” keeps customers happy and helps transit agencies better compete with a burgeoning cadre of on-demand ride providers, including Uber, Lyft and Chariot.

Real-time intelligence also allows agencies to track vehicle location, speed, the number and identity of cars in a trainset and, in some cases, the number of passengers in each bus or railcar. Unlike traditional GPS technology, real-time intelligence provides accurate location information whether vehicles are above- or below-ground.

Real-time technology can be applied to both new and older transit systems, and doesn’t require costly, time-consuming and disruptive replacement of agencies’ command, control and communications (C3) systems. In Philadelphia, for example, SEPTA is implementing smart technology on all of its transit lines, which include bus, commuter rail, elevated, subway, and trolley systems. SEPTA operates one of the U.S.’s largest transit systems, providing 24-hour, seven-day service to more than four million commuters in Philadelphia and four surrounding counties. Real-time vehicle location has been implemented on many of SEPTA’s bus and trolley lines, and installation is underway on its rail lines.

Burns helped SEPTA develop a faster, less expensive solution that was easier to implement into their existing infrastructure – making it smarter and nimbler. Now, SEPTA can track locations within a foot and speeds to within one-hundredth of a mile per hour. Railcar information is updated every 30 seconds, and every minute for buses. ADA complaint, high-definition, high-density, high-contrast signage and innovative “countdown clocks,” paired with concurrent audio announcements, let commuters know when their bus, trolley or train will arrive.

This technology allows agencies to better monitor and manage service, as well as plan for the future, because they have accurate timely information on their vehicles and their passengers. Agencies also can better respond to and communicate service interruptions, delays or other unplanned events. By spending less time figuring out where their fleets are, owners can focus on maintaining or improving headway adherence and on-time service. This technology also allows agencies to better respond to and communicate about emergencies and, because the exact locations of vehicles are easier to pinpoint, decreases emergency response times.

Information collected also allows transit agencies to better understand and meet riders’ needs. Burns is working with SEPTA, for example, to create a “data lake” of collected information, which can be used to continually bolster efficiency, responsiveness, customer service and brand awareness. Data lakes are stocked daily with terabytes of relational data.  Transit agencies can then apply virtually any combination of metrics and attributes to extrapolate information on issues like the condition of their fleets and the quality of their service. Visual “dashboards” provide agency decision-makers timely information, presented in customizable formats most relevant to them, on their desktops or mobile devices.

Data collected can also be used both locally and regionally to implement flexible routing and deliver more personalized service. LYNX Transit in Central Florida, and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission in Virginia, for example, are using real-time intelligence to refine bus routes and ensure that their fleets are operating where and when they are most needed, creating highly dynamic service that is closer to “on-demand” than ever.  LYNX bus riders can see in real-time where their buses are and track them stop by stop. Riders can also view the estimated arrival times of their pre-scheduled accessible vehicles, track their locations, and then receive a notification when vehicles are curb-side, eliminating the need to wait outdoors at night or in inclement weather. The Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) has teamed with Moovit to provide a hybrid mobile application that combines the agency’s real-time vehicle information with live information from users, so riders know when their buses will arrive or if they’ll need to take a different route.

Until recently, U.S. transit has been largely utilitarian, providing fixed-route transportation the same way it has for decades. Technology – real-time intelligence in particular – is vastly changing the transit experience for millions of commuters each day, making the wait for trains, buses, trolleys and subway cars more transparent and interactive, and far less stressful. Riders who have more information, and more control over their commutes, feel more engaged and empowered – translating to increased levels of satisfaction, and more return trips. For transit agencies, real-time intelligence is a key customer service tool that transcends point-to-point service and helps solidify transit systems as integral components of the communities they serve.