Last week, a group of Virginia Tech computer science students unveiled the VT Bus Tracker, with app and text versions that deliver bus locations, speeds and the number of passengers on each Blacksburg, Va.-based Blacksburg Transit bus.
Users can access the app on a Blackberry, an iPhone or an Android. There is also a text message system for riders who do not have smartphones.
The idea for the bus tracking system was developed about two years ago. The Student Government Association (SGA) funded a student team in the computer science department to develop the project. Blacksburg Transit worked with the team, contributing the bus data that it already collects for federal, state and local reporting.
The Virginia Tech Computer Science Department is hosting the bus tracking system and taking care of ongoing costs. Blacksburg meets with them weekly to keep up communication on data feed issues. The agency also handles the cost of the hardware, including ITS equipment on the buses, and the data transmission.
“I need that equipment anyway to collect data to be able to track my buses and this is a value-added feature that I am not paying for," said Timothy Witten, ITS/special projects manager, Blacksburg Transit. "Someone else is going out and helping us have better transit ridership, helping people understand the system better, through means that don’t come directly out of my budget. The cost for me to provide data to them, in the grand scheme of things it’s not that much.”
One unique piece of data that Blacksburg Transit is able to provide to the Virginia Tech team is the current number of passengers on some of the buses. This information is provided by the automatic passenger counters (APCs) that the agency installs on every bus.
“We’ve done some work with an application in-house that will tell you when the bus is full, and we can text that out,” Witten said. “We want [riders] to have as much information as possible, and one of the things our ridership wants to know is ‘How full are the buses?’”
The anticipated time frame to have all the buses in the fleet equipped with APCs, Witten said, is mid-November. “We’ll work with New Flyer to get more of the ITS equipment placed on the bus before it comes in now that we finally have a much better handle on what we want to see on every bus.”
The next step, Witten explained, will be to model a developers’ page after some of the bigger systems, such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority and the Chicago Transit Authority, to provide open access to data.
University-based systems are seeing developments with open source data before the more traditional transit systems, Witten noted. To make transit an easy and valued form of transportation to this new group of consumers, Witten said, providing open source data for these tracking systems is crucial. The student riders in Blacksburg are going to be the users of public transit systems across the U.S. in another five years, he added, and they already expect to be able to access this data from their smart phones.
“Five years ago people came to me and said, ‘It’d be nice if I could access the schedule on the Internet,’ and now my passengers say, ‘Why can’t I access the schedule on my smart phone?’” Witten recalled.