Transportation

Grand Forks, N.D., Fights Transit Ridership Declines with Tech

After seeing a 20 percent drop in ridership last year, Cities Area Transit is banking on new buses, an app and on-board tech to tempt riders back.

by Emily Allen, Grand Forks Herald / June 25, 2018
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(TNS) — As it updates bus routes to fit a growing Grand Forks, N.D., Cities Area Transit also is updating its technology to attract more riders.

After noticing a 20 percent decline in ridership in the last year, CAT is bringing in new buses with infotainment screens, a new phone app with estimated times of arrival and, pending federal funding, some new digital bus stop signs with wait times. These changes come while CAT joins forces with the Metropolitan Planning Organization to restructure routes, as a part of the MPO's five-year transportation development plan.

"We need to get to the 21st century with Grand Forks," division director Dale Bergman said. "Now that we've got the funding and can do it, we are doing it."

Two new buses, each costing $474,542, will hit the road in July along with the new routes, and Bergman said he plans on having the app up and running by September for back-to-school season.

"It's one thing we've always had people ask us for, especially university students," he said.

After submitting an application for federal funding, Bergman said the new signs could be up by spring.

Later in the year, Bergman said CAT will open up a third bus it's buying from New Flyer in St. Cloud, the same company supplying the buses coming out in July. All the new buses will have infotainment screens, which will announce bus stops out loud, for riders who might be visually impaired. The screens also will warn riders about construction blocks and traffic collisions down the road, along with public service announcements from the city.

Heavy duty buses like CAT's can usually expect a 12-year life expectancy, CAT mobility manager Ali Rood said.

"The larger and more expensive the bus, the longer it will last," she said.

According to Rood, two of the buses being replaced have been around since 1997.

The new app, for which CAT still needs a name, is replacing RouteShout, the free app CAT tried in 2013. "What we got with Routeshout was very elementary compared to what we have now," said Rood.

Bergman said Routeshout didn't show all of the bus routes, and it didn't provide the right estimated times of arrival.

The new app, along with the digital signs, will track buses using an automatic vehicle location system (AVL), on which the City Council approved spending money earlier this month. Installing AVL will cost $140,588, with $99,386 coming from a 2012 Veterans Transportation Community Living Initiative grant and the rest from the city's public transportation budget.

The app will require wireless connection, Bergman said, meaning most users will have to access the app using a paid data plan. Most of the city's bus stops and buses don't have wireless connections, except for the transfer location downtown. Bergman said UND plans on adding wireless connection to its new stop, too.

"People are so used to having the information right in front of them," Rood said. "We need to do a better job of bringing the information to people."

©2018 the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.