Technology

Moving to the Cloud to Improve Agency Efficiency, Customer Experience

Posted on February 15, 2018 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

In its 2017 Transit Survey, transit communication systems developer ETA Transit found that 75% of North American transit agencies’ ITS solutions are still housed on a local server and that 85% have considered migrating to a cloud-hosted service.
The reasons agencies are finding cloud-based systems more appealing are many, but chief among them is the high cost associated with maintaining their current server systems and the ability to continually make upgrades to the system to keep up-to-date with all the latest features and solutions ITS providers can offer.

An even bigger reason, though, is the growing trend to integrate public transportation with other modes of transportation, using open application program interfaces, so users can more easily plan complete trips that may only use public transportation for part of their trip, as well provide more accurate real-time vehicle information on the agency’s website, smartphone, or signage.

METRO took a look at some of the latest ways tech providers are integrating more options to help transit agencies take advantage of cloud-based open architecture to improve their offerings to passengers and improve efficiencies.

Delerrok’s TouchPass is for small and mid-sized systems.
Delerrok’s TouchPass is for small and mid-sized systems.

Delerrok
There are many companies now offering cloud-based electronic fare collection on a subscription basis, including Delerrok, which offers its TouchPass system to small and mid-sized transit agencies.

“We were helping agencies procure new electronic fare collection systems as a consultancy and realized, back in 2007, that there has to be a better way to do it,” explains Gary B. Yamamura, chief product officer for Delerrok. “The bottom line is we came up with an idea that was a bit ahead of the technology at the time, but fortunately, the technology has now evolved and we can offer a full-service fare collection system that is available at a lower cost than has traditionally been offered.”

Delerrok’s fare collection system consists of the company’s proprietary software system and card readers that can read contactless smart cards as well as QR codes, which can either be located on a printed product or displayed on a smartphone.

The company’s cloud-based system enables transit agencies to implement the system within weeks, compared to the years of traditional fare collection system delivery models at a fraction of the cost, Yamamura explains. It also enables the company to offer updates to all of its customers on a regular basis.

“As part of our business model, we contractually agree with our clients that if we make updates to our system or add a new feature, we implement it for our customers without charging them,” Yamamura says. “Right now, we are completing a new release, which adds new features for our clients, every month, or at worst, every other month.”

Delerrok’s business model charges customers each time its solution is successfully used to pay for a fare, meaning that if its system goes down, they stop getting paid. The company uses a tier-based fee model that charges the agency less for using its system more.

“It’s a model that really incentivizes both Delerrok and the agency to get as many passengers using the system as much as possible,” Yamamura says. “They aren’t penalized for more passengers using the system, they are instead rewarded in terms of a lower average transaction fee.”

The company has live implementations of its fare payment system at Medford. Ore.’s Rogue Valley Transportation District and Shreveport, La.’s SporTran and is in the process of working with agencies in several other cities and states to implement TouchPass later this year.

Connexionz’ E-Ink Real-Time arrival sign is solar-powered.
Connexionz’ E-Ink Real-Time arrival sign is solar-powered.

Connexionz

Connexionz offers an array of hardware and software solutions, including onboard annunciation, real-time signage, CAD/AVL, and real-time passenger information systems. After 20 years of experience on large transportation projects internationally, the company enhanced their U.S. operations and support by opening a west coast service office in Valencia, Calif. — a necessary step to supporting the growing client base across the West coast. Over the last few years, Connexionz has been focused on bringing their tried and tested applications to medium-sized operations in the U.S.

“Arrival predictions provided by companies like Connexionz are now used to feed a lot of open source applications for both the public and other technology partners, so if you’re going to connect your ITS system to Google Real Time, a custom iOs or Android App, or any of the other third-party system, you better hope its super accurate,” says Brian Garrett, U.S. director of west coast sales for Connexionz. “We’re proud to boast a system at Connexionz, which has been fine-tuned enough over the years to have a distinct level of confidence in our prediction. It helps that our system was road-tested on some of the largest and detailed schedules in the world. This real world experience has served us well with more medium-sized agencies who have less demanding schedules, rosters, and run-cuts.”

Recognizing that not all passengers have a smartphone, the company has introduced a solar-powered digital signage product that provides real-time bus arrival information at the bus stop. The BusFinder™ is the latest version of a bus stop sign created for cost effectiveness and rider inclusivity and now with the solar version — efficiency and sustainability.

“In many cases in most U.S. communities, these consistent riders don’t have smartphones and it is important to not lose sight of this market,” Garrett explains. “Things have gotten really exciting lately with a lot of different rider tools available for agencies to invest in, but we have to remember the foundation of what we do is serve people who are transit dependent, and in that case, we can’t assume that all of the riding public has access to the latest and greatest tech, as much as we wish it were true.”

Because Connexionz has a host of communications options available, including 450 MHz radio, cellular, and LTE, the solar real-time signage can be implemented anywhere, including rural areas like King’s County, California — per a more recent installation. Garrett adds that not only do the signs have the ability to provide stop-based arrival information in a way that may have not been available before in those areas, but the inclusive nature of the signs can help build brand, as well as public transit awareness.

“In Pasadena, Calif., for instance, the bus signage actually started to pique the interest of people who are driving down the street and saw these interesting, blue boxes” he says. “According to the agency, people would end up checking out the E-Ink Real-Time arrival signs and giving the transit system a try, and in the process, they realize it made doing so much easier than they assumed.”

Connexionz’ digital signage product is compatible with any ITS system through its open sourced architecture, providing next bus arrival information for up to 12 routes, and is cost-effective to install since it does not require access to power or infrastructure and can be easily pole mounted. There are a number of custom options available with BusFinder™ implementation including custom splash screens, importing arrivals from partner agencies, and the company is just beginning to explore interactivity through Bluetooth and partnerships with companies providing other solar products like UrbanSolar with their lighting solution.

The company also recently landed the iTransitNW contract, which will initially tie together seven transit agencies in Washington State with real-time bus arrival information, with the potential to scale and link up to 18 separate transport operators across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

“Valley Transit made the initial investment and these other regional rural agencies are able to purchase off of this contract and participate in these regional real-time systems, and it’s really the same premise as the goal of bus-finder products, which is to build a bit more excitement about getting around — and include everyone we can in the process.”

Syncromatics’ LCD next-vehicle arrival signage includes back-end software to provide device updates.
Syncromatics’ LCD next-vehicle arrival signage includes back-end software to provide device updates.

Syncromatics Corp

Syncromatics offers a suite of cloud-based solutions, including automatic passenger counting, real-time passenger information, and web-based annunciation systems. Starting out in university operations 10 years ago, Syncromatics now focuses on small and mid-sized transit agencies.

“Our sweet spot is a city that has an airport but no professional sports team, so that seems to correlate to agencies with around 50 to 150 buses in their fleet,” explains Alex Fay, VP, business development, for Syncromatics. “Those size of fleets are where you begin to get into some complexities of the operating profile and agency structure, but it’s not so big that you have a huge organization with multiple bus yards and layers of management and bureaucracy.”

Bringing “big city technologies” to smaller and mid-sized agencies, the company brings back-end solutions to help agencies run more efficiently as well as provide real-time bus arrival info via easily branded websites, apps, and signage.

Deviating from its typical focus, Syncromatics recently landed a $4 million contract from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) to design, install, and operate a network of 300 real-time bus information signs at the busiest bus shelters across Los Angeles County. The electronic signs, the first to be deployed widely in the Metro bus system, will provide real-time arrival times, service alerts, and other information about Metro buses, as well as those operated by other regional transit agencies that share bus shelters.

“What makes this project unique is that there are close to 30 transit agencies that pass through Downtown Los Angeles,” says Fay. “To accommodate all of those agencies, many of whom share bus stops with Metro, we had to build a system that could get real-time data from a number of different sources and make sense of that to be able to put that out on a sign in a way that is seamless for the passenger.”

Metro teamed with Syncromatics for the signage project after a survey found that more than 60% of the agency’s riders do not own a smartphone.

“The signs will not only bring real-time arrival info to those without phones, but will also enhance the rider experience for those who do,” says Fay.

The new signs, which include a back-end software system that will be able to provide the agency updates on device health and possible power outages, will feature text-to-speech technology to make audio announcements for visually impaired riders, and roughly 100 locations will include solar panels to eliminate any impact on the electric grid.

That text-to-speech technology is another important feature Syncromatics is adding, not only to meet ADA requirements, but also to do such things as send service alerts or promote community events in spoken form directly to the bus, without driver intervention.

“In a lot of ways, riding transit can be like airplane travel,” says Fay. “There are going to be issues now and then, and that is OK, but it is not OK when the operator doesn’t keep passengers up to date. These dynamic voice announcement systems enable agencies to do just that in real-time.”

ETA’s SPOT ITS solution provides bus info via websites and/or apps.
ETA’s SPOT ITS solution provides bus info via websites and/or apps.

ETA Transit Systems

ETA’s flagship ITS solution is built on an open-architecture platform and includes a base system that includes mobile data terminals, public websites and apps, electronic passenger counting, route/schedule management, and more.

“Using open architecture means that we can use commercially off-the-shelf hardware, and the benefit of that is it’s usually much less costly,” says Matt Schroeder, marketing director for ETA Transit. “Also, because we’re cloud-based and can constantly update our software to improve the experience for our customers, it’s a way to future-proof your agency. So, instead of needing to change the ITS system in five years, our system will grow along with the agency.”

The SPOT system is able to provide real-time GPS information to transit agency’s so their vehicles can be tracked and deployed accordingly, as well as track trends to update and adjust schedules.

For the passenger, it provides real-time next-bus information via a transit-branded website and/or app. A current trend Schroeder says has emerged is a move away from branded apps to responsive websites where the information can be viewed in the correct configuration from a tablet, smartphone, or personal computer.

“It takes a huge chunk of cash to develop a mobile app and maintain it and that includes updating it for both the Android and iOS operating systems, which also costs the agencies” Schroeder explains. “In reality, you can accomplish the same thing with a responsively-designed bus tracking website with a branded URL that could be easily bookmarked and used to access other features we provide, including actually being able to plan a rider’s trip from point A to point B.”

Aside from simply viewing schedules and finding out when the next vehicle is arriving, ETA’s system enables users to see if there are banks, restaurants, or shopping nearby; leave feedback about the station; whether you can purchase fares at that station or not; and more.

“The site also enables the agency to engage with the users via surveys, or sell space to advertisers on the site and generate some much-needed revenue,” Schroeder says.

He adds that the open architecture will eventually enable ETA’s system to interface with other transportation providers to allow public transit agencies to provide information to riders so they can plan a complete trip using any combination of public transit, ridesharing, carsharing, bikesharing, and more. Schroeder explains that while this sort of integration is currently being done on a smaller scale in cities across the U.S., he believes large-scale multimodal trip-planning will become the norm once it is fully accepted by the transit agencies.

“I think it is going to progress at the same pace that transit agencies are willing to adopt it,” he says. “The technology is there, the riders are ready for it, it’s really just up to these eager early adopters to really push it forward until it’s a reality.”

Schroeder adds that one thing ETA to get public transit agencies closer to complete interconnectivity is the idea of “infotainment” onboard the vehicles themselves, via displays that show recorded new content, weather, and sports, as well as advertising specific to the area the vehicle is in.

“With GPS already onboard the vehicle itself, we can target people through advertising in a hyper specific manner for everything to restaurants to banks to upcoming events,” he says. “I think it will eventually create a more immersive and entertaining experience for the passenger.”

Trapeze offers a full-suite of onboard and back-end technology.
Trapeze offers a full-suite of onboard and back-end technology.

Trapeze Group

Trapeze’s TransitMaster ITS solution is compatible for all modes of public transportation, including bus, rail, and paratransit, enabling a transit agency to have one solution across its entire system.

The solution includes hardware on the actual vehicle and software that collects GPS location and monitors the health of both the equipment and the vehicle itself and sends the information back in real-time to dispatch and other entities at the transit agency.

“Something that is unique to our system is that we actually monitor failures in a proactive manner,” says Nick Ross, industry solutions manager for ITS at Trapeze. “So, we can report a failure before it actually occurs, which can insure that a vehicle won’t break down, or at least minimizes the chances a vehicle breaks down when out on the road.”

In addition to GPS tracking, TransitMaster also times the number of odometer pulses between intervals, which helps give a more accurate reporting time based off of what the vehicle is scheduled to do.

“We can then take that information and provide accurate real-time arrival information to riders via their smartphones, on the agency’s website, or even wayside signage that may be located at the stops, stations, or shelters,” Ross says.

The solution integrates with several other Trapeze solutions, including enterprise asset management, demand response, automatic fare collection, and more.

As for that integration on the back-end, Ross says the latest trend is that transit agencies are leaning toward cloud-based solutions versus a server-based solution.

“Transit agencies really see a long-term cost savings with a cloud-based system, because it is cheaper and easier to implement and maintain,” says Ross. “The system also is automatically upgraded and eliminates the need for agencies to employ IT people to manage the servers and deal with them when they are down.”

Ross adds that cloud-based solutions also offer agencies the ability to access the system from virtually anywhere and many times cloud hosting companies often promise 99.9% uptime.

Outside of cost, Ross says cloud-based formats will also enable the mobility-as-a-service model that is becoming popular in Europe and is beginning to be explored in the U.S., enabling all of the various modes of transportation available to be tied in as one common transportation ecosystem.

“The evolution of that will be to further the integration to tie in more with ITS and traveler information to have a more well-rounded way to figure out how to get from point A to point B,” Ross explains. “And, we’ve seen those options range from the cheapest to the most time-effective, and even what is the greenest way to get to your destination.”

L.A. Metro’s TAP card system integrates with 23 partner agencies.
L.A. Metro’s TAP card system integrates with 23 partner agencies.

Cubic
L.A. Metro is using cloud-based technology and open architecture to revamp its TAP smart card fare collection system and open the door for full integration with multimodal options for riders who use its 23 partner bus agencies, Metrolink commuter rail system, and Access Services paratransit system.

The agency is doing this by working with its fare collection provider, Cubic Transportation Services, who is in the process of creating a mobile app version for TAP, as well as a retail point-of-sale app for vendors to accept TAP payments through a tablet device. The agency plans on connecting first with bikeshare by late summer or early fall, but once the apps are completed the system will enable L.A. Metro to partner with programs including parking services; electric vehicle carsharing, parking, and charging hubs; microtransit; and more.

“With the account-based system we’re building now, we’ll be able to connect seamlessly with different groups that may want to accept TAP payments, but don’t necessarily want to install hardware on their vehicles or at their parking garages,” says Robin O’Hara, deputy executive officer for TAP at LA Metro.

In addition to multimodal integration, Cubic’s app will allow TAP card users to order a virtual TAP card for the ability to tap and pay with a smartphone; receive account balance, pass expiration, and related service alerts via push notifications and in-app alerts, including real-time arrivals for buses and trains; participation in travel-driven promotion and incentive programs; and more.

The hybrid approach, meaning creating a cloud-based, open architecture system that is compatible with its existing smart card system, enables the agency to be nimble and integrate with more modes of travel as well as do so while not having to revamp the entire system.

“We feel like this is a really inventive way for using what we already have existing for infrastructure and building on it, while making improvements and adding programs where we can,” says O’Hara. “What we are doing is really unique because we are upgrading and building our system for pennies on the dollar compared to the millions of dollars other similar-sized agencies are spending to upgrade their fare payment systems.”

Clever Devices offers solutions for bus, rail, and paratransit.
Clever Devices offers solutions for bus, rail, and paratransit.

Clever Devices
Clever Devices unveiled a Disruption Management module for its CleverCAD™ fleet management solution.

The Disruption Management module enables CleverCAD users to react quickly to service disruptions that occur due to inclement weather, traffic or road conditions, or vehicle maintenance issues. Users can quickly make service changes to address issues, and all changes are immediately reflected on affected vehicles and in its BusTime™ real-time passenger information system. This ensures that both operators and passengers get the updated information, in real-time.

The module addresses four principal areas including:

  • Bus Bridging/Shuttle Service

Quickly create a brand-new trip or route to accommodate a major disruption or unplanned demand for service.

  • Same-Day Service Change

Quickly modify the service day (e.g., weekday, weekend) in anticipation of a change in operations or ridership, such as during a major snowstorm.

  • Detours

Quickly react to road closures by rerouting a vehicle, creating an alternate route path.

  • Service Restoration

Supports actions such as canceling work, reassigning work, performing turn-backs, and expressing a vehicle to reduce the number of stops it makes.

In all scenarios, passenger-facing systems such as websites, mobile apps, and digital signage are updated in real time to reflect the new plan, eliminating the confusion and frustration that occurs for passengers when the published schedule does not match the actual service.

“We believe that our new Disruption Management Module changes the CAD game and sets Clever Devices apart from our competitors,” said Kirk Shore, VP, product management, at Clever Devices. “This solution ensures that all systems are updated in real-time, and as a result, it unifies the operations so that everyone, from dispatchers and management to drivers and most importantly passengers know what’s going on as it happens.”

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