Real-Time Transit Data Is Good for People and Cities. What’s Holding This Technology Back?

Residents away a bus in the port city of Saint Denis. Access to real-time information about transit can help reduce waiting times and increase ridership. Photo by Miwok/Flickr.

People with access to real-time transit information have been shown to spend 15 percent less time waiting at bus stops than people without this information. Additionally, a study of Chicago’s bus routes found that access to real-time transit information increased average daily ridership by 2 percent. And a study on New York City’s bus system found that this information also led to an increase in ridership, resulting in $5 million per year in additional fare revenue.

These are just some of the benefits of real-time passenger information (RTPI) systems, which provide up-to-date information on departure times, arrival times and service disruptions, enabling passengers to plan more-efficient trips. An RTPI system predicts these times based on automatic vehicle location (AVL) data as well as historic averages and schedule deviations. This information is then given directly to users through different interfaces like websites, texts and public signs, or indirectly through an open data feed that developers can use for smartphone apps at no cost to the transit agency.

However, RTPI systems are not cheap, and while turn-key (ready-to-use) projects are available for those who can pay for them, the question of how to make these systems more affordable and accessible to cities unfamiliar with the technology—particularly in the developing world—is still open. Furthermore, too many cities are locked-in to restrictive contracts that govern how the data may be used.

Overcoming these barriers is a complex process, but a necessary one. As first step forward, transit agencies should familiarize themselves with the technology and understand how it works—even if at a high-level—so that they can change their procurement processes to allow the entrance of new participants and innovations.

New Technologies Are Bringing Down Costs and Improving Efficiency

Traditionally, transit agencies have bought RTPI systems and automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems as a bundle from a single vendor. However, bundling can be costly and, given the latest technologies, are becoming an increasingly outdated model. Innovations are emerging in a number of areas, with off-the-shelf GPS hardware or tablets producing vehicle location data cheaply, and Software as a Service (Saas) business models utilizing the Cloud, which reduces the need for capital investments.

OneBusAway (pictured right), for example, offers a suite of open-source products that distribute real-time passenger information through the web, public signs, smartphone apps, texts, interactive voice-response systems and a well-documented API.

Other startups, including Via Analytics and Transitime, have created stand-alone RTPI systems. Via Analytics uses GPS data collected from tablets and applies an “anti-bunching” algorithm that can manage bus schedules to avoid inefficiencies. Similarly, Transit UC, a spin-off from the Universidad Católica de Chile, is working on a similar suite of tools, including an “anti-bunching” capability.

Transitscreen (pictured below), which displays real-time information about  available transport options in a given location,  is another example of an innovative business making this information accessible to non-smartphone users in public places.

These new technologies are allowing cities to adopt RTPI systems that are cheaper and more adaptable. Some transit agencies are beginning to recognize the benefits of procuring and implementing them separately.

A Lack of Open and Shared Standards Stifles Innovation and Change

However, the problem is that traditional AVL systems generally lack open standards and interfaces, making them unable to exchange information with other software. AVL hardware providers often impose proprietary constraints on the data produced by their systems, either through licenses or by using closed standards. Access to the processed data is only allowed through the standards and interfaces the vendor provides, thus preventing agencies from using other software, experimenting with innovative technologies, and re-using the data for different purposes.

As a result, governments become trapped under these contracts, and often don’t realize this until they want to change a component or want to use the data in a different way. Many agencies don’t have an alternative to implementing the RTPI through the current vendor—they’re locked in.

Shifting away from Business as Usual

Transit agencies with the traditional technology will have difficulties taking advantage of these innovations unless they have complete access to the databases managing the information.

Transit agencies procuring new RTPI or AVL systems should require what is known as interoperability—the ability for different systems to communicate effectively with one another. This means that agencies will need to require: (1) open and fully-documented architecture and interfaces; (2) open and standard data protocols as well as standardized and documented data feeds (APIs) from which to extract data; (3) permission to query and extract data from the database; and (4) authorization to reuse that data for other purposes.

Requiring interoperability is crucial for making public transit more responsive to people’s needs.

So Why Aren’t Open Standards the Norm?

While there is no conclusive answer to why transit agencies don’t require open standards, there are several possibilities. One potential reason is that a lack of technical capacity makes turn-key contracts simply more convenient. Second, on some occasions vendors are responsible for writing the request for proposal (RFP) on behalf of the government, thus biasing the RFP in favor of their own technologies. Third, many agencies currently equipped with AVL systems lack the knowledge that upgrading to an RTPI system is even possible. Lastly, development banks play a role, since the traditional way of cost accounting makes it difficult to issues loans for Software as a Service-based projects—which will likely be the future of transit innovation.

The widening use of smartphones, high urbanization rates, and the rapid evolution of technologies are driving the potential for real-time passenger information in many cities worldwide. But so far, very few cities in developing countries have RTPI systems. In Latin America, only Sao Paulo has an RTPI system, while cities like Santiago, Bogota and Rio de Janeiro have some components and limited app access but no RTPI systems yet. And other cities like Mexico City only have AVL on some bus corridors, like Ecobus.

Real-time access to information is a real benefit to people and cities. The bottom line is that asking for open standards does requires an effort from the transit agency and begins with a basic awareness of what is possible.

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