Ohio Transit Authority gets "Smart" System

Columbus-based authority implements smart transportation system for safety and savings

by / July 25, 2003
From ITS America

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- TheCentral Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) is in the midst of a long-term operations upgrade that features the latest in Intelligent Transportation Systems technologies. With Computer Aided Dispatch/Automatic Vehicle Location (CAD/AVL) and Web Itinerary Planning functionality already in place, COTA has set its sites on even more cutting-edge technologies for improving operating efficiency and customer service.

Created in 1971, COTA serves an area of 543 square miles with a fleet of more than 300 buses covering nearly 1,000 route miles and 5,500 bus stop locations. To increase operation efficiency and safety, and to enhance customer service, COTA has begun implementing a multi-year plan for the deployment of transit based intelligent transportation systems.

CAREERS in Transit
The foundation of COTA's ITS plan is Computer Aided Dispatch/Automatic Vehicle Location capacity functionality provided by its CAREERS system (Cota Advanced Replacement Economic Environment Radio System).

CAREERS, which is provided by Orbital Sciences, equips a dispatcher with a computer system that presents graphical representations of all COTA vehicle locations and schedule performance -- all associated with city of Columbus street maps. Through on-board computers and text/e-mail type messaging, COTA operators can more efficiently communicate their status while still having an option to switch over to voice communications.

Prior to the introduction of this technology, dispatchers were limited only to radio communications with Operators who verbally indicated their status and location. Today, the CAREERS system tracks the location of every bus and service vehicle in the fleet -- which allows COTA to operate more safely and provide improved on-time service.

This improvement in the timeliness and accuracy of information received enables COTA to dispatch assistance in the event of an accident or other emergency; monitor adherence to schedules (route schedule adherence); provide accurate arrival times to special tracking devices (kiosks and/or variable message signs); and enhance operational efficiency by quickly communicating through "canned data messages" (similar to e-mail using a small display panel on each bus).

Typical communications between a bus operator and a dispatcher deal with routine events such as a sick passenger, flat tire, utilization of a lift for a disabled person, etc. If further information must be communicated or the situation is not routine, then either the bus driver or dispatcher can switch to voice communications.

The COTA CAREERS system is fully integrated with the Franklin County trunk group radio system. Software updates are loaded to the Advanced Mobile Data Terminal Devices (AMDT's) via a Wireless LAN, and scheduling data is automatically uploaded via the Trapeze FX-MON interface.

Through a partnership with Ohio State University faculty, the COTA's CAREERS system has been integrated with the Oztech Real Time Bus Arrival System to provide passengers at certain locations with the actual arrival times of their buses. Real Time Bus Arrival information -- along with fare and weather details - is electronically displayed at kiosks installed at COTA, three downtown hotels, the local airport, the Columbus Convention Center, the North Market, and six area shelters.

In all, the CAREERS system has resulted in improved service to the public. Fewer buses are running early than they had in the recent past. As a result, on-time performance has improved for COTA passengers.

CAREERS System Saves a Life>
The CAREERS (CAD/AVL) system had been installed for just a few months, and was still undergoing testing, when an operator driving an AVL equipped bus suffered a heart attack. Fortunately he was able to pull close to the side of the road, and pushed the emergency button. The CAD/AVL system includes a safety feature that allows the operator to connect live to the dispatcher and informs the dispatcher that the operator is in distress. When the operator pressed the button, the system created an urgent message for the dispatcher that took priority over all others; immediately recorded the location and direction of the vehicle, and activated both an outside sign requesting help and a microphone on the bus.

The operator was not alert enough to respond to the dispatcher's efforts to talk to him, but an off-duty radio central supervisor noticed the sign on the front of the bus, and stopped to assist and recognized the situation. The dispatcher contacted police who immediately dispatched a rescue squad/EMT vehicle immediately, which reached the exact location within moments and transported the operator to the hospital. He was subsequently able to return to work, fully recovered, thanks in large part to the responsiveness of emergency team.

This quick response, made possible by the CAD/AVL system, is believed to have saved the operator's life.

Tangible benefits
The organization is already experiencing savings on deadhead time between the station and the first/last revenue points. As the result of using Orbital data, one modification made to the amount of time operators are given between the station and their first revenue point resulted in savings of more than 3,000 annualized hours of service were saved, or about $165,000 per year.

Web Itinerary Planning
COTA's transit information Web site now allows travelers to view COTA schedules and bus stop data by line or stop. It can display time points or all stops along selected routes. Visitors can view all trips that pass through a particular stop, locate COTA bus stops within a predefined distance of specific locations, and view detailed information about selected bus stops (e.g. shelter availability, wheelchair accessibility).

The site also provides trip planning assistance by allowing users to generate detailed travel itineraries quickly by entering the starting point and the destination. Users can choose from a list of "landmark" destinations, such as churches, malls, hotels, etc. Travelers can optimize trip-planning results using predefined criteria, including lowest fare, lowest travel time, and fewest transfer points. The site then displays the map of the itinerary including overview, origin and destination. Users can even create personalized pages that include frequently used routes, stops, and itineraries.

Once users generate a concise written itinerary, it can be printed or saved in the user's personalized web page.

On the Horizon
With a solid infrastructure foundation now in full production, COTA is moving into the next phase of the ITS plan. The Authority is in the final stages of negotiations for the procurement of an Automatic Annunciator system that will incorporate devices that store and play prerecorded messages, including the automatic annunciation of bus stops, to be installed on COTA fixed route vehicles. The Authority is also in the process of completing a requirements definition for Automatic Passenger Counters (APC) that will equip various fixed route fleet vehicles with devices that count passengers getting on and off the bus while recording the time of the occurrence by line, trip and block. The data collected is compiled within mandatory reports that are submitted to the FTA and incorporated within the National Transit Database.

Future project initiatives will include Vehicle Component Monitoring, Transit Signal Priority, Advanced Traveler Information Systems, and Smart Card deployment.

COTA has also engaged in functional testing of the Trapeze Highwire application to publish schedule, itinerary, and real time information to multiple Internet appliances (ie. cell phones, PDA's, pagers, kiosks). Once deployed, this functionality will enable users to go online and see in real time the exact location and updated arrival times of specific buses.