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Public Transportation's Data Rich World

Editor's Note: This version of the story does not include graphics that appear in the print edition. To see these graphics, click here.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Commissioner Charles Holland Duell is said to have proclaimed in 1899 that everything that could be invented had been invented.

Whether this quote is fact or fallacy, there’s no ­question that as a new century loomed, the Industrial ­Revolution had changed U.S. society in almost every technology sector, including transportation. But Duell—or even more visionary 19th-century pundits—could never have imagined the breakneck speed, pervasive impact or driving power of technological changes occurring in public transportation today.

This issue of Passenger Transport reports on a few of these changes, with a focus on big data, social media, ITS and near field communication.

Visualizing Trends; Mapping Services:
Three Trends that Are Changing Public Transit

Editor’s Note: This article features excerpts from a series in Government Technology ­magazine by Senior Editor Tod Newcombe that examines the impact of three technology trends on public transit. It is supplemented with new reporting by Passenger Transport to further explore each of the three trends.

While public transit agencies always have used technology, most of the focus and spending has been directed toward infrastructure—the buses, trains and rails—as well as significant labor costs. Information technology has played a relatively quiet role as a tool rather than as an overall strategy. But that thinking is beginning to change as mobile computing, social media, GPS, data analytics—as well as other forms of automation—have opened up new ways to improve service and, hopefully, attract more riders.

Public transit agencies are using advances in technology in three broad areas.

First, there are technology solutions that are meant to make public transit appeal to a broad ridership, not just the traditional users. …

Second, agencies are increasing the use of intelligent systems to streamline and improve fare collection, scheduling and routing of transit services. Agencies can track not just where their buses and trains are in real time, but they can also know exactly how many people are ­riding a particular vehicle at a particular time. When this information is put into a database and analyzed, transit officials can better predict how many buses are needed on given routes at different times of the day and can control when they arrive at a stop. …

Third, public transit agencies are adopting social media for two-way interaction to increase transparency and accountability, while improving how they monitor transit service. The goal is to keep riders well informed and to also mine social media for ways to improve services. …

TREND 1: Appealing to New Riders
…[S]ince 1995, public transportation ridership has grown 37.2 percent, almost double the amount of the country’s population growth at 20.3 percent, according to APTA. Clearly a new generation of riders has stepped forward. Many of them are so-called “choice riders” who have other options to get around besides buses and trains, but prefer using public transit. To keep these choice riders coming back, experts say that transit agencies must offer a ride that is reliable, fast and clean. They also want convenience.

One way that public transit agencies can make the daily commute convenient for riders is with mobile ticketing. With approximately 91 percent of adults using a cellphone, according to Pew Research, the push to collect fares via an app on a mobile phone is extremely appealing to transit agencies. …

A Matter of Choice
BY KATHERINE LEWIS, Passenger Transport

In addition to appealing to new riders by offering such services as mobile ticketing, public transit agencies are also using technology to learn more about who these riders are, what makes them tick and how to keep them coming back for more.

Every public transit agency hopes to stay up-to-date and appeal to new riders. Technology can be a powerful way to achieve this goal, whether it’s data and market research or installing Wi-Fi.

Much of the conversation about new riders centers on millennials. This group between the ages of 16 and 34 comprises 50 percent of ridership at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), said Carol Smith, director, research and analysis. However, the second largest growing piece of the ridership is baby boomers.

“All the research I’ve seen is that baby boomers are doing life after 65 differently,” Smith said. “They are going into business for themselves, they are taking jobs they’ve always wanted to do and couldn’t do because they were providing for a family. They are volunteering for causes they believe in and now can help promulgate. When you start thinking about those things, all of them do involve having to get someplace.”

When MARTA crunched the numbers, the agency found that the number of people taking advantage of the reduced fare senior pass has doubled in the last couple of years. That means the system must focus on serving these active seniors and train MARTA employees to be responsive to their unique needs. For instance, whereas millennials find public transit apps intuitive, seniors may need to be taught how to access the real-time and next train data.

In particular, a recent rider survey found that many regular riders don’t even know the MARTA app exists. That points to a need for rider education.

Smith is also excited about a new software package called Tableau that lets MARTA turn big data sources into visual displays, which often makes problems—and their solutions—more obvious. “Sometimes it would take us weeks and months to find the answer because you’ve got to dig down into these different sets to find a way to marry the data,” she said. “In this software, when you look at the data laid out, the answer becomes apparent.”

She expects that once the software connects on-time performance with historical data, MARTA will quickly see both bottlenecks and opportunities for improvement. Already, a new dashboard is turning around quality and safety reports within 24 hours, as opposed to the previous four to five days.

In Grand Rapids, MI, The Rapid uses its biennial rider survey to inform decisions. For instance, after discovering that more than half of passengers have access to a smartphone, the system rolled out Wi-Fi on its new BRT line. The Rapid also put next stop and next bus information in all stations as well as online and through open-source data that Google Transit, for instance, can access.

Not only are customers happier, The Rapid is using one-sixth as much paper for schedule books. “There’s no need to print thousands of schedule books and schedule maps for people to have access,” said Chief Executive Officer and former APTA Chair Peter Varga.

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, operator of Tri-Rail commuter rail, also launched free Wi-Fi in major stations and all passenger cars in October 2015, with digi routers in every car to provide the latest 4G LTE speeds. By year-end, Tri-Rail expects to provide Wi-Fi to every station in the system.

“That’s opened up the ability for people to sit on the train, relax, go where they need to go and be plugged in,” said C. Mikel Oglesby, deputy executive director. Tri-Rail spent $150,000 for hardware and installation on its 50 trains, plus $40 a month for each router.

“If there was anything to say to any rail systems out there thinking about going down this road but they’re not sure because of the cost, it’s definitely worth the investment,” Oglesby said. “We’re in the customer service business and this is a major part of service.”

As a side benefit, Tri-Rail can now track every train through GPS via the routers. That’s facilitated accurate next train information throughout the system. Soon, LCD monitors will display those times for riders to see easily.

“You can imagine what that does for the rider. Passengers want information, they want communication,” Oglesby said. “We’re hoping that cuts down on customer service calls. The customers love it. They say it’s about time.”

The intertwined connections among technological advances, ­riders’ expectations and new service are further explored in the second trend, below.

TREND 2: Serving Riders
Mobile ticketing isn’t the only feature available for riders with smartphones. A growing number of agencies (and third-party providers) offer bus and train arrival time via apps. There are different ways agencies can calculate when a bus arrives at a stop, but the most popular and ubiquitous is automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology.

AVL, part of the constellation of intelligent transportation system technologies that have been developed in recent decades, consists of two major components: Onboard GPS that tracks the location of each bus in real time and software that displays the location of the buses on a map.

The technology has been a boon for commuters who want to know when the next bus or train will arrive. But it also helps managers respond to unplanned service disruptions as well as monitor distance between buses and on-time performance.

There’s an App for That
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Passenger Transport

With the growing importance of intelligent technologies for public transportation, agencies are working more closely with business partners—such as in the development of a practical smartcard or phone app for fare payment.

Neil McFarlane, general manager of Portland’s Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet), described how the agency implemented the Hop Fastpass, also accepted by the Portland Streetcar and C-TRAN in Vancouver, WA.

The unique factor of Hop Fastpass, created in partnership with INIT and its subcontractors, is that the fare system is account-based. “Each individual card will represent an account that determines the fare on a daily basis,” he noted. “For example, riders can buy a number of day passes and, once their total purchase equals the price of a monthly pass, they ride free the rest of the month.”

TriMet was conducting integrated system testing as Passenger Transport went to press, including installing more fare readers throughout the light rail system and on buses. McFarlane noted that riders who don’t want to buy the card will be able to access the system with a chip-embedded credit card or a smartphone equipped with Apple Pay or Google Pay. Eventually, he said, he hopes the technology will connect to other modes such as bikesharing, Zipcar, Uber and Lyft.

In the Puget Sound region, riders can use the ORCA farecard on six public transit systems and Washington State Ferries.

“The participating agencies had to agree on foundational issues and create common fare categories,” explained Cheryl Huston, regional program administrator for ORCA. “We had a lot of people at the table; it was very challenging but we had seven agencies that agreed to reach consensus.” ORCA’s business partner was ERG, part of Motorola that became Vix Technology.

Huston noted that, while ORCA is now considered “one of the most positive parts of our transit system,” the agencies are beginning to look at updates, including upgrading security.

Linda Watson, president/chief executive officer of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro) in Austin, TX, described the agency’s work with Bytemark to create a smartphone app that provides schedules, maps and real-time arrival information and can be used as a ticket.

“I’ve always said we want smart buses operating on smart streets, stopping at smart bus stops,” Watson said. “We’ve always wanted to advance technology, not for its own sake and not to be on the cutting edge, but to give our passengers travel tools that make riding transit easy.”

Following a three-month demo in 2012, “we knew we wanted to go in this direction,” she continued, “and we also knew that the vast majority of our ­riders [almost 86 percent, according to a 2015 survey] have smartphones. We launched our app in January 2014 and the rest is history.” Users have downloaded the app more than 210,000 times since, she said, with about 10,000 new downloads every month.

Riders on BRT and rail can scan fares directly from the phone, she said, and Capital Metro plans to upgrade its bus fareboxes with scanner technology. Bus riders can show the screen to the operator when they board.

Capital Metro is preparing to introduce more advanced travel tools through Bytemark’s partnership with a European company that has implemented the new technology there. For example, she said, it allows “users [to] get multimodal trip planning through the upgraded app, they can order an Uber car or arrange for a bikeshare, all in one place.”

TREND 3: Connecting with Riders
Social media tools and platforms—ranging from Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to Instagram photo sharing, YouTube’s media sharing and Foursquare’s location platform—have created new avenues through which agencies can engage riders. …

[L]ocal public transit agencies have embraced social media, and the numbers show it. New Jersey Transit has more than 70,000 Twitter followers and another 46,000 likes on Facebook. Hot topics include customer relations, service alerts and arrival times. …

It’s also possible that data from social media can be of strategic value to agencies that strive to be more customer-focused. Social media can act as a monitoring tool that can help agencies improve how their systems run and even increase trust between passengers and agencies. …

But elevating social media from an interactive communications tool to a strategic asset that can make public transit agencies more nimble, service-oriented and able to perform better overall, isn’t without some challenges. Those drawbacks range from legal concerns over records retention to a lack of resources to train staff on using social tools in more sophisticated ways. …

Social Media as a Strategic Asset
BY KATHERINE LEWIS, Passenger Transport

Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. There’s a buzz around these social media platforms and their potential to facilitate two-way interactions to strengthen transparency, accountability and service. But how many agencies are using social media strategically to connect with riders?

Count the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) as one convert. BART uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to communicate with riders, as well as holding online town hall meetings and live streaming board meetings. The transit system finds that 22 percent of clicks to the news stories on BART’s website come from social media.

“What’s great about it is being able to talk directly to the public,” said Alicia Trost, communications department manager and spokesperson. “It does take time and resources, but you can’t ignore it any more. Anyone in a communications department, media relations, customer service, it should be part of the job description. It’s part of modern-day communication.”

Up to five BART employees monitor social media, jumping in to answer questions, share information and address problems. “When one tiny thing goes wrong, it’s displayed on the Internet and all over people’s phones. What used to go unnoticed is now all over the place,” Trost said.

BART has found that a timely social media post can defuse criticism. By responding to a snarky tweet about a late train with information about a police delay or sick customer, BART often turns an irritated rider into one who’s grateful for the update and rooting for the passenger who’s sick or in trouble. Or they may respond to rider suggestions on social media with information about an upcoming board meeting or new program under consideration.

And in mid-March, BART engaged in a novel Twitter exchange with riders following an extensive service disruption. One tweet (“BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.”) was retweeted more than 600 times and generated acclaim for the agency’s transparency and candor.

Trost and her colleagues also use social media to find positive stories that they can then spread through press releases and traditional media. For instance, they learned through Twitter about BART police helping a woman find her missing adult son with autism, and another woman recovering a stolen bike through a sting operation. “If it hadn’t been for that one tweet, we never would’ve known about it,” she said.

BART also trained customer service employees to participate on social media—something that took some trust but was necessary to handle the volume of work. “Don’t be afraid of giving up control of the message,” Trost advised other public transit agencies looking to improve social media programs. “Being able to not just rely on the media and paid advertising to get those small but key messages into someone’s phone or desktop is priceless.”

C-TRAN began a social media push in September 2015 almost from ground zero. Christine Selk, communication and public affairs manager, quickly hired a coordinator and implemented more regular use of Twitter and Facebook, started an Instagram account and even live tweeted board meetings. By March, her department presented a social media style guide and policy to the board of directors for approval at the April meeting.

“While it was once considered a novelty to have an active presence on social media, now it’s a necessity,” Selk said. “Your riders expect you to be tweeting in real time about service disruptions and temporary stop closures.”

C-TRAN uses Twitter for service changes and urgent alerts, with Facebook being more of a feature venue, giving the agency a human face and responding to questions. Her department uses an editorial calendar to plan upcoming posts. From October 2015 through January 2016, C-TRAN increased its Facebook page likes 20 percent and earned a 180 percent increase in Twitter followers.

A big part of that success is due to strong support and engagement from Jeff Hamm, C-TRAN’s executive director/chief executive officer. “We’ve done a lot of internal outreach and education about what we’re trying to do and why—the importance behind it,” Selk said.

The Utah Transit Authority embeds its social media team in the control center, so they’re among the first to know of any train delays or service hiccups. “As we’re pushing information out, we’re also answering questions. We use Twitter to share our blog about news about UTA events, exciting milestones,” said Lynze Lenio, senior social media specialist.

Because Facebook doesn’t display posts in chronological order, UTA doesn’t use it for service alerts but does to provide news, answer questions, post pictures and share relevant posts from other agencies. A team of five employees works from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and even answers questions at other hours when possible.

Instagram is a lighter, happy place for transit pictures. The agency also has several Pinterest boards with ideas for using public transit, including fun places to take kids on the bus or train, or holiday events and destinations. Social media has also been helpful in collecting public comments.

For agencies that don’t yet have an active or comprehensive social media presence, Lenio, Selk and Trost recommend picking one social media platform, creating a content calendar and mastering that outlet before moving to more.

“We really believe in the value of having that two-way conversation, even when the news isn’t 100 percent positive,” Lenio said. “Even when we have to tell people the train is running a little bit behind, people are so much more receptive if they’re getting the information. We’re building relationships with them because we’re willing to engage and keep them updated.”

Three supporting articles by Passenger Transport. All other material is from Government Technology. Copyrighted 2016.e.Republic, Inc. 122080:0316AT. Excerpted and republished with permission.
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