SF’s legacy tech undercounted public transit riders

SF’s legacy tech undercounted public transit riders

San Francisco transit officials have been miscalculating ridership data for years because of older automatic passenger counters (APCs).

A recently released audit report by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transportation planning and financing agency, found that as a result of these measurement errors, the Municipal Transportation Agency inaccurately reported ridership declines from fiscal year 2014 to  2015.

The 250 legacy APC devices have not been working properly since 2014, Muni spokesman Paul Rose told SFBay. Because the counters use sensors that detect passengers when beams of infrared light are broken by a person entering or exiting the vehicle, crowded conditions can lead to inaccurate results.

In addition to head counts, APCs can link boarding and alighting data with stop or station location, improving the ability for officials to analyze transit use patterns, planning and fare revenue, and fulfill National Transit Database reporting requirements.

About 40 percent of Muni buses are equipped with the counters, which are randomly placed on all routes and collect data during a one-month period. Muni will be replacing its legacy APCs with newer, more accurate ones that rely on the agency’s new radio system to communicate, Rose said. These new APCs are not yet fully activated.

One radio technology, BLE, also known as Bluetooth 4.0 and Bluetooth Smart, may provide an alternative to conventional APC technology.

BLE operates on the 2.4 GHz radio frequencies, same as the traditional Bluetooth, but uses much less power. As a result, applications that only need to periodically exchange small amounts of information can run on a small battery for four to five years.

Israeli researchers found BLE technology to be a good way to track transit passengers, including arrival, boarding, alighting as well as estimated arrival rate and vehicle load. In their study, the researchers used a BLE APC system composed of small, low-cost, battery-operated tags attached to bus stops and public transport vehicles, a smartphone application and a data server.

Results of a small scale demonstration at Bar-Ilan University's campus indicate BLE can improve data collection quality throughout a passenger’s journey. It can enable anonymous monitoring, zone-based ticket validation, multi-language interfaces,  smart card/e-wallet integration and better accessibility for disabled and mobility-impaired passengers.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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