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Public Transit Benefits When Buses, Riders Are Connected

Valley Regional Transit in Boise, Idaho, has taken steps to improve its communications infrastructure, which has led to more on-time arrivals and perks for riders.

by / October 26, 2017
Courtesy Valley Regional Transit

New communications equipment aboard buses in Boise, Idaho, has already ensured stable, accurate, real-time online bus-tracking, on-board Wi-Fi and other features.

The network of new routers and other equipment has also opened the door for mobile-ticketing and additional improvements.

“We see this as a cornerstone or foundation to build upon the rest of our applications that we are going to be implementing in the next five years,” said Rhonda Jalbert, development director for Valley Regional Transit, the public transit agency serving the Boise metro-region.

The upgrades — provided by the communications technology company Cradlepoint — replace older equipment that routinely lost connections, even in the best cell coverage areas, said Jalbert. And then when the agency began planning its new underground transit plaza in downtown Boise, officials knew they needed to get serious about upgrading the system. The downtown underground transit plaza was part of a $75 million public-private development. VRT’s new bus plaza cost $11 million and opened in October 2016.

The new equipment was “strong enough to receive a signal down there,” said Jalbert. “And then also, it alleviated a lot of other problems that we had of losing signals throughout our region because we would lose them here and there and at other locations.” 

The technology improvements were part of a larger mission to modernize VRT and ensure that the buses operate on schedule. About five years ago, an auto-vehicle GPS location system was adopted to track the buses in real time.

“It is becoming much more important to track assets to understand where the buses are, when they’ll arrive at the next stop and provide that information to riders,” said David Rush, senior product manager at Cradlepoint, in an email. “This avoids ‘bunching’ and optimizes routes and more.”

Two years ago, VRT hired an ITS (Intelligent Transportation System) director and other technology-related staff. “In 2014 we finally had an ITS (Intelligent Transportation System) plan put together to start prioritizing what kind of technology projects we wanted to complete first,” said Jalbert.

But, connectivity problems persisted. This led to the failures of other bits of technology infrastructure, like the “traffic signal priority system,” which speeds up traffic signals to green in an effort to get late buses running back on schedule.

“Basically every single advancement in technology that you want to do to a bus, you have to have a reliable means of getting that data to the outside world – like back to servers, or back to people, or webpages,” said Nick Moran, ITS director for VRT. 

“This new modem created the opportunity for us to utilize the 4G and GPS dome systems located on the tops of all of our buses for stronger signal and 4G capability,” he added, noting the new system, “hasn’t had one instance of lost connectivity yet.”

Boise's VRT is similar to peer transit agencies in cities like Des Moines, Iowa, or Spokane, Wash. Both of these transit systems have similar fare structures and tend to serve between 1 million and 1.5 million riders a year. Both agencies have turned to technology upgrades to both improve the rider experience and operations.

Des Moines Area Regional Transit, known locally as DART, installed bus GPS tracking several years ago and recently launched a mobile-ticketing app and is working to add trip-planning. The features would allow riders to plan their trip and pay for it all in one app. Buses will soon be equipped with new fare boxes and will require Internet connectivity.

“So, in 2018 we will begin having Wi-Fi available on all buses,” said Amanda Wanke, chief engagement and communications officer at DART.

In Spokane, riders can set up alerts on their phones where Spokane Transit will send texts with information about the next bus arrival at a particular stop.

“We just rolled out real-time for our customers,” said Brandon Rapez-Betty, a customer and community relations spokesperson for Spokane Transit Authority, as he explained the agency’s Web-based application.

And since buses are tracked by GPS, riders can watch the buses' movements by watching icons inch across a map on their mobile devices.

“Immediately the anxiety of not knowing where the bus is, is reduced because I can pull up the map and can highlight the route that I’m interested in, and then I can see where that bus is on the map,” said Rapez-Betty. 

In the coming year, Valley Regional Transit will introduce a new “annunciator” system — the automatic announcements in the bus indicating the next stop coming up. Other projects in the queue are automatic passenger counting technology, leading to mobile-ticketing.

Already, VRT has been able to add free on-board Wi-Fi on some buses — a big plus for riders on some of the longer routes.

“That was an added bonus that we had on our list of capital projects, but it was ranked fairly low because of all the other types of capital projects that we wanted to complete,” Jalbert said.

On-board Wi-Fi, “generally needs to be a ‘free’ service,” said Rush, from Cradlepoint, which is why service providers often work out deals with transit agencies to provide the hardware and software in exchange for some sort of advertising or other perk.

And like Spokane and Des Moines, riders in Boise are also able to track the buses in real time, offering a clear visual of just how far a bus is from any given stop. 

“We are also working right now with Google to provide them our real-time information, so that you could pull it off of Google Maps, if you wanted it,” said Jalbert.

Skip Descant Staff Writer

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 Sacramento.

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