February 16, 2009
How High Tech Can Help the Daily Commute
By JONATHAN McDONALD and GARY PRUITT
We are at the dawn of a renaissance in public transit. All over the country, ridership levels are surging and systems are nearing capacity. The little systems we built as social equity projects are now really being used by the masses.
As transit operators struggle to deal with the surge in growth, lack of funds, and an aging workforce; the question becomes: where can they turn to help them attract new riders and help manage the system? Technology is an obvious answer, but how?
To illustrate an example of the role technology plays in public transit, we look at a transit system in the not-too-distant future through the eyes of three users: Joe Rider, Markus T. Manager, and Sgt. O’Leary.
A Day in the Life of Transit
The alarm rings and, after hitting the snooze bar three times, Joe Rider is ready to get up. It’s 6 a.m. After a quick shower and shave, Joe sits down to breakfast, only to have his iPhone flash the message: “Route 814 is delayed due to an incident. Suggest alternative route???”
As Joe browses through his options, he discovers that Route 913 will get him to the office only 10 minutes later than normal, even though he has to walk an extra block to get there. He hits <Accept> on the screen and the alarm that tells Joe to leave the house adjusts itself, synchronizing to the new route.
As Joe sits down to his breakfast, Sgt. O’Leary’s dispatcher has received a call from transit dispatch that a pickpocket has been detected on Bus 7863 on Route 814. The camera on board identified suspicious behavior and alerted transit security. As Sgt. O’Leary enters the bus, he identifies the suspect immediately from the dispatcher’s description. The situation is resolved within a few minutes, causing a delay of only 16 minutes to Route 814.
A cup of coffee and a few minutes later, Joe walks up to Bus Stop 2289 and local Bus 913 arrives one minute later. In exactly seven minutes according to Joe’s watch, Bus 913 arrives at the rail station, and he runs up the escalator to jump on the train to downtown just as it leaves. Joe thinks to himself: “Boy, I’m sure glad I downloaded that new Smart Pay application. It’s so much faster than all those old farecards. I don’t even think about it—ever. Cool!”
Just as Joe gets onto the train, Markus Manager detects a surge in demand from the buses that feed the train system on his system manager dashboard. The automatic notification system has calculated that passengers will be delayed by more than five minutes on platform waiting for a train in 15 minutes. To compensate, he dispatches the on-call operators and, within the required 15 minutes, additional trains enter the system—just in time.
Meanwhile, during his 27-minute rail trip into work, Joe checks e-mail, his schedule, and his personalized online news service, arriving ready to attack the day. Of course, he spends the first 30 minutes of his day discussing the harrowing, near-death highway commute experienced by his co-worker Bob, but otherwise it is a normal day.
Before Joe leaves for home at the end of the day, he receives a message “Your laundry is ready to pick up. Pick up or deliver to Stop 2289?” He hits <Deliver> and changes the delivery box back to his regular stop, 2286. On the way home, he picks up his laundry in the secure lockers behind Stop 2286 and walks half a block to his home.
What We Learned
Each of these people benefited from technology that made their lives easier and helped public transit work better for them and the public.
For Joe, technology applications downloaded onto his iPhone allowed him to reroute his commute and pay for it, minimizing delays and transaction time.
Moreover, additional integration of third-party services such as laundry into transit made using transit more convenient in these hectic times.
For Sgt. O’Leary, the addition of on-board detection tools enabled him and the rest of the security team to respond quickly, efficiently, and safely to an incident. This gives riders a justifiable feeling of safety while on board a bus or train.
For Markus, the addition of demand management tools enabled him to optimize the transit system to minimize costs and maximize passenger throughput.