October 25, 2012

Wash.’s Community Transit launches real-time tech pilot

Everett, Wash.-based Community Transit bus riders will soon be able to get real-time bus information by phone, computer or mobile device.

Community Transit is outfitting all its buses with GPS, automatic passenger counters and other technology that will improve operations, enhance the customer experience, and eventually allow customers to get real-time bus information by phone, computer or mobile device.

The Transit Technologies pilot project was launched in July on a small set of commuter buses to downtown Seattle. It was expanded in August to include all Sound Transit Regional Express buses operated by Community Transit (Routes 510, 511, 512, 513, 532 and 535). This month, the technology was rolled out on Swift bus rapid transit buses that operate between Everett Station and Aurora Village Transit Center in Shoreline.

Over the next six months, the technology will be implemented on the remaining Seattle commuter buses —including University of Washington (UW) routes — and all local buses operating within Snohomish County. When all buses are fully equipped and operating, the real-time information will be activated.

During the pilot project phase the most noticeable change for riders will be the automatic stop announcements — a voice announcing where the bus is stopping. That will be accompanied by the same information displayed on an electronic sign aboard the buses.

What customers may not notice is better on-time performance as driver-dispatch communication improves and dispatchers can see where all buses are in real time.

For Swift bus rapid transit, the promise of a bus every 12 minutes is nearly assured. Previously, Swift bus drivers would try to reach each station at certain times each hour, and would need to call in to dispatch to let them know where they were. Now, drivers are automatically sent a message if they need to slow down or speed up to keep the pacing between buses at 12 minutes. Dispatchers can see all buses on a monitor in case they need to intervene.

In the first week of the new system, Swift buses were an average of 12.2 minutes apart across hundreds of trips, while dispatchers are no longer receiving 70-plus calls an hour from drivers reporting their location. Customers who had previously become accustomed to a Swift bus arriving at a set time will see a change as these buses will no longer run on a schedule, but will simply arrive every 12 minutes. This fulfills the bus rapid transit promise: “no need for a schedule.”

As part of the technologies project design, a real-time website and interactive phone system are being developed. Customers will be asked to take note of the stop ID numbers located at each bus stop. They will be able to punch that number into the phone system or website to get a more accurate estimate of when their bus will arrive at that stop, based on GPS tracking. The real-time information will only work within a 30-to-60 minute window before the scheduled stop to ensure the best information.

Real-time “next bus” signs will also be posted at all Swift stations and at several major transit centers to help customers with their trip planning. Real-time features will be activated once the technology is operational on all buses, which is expected to be in spring/summer 2013.

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