IT could aid transit during crunch

Public transportation ridership is up, but will the money be there for efficiency-boosting projects?

Ridership on public transport systems has boomed this year as fuel costs have risen.

The American Public Transportation Association reported more than 2.8 billion trips on public transit systems in the second quarter of the calendar year. That represents a 5.2 percent increase — some 140 million trips — compared with the same time last year. In Chicago, preliminary ridership numbers for August show a 9.5 percent jump compared with last year, according to the city’s transportation authority. Washington’s Metrorail reported 21 million trips in July, the highest one-month ridership in the system’s 32-year history.

Information technology systems could help boost the efficiency of mass transit during this time of increased use while improving the customer experience. Solutions in the transportation field range from vehicle tracking and scheduling to digital signage for passenger stations and stops. However, although the technology stands ready, the funding might not be available.

Chris Dixon, manager of state and local industry analysis at research firm Input, said transit systems aren’t flush with cash, despite the growth in ridership.

“We don’t see a ton of opportunities,” he said. “Right now, the current economic conditions suppress as many opportunities as they create.”

A troubled economy has triggered belt tightening at agencies, including transportation authorities. In addition, although rising fuel costs are driving demand, they might cancel out financial gains. For bus systems, “a lot of the fare increase is eaten by fuel costs,” Dixon said.

He added that the transportation IT projects that become operational most likely were in the pipeline for some time.

That’s the case for the Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority (PARTA) in Portage County, Ohio. Earlier this year, the agency fielded a system that uses Panasonic Toughbook laptop PCs equipped with Global Positioning System technology and software from Trapeze Group to track buses and provide two-way texting capabilities.

Bryan Smith, director of planning at PARTA, said officials set aside funding for the system a few years ago. A federal grant specifically for public transportation projects accounted for 80 percent of the funding, while state and local sources split the remainder.

Although the money was budgeted before the energy crunch, the system’s arrival this year is fortunate given PARTA’s increased ridership.

“We always knew it would increase our efficiency,” Smith said. “We didn’t know it would be quite so needed when we finally got it in place.”

Using Toughbooks, drivers click Arrive and Depart buttons as they travel from stop to stop. The vehicle location information and GPS time stamp are transmitted to the PARTA dispatch center, which shares the information with customers who call the center with questions about schedule status.

In the case of PARTA’s Dial-A-Ride paratransit service, which is an on-demand service for transporting people with disabilities, the GPS data and schedule information help dispatchers determine which driver to send for a pickup.

“We know who has the time and who is the closest,” Smith said.

“With the GPS tracking that was put into place here, the dispatch center is able to coordinate pickups and drop-offs in a much more timely and efficient manner,” said Joe Mangano, eastern territory field sales manager for state and local government at CDW Government. The company provided the Toughbook solution to PARTA.

The program has boosted PARTA’s on-time compliance, Smith said. The authority didn’t have a problem with late arrivals but found that its Dial-A-Ride vans were arriving early about half the time. That’s because PARTA’s scheduling software was using travel-time estimates base d on anecdotal information accumulated over several years.

Because PARTA can collect accurate arrival, departure and travel-time information, scheduling is more precise. As a result, the transport system saves time and moves faster.

“With every increase in system speed, you pick up more people with the same number of resources,” Smith said.

Although times are tough, Dixon said he expects interest to continue in areas such as computer-aided dispatch and demand-response routing systems for paratransit operations.

Various forms of digital signage mounted in vehicles and at stops and stations are another area of interest, said David Turney, chairman, president and chief executive officer of DRI, which markets vehicle-tracking and location systems that use GPS and a dead-reckoning algorithm.

For example, the Orange County, Calif., Transportation Authority plans to launch a system next year that will display real-time arrival information at bus shelters. ICx Transportation, a unit of ICx Technologies, was awarded a contract earlier this year for a transportation upgrade project that includes the arrival system.

Another component of that project is a signal priority system that Orange County officials say is designed to improve traffic flow through high-ridership corridors.

Such systems adjust traffic signals to give priority to moving a bus through the system, said Glen Fromm, chief executive officer of ICx Transportation.

“We’re seeing quite a bit of traction,” he added.

Computer-controlled buses
While some systems tackle routing and transportation corridors, others focus on vehicle performance.

For example, the California Department of Transportation is funding an automated bus-guidance system developed at the University of California, Berkeley. A demonstration in San Leandro in September involved embedding a one-mile section of road with magnets placed at one-meter intervals. A bus equipped with sensors and processors detected the magnets, and an actuator controlled the bus’ steering.

The automated system let the bus pull into stops with a lateral accuracy of one centimeter, according to UC Berkeley. University researchers say they believe that level of precision will reduce the time it takes to load and unload passengers. The research bus was equipped with an industrial computer that complied with the PC/104 Consortium’s specification for embedded computers.

The magnetic guidance approach has also been used to have one or two unmanned buses closely follow a lead bus that is under human control. The train of buses has been demonstrated on a test track but not with live traffic on a street. The objective of the automated steering system is to “elevate the bus transit system into a light rail system,” said Wei-Bin Zhang, transit program research leader at the California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways, based at UC Berkeley.

The prospect of having a bus service operate with light rail-like efficiency has captured the attention of other transportation authorities.

“Quite a few transit agencies have contacted us,” Zhang said.

Looking ahead to 2009, Turney said it is difficult to predict how increasing ridership and the economy’s effect on tax receipts will play out. He speculated that transit agencies might be able to fund projects with an increase in fare revenue.

Overall, Turney said he expects the U.S. market to grow modestly next year, barring a complete economic meltdown.

Mangano said agencies will continue to seek technologies that help handle the passenger influx.

“Mass-transit ridership is increasing because of the cost of fuel these days, and I believe that transportation departments are looking for ways to serve their customers better,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether funding will match the desire to improve efficiency. 

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