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3 Advances in Transit Technology

Transit agencies' focus and spending are beginning to shift as technology, such as mobile computing, social media, GPS and data analytics, have opened up new ways to improve service and, hopefully, attract more riders.

Editor's note: In this five-part series, Government Technology examines the present impact of technology on transit systems and what that can mean for the future of urban transportation.

When it comes to public transit, the city of Portland, Ore., stands out. Despite having a metro population ranked 24th in the country, the city has the 11th largest transit system, when measured by passenger trips. Besides bus service, the city has, over the years, invested in an extensive light rail system, a downtown streetcar line as well as commuter rail. And growth continues. In September, Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet), the regional transit agency, will open a 7.3-mile extension of its light rail system. Add it all up and Portland has a robust transit network that is the envy of many American cities.

Portland’s transit system gets a lot of national attention partly because of its investments in different forms of transportation, which are well integrated. It also gets high marks for how it uses technology. The agency was an early leader in the use of smartphone apps for trip planning. It was also one of the first transit agencies in the country to let riders use their smartphones to pay fares. Like a growing number of transit systems, TriMet transmits bus location information in real time. Need another minute to finish that cup of coffee before starting your commute? In Portland, riders can find out on their phone, tablet or computer when the next bus will arrive at their stop within a five-minute window.

While transit agencies always have used technology, most of the focus and spending has been directed toward infrastructure — the buses, trains and rails — as well as significant labor costs. Information technology has played a relatively quiet role as a tool rather than as an overall strategy. But that thinking is beginning to change as mobile computing, social media, GPS, data analytics — as well as other forms of automation — have opened up new ways to improve service and, hopefully, attract more riders.

Transit agencies are using advances in technology in three broad areas. First, there are technology solutions that are meant to make transit appeal to a broad ridership, not just the traditional users who are typically low income or don’t have a car. This is what Terry C. Bills, global transportation industry manager of Esri, calls the Madison Avenue approach, where transit agencies use data and cool technology to market transit so that it appeals to urban professionals and to better understand their needs. “For new urban riders, what’s important is that transit service is on time, clean and fast,” he said.

Second, agencies are increasing the use of intelligent systems to streamline and improve fare collection, scheduling and routing of transit services. Agencies can track not just where their buses and trains are in real time, but they can also know exactly how many people are riding a particular vehicle at a particular time. When this information is put into a database and analyzed, transit officials can better predict how many buses are needed on given routes at different times of the day and can control when they arrive at a stop, so fewer are too late or too early. Intelligent transportation systems can help control light rail and subway trains, allowing more on the tracks during rush hour, without risk of an accident.

Third, transit agencies are adopting social media for two-way interaction to increase transparency and accountability, while improving how they monitor transit service. The goal is to keep riders well informed and to also mine social media for ways to improve services. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms have become essential tools for customer-focused transit agencies.

But the application of new technologies, many of which are not expensive to deploy, is far from uniform across the country’s 7,865 transit agencies. Transit officials will be the first to tell you they are broke and don’t have the funds to spend on high-tech tools. Still, a number of cash-strapped agencies, such as TriMet, continue to adopt new technologies, especially those that have an impact on services.

Next: How Mobile Technology Makes Transit Convenient