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Tech Upgrades Spur Bus Ridership Spike in North Carolina

New bus service amenities are a hit with riders in Concord, N.C.

From smart cards to enhanced security, technology is ushering in a new era of public bus use in Concord, N.C.

Bus ridership in the city has gone up by approximately 64,000 people from 2011 to 2012, thanks in-part to amenities such as a new transit center and a real-time online bus tracking application. Other additions include solar lighting technology at bus stops, electronic fare boxes and real-time messaging information that can be sent to passenger email accounts or smartphones.

L.J. Weslowski, the city’s transit manager, said one of the critical things that helped improve patronage was better customer service delivered through the convenience of technology.

In the past, a customer would call to report a bus being late and would then be put on hold so the representative could connect with a dispatcher to find the bus' location. Now customer service personnel or riders themselves can look up where a bus is in real-time.

Riders also now have access to on-board to free Wi-Fi on each bus, adding another layer of modern convenience to routes and helping contribute to the growing patronage of the bus system.

“It is really a combination of those things coming together to make the experience more accessible to folks and easier,” Weslowski said.

New buses area also on the horizon for the city. Concord Kannapolis Area Transit — known by locals as Rider Transit — is purchasing eight new hybrid-electric buses that will be delivered at the end of 2013. Transit officials expect the new fleet will cut down fuel consumption by 25 percent annually.

Surveillance Overhaul

The bus fleet is also getting an audio-visual facelift. While most of the Rider Transit buses already have security video cameras, the new ones will provide more than triple the storage capacity and external cameras for a different viewpoint.

Weslowski explained that the eight buses the city started with in 2004 when its transit program began were equipped with four onboard internal cameras that look at the front and rear doors of the bus, and two cameras that look through the body of the bus. An audio microphone is also located in the driver’s compartment.

By today’s standards, however, Weslowski called the surveillance system a “dinosaur,” and explained it is more cost effective to purchase a new system as a whole rather than upgrading the existing technology.

The new system will also feature audio feeds on each camera for enhanced surveillance capability. The audio and video can be accessed in real-time. When questioned on the privacy concerns that ability might raise, Weslowski said the buses wouldn’t be equipped with the wireless functionality needed to tap into the system remotely. Instead, the data would be accessed on an as-needed basis.

Primarily, the data will be used during accidents or incidents that require verification on what happened during a specific situation.

“It’s just not practical for us,” Weslowski said regarding real-time data review. “The data storage capability would be enormous because you are looking at nearly a terabyte per bus [with] seven buses a day recording. We … normally only need 30 seconds to two minutes worth of data when we are looking at one of these incidents.”

Concord isn’t alone in deploying observational technology. New audio-enabled surveillance systems are being deployed on public buses in numerous cities across the U.S. San Francisco is updating its fleet with a similar system, as is the Maryland Transit Administration.

Weslowski explained that the idea of recording video and audio in the bus transit industry really began because of insurance fraud, not security. He said in the past, if a bus was involved in an accident people would actually get on the bus that were not actually on it during the accident, leading to fraudulent claims.

The entire Rider Transit bus fleet comprises 10 vehicles, with seven of the buses being on the road at any given time. All of them will receive the new surveillance system. The technology will then be transferred to the new hybrid-electric buses in early 2014.

The total cost for the project is about $81,000. More than $60,000 of that money will be covered by remaining funds from prior projects. The remaining $20,000 will come from the annual capital money the city receives from the Federal Transit Administration.

Photo from Shutterstock

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.