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2018: Year of the Bus Reboot?

Transit and private-sector officials are staking out bus transit system upgrades next year.

City bus networks across the country are expected to experiment with a buffet of service tweaks next year aimed at improving the transit experience and growing ridership.
Officials from both the public and private sector assert a willingness by transit agencies to look to technology and the changing ways Americans get around as jumping-off points to transition a service that has remained largely unchanged from its fixed routes and fares since being launched more than a half century ago. 
“The problem with buses is that they have not always kept up with changing demographics and demand patterns,” said Johan Herrlin, CEO of Ito World, a London-based transit technology provider with numerous clients in the United States.
Seeing 2018 as the year “the bus will get its own reboot,” Herrlin predicts next year will be “a big year for the humble bus,” as transit agencies try new approaches like more fluid demand-based scheduling and route assignments to stymie the loss of riders. Bus ridership fell 4.1 percent in 2016, and was down 4.6 percent for the first nine months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
A number of agencies have begun experimenting with “pseudo-scheduled” service where bus routes and times are adjusted to attract the highest number of riders, similar to Ford’s Chariot service in San Francisco. Other agencies, such as the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, are loading up on technology to give riders better real-time data related to bus arrivals.
“The system responds to changing variables to keep riders informed of schedule changes and arrival times, and information is shared on digital signage at all bus and train stations and on the vehicles themselves,” said Kyle Connor, transportation Industry principal at Cisco.
In Los Angeles, transit officials are working on a project to make getting to a transit station easier with a plan similar to uberPOOL, a service that allows Uber users going to nearby destinations to carpool, saving them money.
“I can’t say too much more at the moment because we are in the ‘closed’ phase of proposal evaluations and I am on the evaluation team,” remarked Doug Anderson, senior director of information technology at L.A. Metro, the mass-transit provider for the Los Angeles region.
“The intent of the program is to test the use of on-demand service to serve major stations and transportation centers using a hub-and-spoke topology as opposed to our current grid system,” he explained.
Still other cities are experimenting with technology to make fare payment even easier. Officials in Portland, Ore., are putting the finishing touches on an app that will allow riders to load money onto their Hop Fastpass — an account management and contactless ticketing system — simplifying trips on Portland’s buses, trains, streetcars and other modes of transit.
“TriMet is the world leader in evolving fare systems alongside rider preferences and technology innovation,” said Nat Parker, CEO of moovel North America, the transit technology firm Portland contracted with to help develop the system, in a statement.
Still other cities are looking even further into the future as they begin testing driverless, electric shuttles like those in Las Vegas and Gainesville, Fla.
Meanwhile, New Flyer of America, which builds battery-powered electric buses, just opened its Vehicle Innovation Center in Anniston, Ala., a 36-acre campus devoted to the development of electric, autonomous and high-level communications technologies used in transit. New Flyer aims to invest $5 million into its electric bus division, which is in addition to an ongoing $25 million investment into is Anniston location.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.