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Taking the bus: New data techniques help improve public transportation

With traffic at a standstill and the environment a concern, cities are using new technology to improve buses, taxis, subways, and other public transportation options.

On Oct. 10, 2018, New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced the launch of its new Transit Tech Lab, with the specific purpose of identifying and testing "promising new technology and other products that will accelerate modernization of New York’s public transportation network and contribute to improved services and a better customer experience." The plan is that the MTA will gather proposals on how to use new tech to deal with bus and subway delays (with a proposal deadline of Nov. 30). The winning projects will be given a one-year (unpaid) pilot period.

New York isn't the only urban center with a transportation system that needs to be fixed—nor the only one that is looking to new forms of data crunching and other digital technologies in order to fix it. Concerns about increasingly backed-up automobile traffic, and the environmental impact of that, are pushing more commuter corridors to revisit their public transportation systems.

Jenna Fortunati is research marketing manager for the Mobility Lab, which helps handle transportation issues in Arlington County, Virginia. She says cities with largely suburban-living populations are also looking to fix their public transportation systems. "So many of our public transportation systems in the United States are designed to pump people into the downtown core of the city, then pump them back out to a suburb at the end of the day where they have to hop in their cars and drive," she explains.

While ride-sharing services may boast that they lessen the number of cars on the road, it's more likely that they're exacerbating the situation. According to a study by Schaller Consulting, transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft added 600 million miles of driving to the streets of New York in 2016, increasing traffic congestion. Add that to an aging and increasingly unsatisfactory public transportation system and the result could "lead to mounting costs for businesses and consumers from increasing traffic delay and hinder progress toward the city's goals for mobility, economic growth, and the environment," the report says. 

Where to look first?

So, what to do? Revamping an urban train system would mean a major rebuilding project that takes years. For example, the first phase of New York's new Second Ave. subway line was restarted in 2007 (after an aborted beginning in 1972) and didn't open until 2017. As a result, cities are now looking at the possibility of upgrading and improving their bus systems—together with alternatives such as bike sharing—to encourage citizens to take public transportation.

But first you have to figure out where route adjustments would be most effective, including changes to the number of buses, bus types, and bike-share stands, as well as other services.

And that takes data.

"There's been a big surge in the availability of data and information that has really enabled transit agencies to be able to do large-scale network evaluations," says Sandy Davis, senior transportation planner and task lead for Foursquare ITP, a transportation planning firm based outside of Washington. "Whereas you used to have three transit planners for an entire city and each of them got their own little sector of that city…that's changed a lot with technology."

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Bus systems, in particular, used to depend on an unwieldy amount of data that was difficult to collect and process manually, Davis points out. However, new systems in place help agencies more easily assemble and understand large amounts of information about the workings of their transportation systems.

Jeff Hiott is assistant vice president of technical services and innovation at the American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit that works as an advocate for public transportation. He notes that while "transit has always analyzed their schedules and looked at their routes to be able to optimize their service," better data collection helps transit professionals really understand traffic patterns—where customers are going, from their route origin to destination. “Then, using artificial intelligence, all this data is being put into different algorithms, and what spits out is something that hopefully will be more efficient travel."

Gathering rider info

There are many ways to gather that data. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) recently began a new program called Trace using the system's SmarTrip cards, which are rechargeable cards riders tap at the start and end of their trips. "[The agency is] pairing the SmarTrip data with vehicle local data so they can…trace an anonymized person through the system and assess if the bus was crowded, if it was behind schedule, and where people are transferring between buses," explains Fortunati. "WMATA can then use that data to tweak the scheduling so a bus can remain at a busy stop longer, or to use a bigger bus for that route."

In California, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (or LA Metro) launched the NextGen Bus Study in the spring of 2018 to help it design a new bus system for a network that hadn't had a major overhaul in a quarter of a century. The region is known for being car-centric, but it has a growing Metro Rail system, bike-share and ride-hailing apps, and an upgraded bus system that could make transportation a lot easier for Southern California residents who can't or don't want to drive.

Conan Cheung, LA Metro’s senior executive officer for service development, scheduling, and analysis, says the study’s aim is "to redesign the bus network to be more relevant and reflective of the way people travel today." Slotted to take about 18 months, the study began with an effort to learn about the habits and travel patterns of riders. To do that, the department is using a variety of tools, including social media-based surveys, location-based data from phones, data from network terminal access points, and the HASTUS Planning Platform from Montreal-based GIRO.

Some of the advantages of using social media-based surveys is quick turnaround and "the ability to capture former and non-riders" as well as information from current system users, says Cheung. "[There is] learning and developing as we go along, but it's showing some profound results we haven't had in the past."

To gather passenger information, an online app called MetroQuest was created to encourage commuters to give information about their needs and habits. Users answer questions like, "If you had $100 to spend on the bus system in Los Angeles County, how would you spend it?" by dragging virtual coins onto various answers.

"We're particularly excited about some new data sources that are becoming available for transportation planners," says Wylie Timmerman, senior transportation planner at Foursquare. Two of the many tools are AirSage and StreetLight Data, "which process anonymized cellular phone data and location data to tell us with more clarity and more resolution where people are and where do they want to go."

One way to test new routes and upgrades without having to obtain data from passengers is to use synthetic travel data to create a model that can be employed to test various options. "Transport Foundry has built us a tool to see what different scenarios will result in terms of ridership and how people will travel and use the service," Foursquare's Davis says. She explains that the software creates "synthetic people" and then comes up with a scenario that tests which travel decision each person will use. "That helps us test all of our service planning decisions," she says. "And then we can compare those scenarios together to figure out which one is the best solution for the area."

Companies and employees get into the act

Changing an urban or suburban transportation system is a major undertaking that requires the cooperation of federal, state, and city agencies, along with professional planners and local organizations. However, the consumers of those changes—employers and employees—have contributions to make as well, and those contributions often involve technological tools.

The Mobility Lab recently released the TDM Return on Investment Calculator, which analyzes a company's transportation choices so it can maximize cost-benefit ratios. "Let's say I'm the CEO of Google," Fortunati explains. "I install bike showers for employees to make it easier for them to bike to work because they know that they won't be sweaty all day. I can measure the return on investment from doing that in terms of the amount of time spent in traffic saved, the amount of fuel saved, the amount of carbon emissions saved, the amount of noise pollution saved, the amount of air pollution saved—all these different metrics. We're really proud of it."

Meanwhile, some commuters are taking things into their own hands. A Washington-area Meetup group called Transportation Techies boasts a membership of more than 2,500 technology and transportation enthusiasts who are, according to the group's description, "programmers who love playing with transportation data and others interested in transit, biking, and walking." Software engineer James Pizzurro, for one, co-founded MetroHero, an app that helps Arlington County-area commuters stay informed of Metrorail train locations in real time and estimate how long it takes to get from one point to another. It also offers a bus-operations control center that shows whether the bus on your route is behind schedule. In New York, Anthony Denaro, who was convinced residents don’t use buses because they lack a good map that incorporates both bus and subway lines, created the Bullet Map app to show how the information could be presented in a user-friendly way.

In the end, it's about people

Of course, once all the data is in and the algorithms are finished chewing on the info, it is up to humans—transit officials, analysts, politicians, and, yes, riders—to come up with a solution that offers the best combination of convenience, cost, and comfort to the most people.

"Planning public transportation is about getting people where they want to go," says Timmerman. "We now have much more data about where people like to go and more powerful tools to analyze, visualize, and explain all of that new information. It's been exciting getting to use these new assets, this new technology."

But Timmerman adds, "There are those things that you can't find on a spreadsheet that require transportation planners to work with stakeholders, talk to communities, and engage with them in order to come up with proposals to make better transit service."

Davis agrees: "We have to balance the results of those analyses against what the public and the riders tell us they want and reconcile all those things together to come up with a solution that we think will work best for everyone."

Public transit and tech: Lessons for leaders

  • New methods of data collection and analysis are making it easier to revamp surface transportation to better serve urban business and resident needs.
  • Employers can make a positive contribution toward encouraging use of public transportation and other alternatives to automobile commuting by analyzing cost-benefit ratios and offering employee incentives.
  • In the end, the needs of employers and employees are important in determining how public transportation is changed, especially if they make those needs known.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.