Real-time location data increases the efficiency of bus operations and boosts rider trust.
Many cities cite new technology, particularly automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems, as a boon to on-street bus operations management, but work is still needed to optimize it, according to a new study.
“The major benefit of the new technologies in managing bus operations is the ability to communicate more and more accurate real-time information to customers and to agency personnel,” according to “On-Street Bus Operations Management,” a recent report commissioned by the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) and prepared by Daniel Boyle of Dan Boyle & Associates. Other benefits include more efficient data collection, ability for staff to manage performance with data and better on-time bus performance.
In fact, 83% of survey respondents rated their efforts to incorporate new technology in on-street bus operations management as somewhat or very successful, and none said their efforts were only somewhat or very unsuccessful. All respondents reported they use computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and AVL to track vehicles in real time, and 75% said the system automatically flags problems.
The benefits to transit agencies are many, Boyle said in an interview with GCN. For instance, AVL systems get more accurate data to schedulers, enabling them to use real-time information to reschedule routes. And supervisors always know the location of all the buses, whereas historically they relied on two-way radio communications to stay in touch with bus drivers. A majority of agencies still rely on radio, the report stated, but digital tracking is more accurate. “If they’re in the middle of something, [operators] can’t necessarily answer on the radio,” Boyle said.
AVL systems with public-facing apps that show riders where buses are in their route make transit agencies more trustworthy, he added. “It’s the predictability that people feel they have when they look at the app, and the app will say, ‘This bus is coming in X minutes,’” Boyle said. “That encourages people to ride because they feel like somebody’s on top of things.”
For North Carolina’s Concord Kannapolis Area Transit (Rider), such technology has decreased call volumes by 50%, compared to 10 years ago, and let riders see how crowded buses were during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each month, 100 riders download fare payment and CAD/AVL apps, according to the study.
Another issue that Boyle said stood out is a lack of communication among transit systems. “We expected to see a little greater interaction in regional agencies where there are a number of systems,” Boyle said, adding that technology is often agency-specific and not interoperable.
But that's not always the case. The Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority’s Metrobus department communicates with regional agencies to plan and coordinate service and update information on things like detours and snow emergencies. “An unexpected benefit is customer service in the field. A supervisor in the District of Columbia can now answer a customer's question about the status of service in Maryland,” the report stated.
What’s more, four years ago, Metrobus assigned street supervisors tablets connected to the CAD/AVL system that let them address service-area problems without intervention from the operations control center. The technology removed some of the previous communication between operators and their supervisors, but overall provided valuable location information to both.
A second issue is getting people, especially drivers and supervisors, to use the technologies. “They can be a little hesitant at first to switch over to a technology-based thing instead of their own eyes and ears,” Boyle said.
One way to address that is through training with end users. For example, bus operator unions were against having cameras on buses, but “it turns out that it’s the biggest benefit that ever happened for them because when there is a conflict, they have the video to back them up,” Boyle said.
The Transit Authority of River City (TARC), which provides public transportation in Louisville-Jefferson County in Kentucky and Clark and Floyd Counties in Indiana, used to take a decentralized approach to training, focusing on functional responsibilities rather than how to use technologies that cross those lines. That led to a lack of use, the report stated, so the agency is “recentralizing training to ensure that all employees understand how and why to use the relevant tools. Training new hires, especially those in supervisory or management roles, is a key element of this approach.”
Ultimately, the mission of on-street bus management—ensuring on-time performance—has never changed, just the technology that helps agencies achieve it, Boyle said.
“The things we do to fix problems in the field haven’t really changed too much at all,” he added. For instance, late buses can skip stops to reduce the lag. For operators, the options “haven't changed much. But they have a much greater knowledge base from which to decide what to do now.”
Published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the study involved 36 completed responses from 58 agencies nationwide. Other agencies the report used as case studies are Dayton, Ohio’s Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority; the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota’s MetroTransit.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.