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Tech Is Helping San Antonio Push More Accurate Transit Data

VIA Metropolitan Transit in the Texas city is relying on new flash storage technology to speed up numerous operations, increasing the accuracy of real-time bus location data for its riders.

More than 500 transit buses operated by VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, Texas, communicate their location on the region’s streets and highways. That data is processed and made available to the public via mobile apps that show bus locations.

However, that data is only sent from the bus every 30 seconds, at the quickest. New storage capabilities, provided by the company Pure Storage and known as FlashArray, essentially speeds up numerous processes, said Steve Young, vice president for technology and innovation at VIA.

“Right now, our system for reporting that (real-time bus locations,) predates our flash storage. And we have limitations because we report that over radio. And radio’s not necessarily the speed of LTE [Long-Term Evolution] or 5G,” Young explained.

“Even though we call it, ‘real time,’ most people call 30 seconds ‘real time.’ We want to bring it down to sub-10 seconds,” he added. “Our goal is to now bring that reporting down to a really, really fast reporting level, such that it will seem very real time.”

To report hundreds of bus locations every 10 seconds will require significant data storage improvements. Young said the amount of data streaming in could grow by as much as four times, requiring the agency to sort through it faster.

“And we have to be able to parse that extremely fast, and get it back out to customers. And that’s where this ultra-high-density storage really becomes critical,” he added.

Technology has often been integral to agency operations. It was the first large transit agency to roll out Wi-Fi across the entire bus fleet, said Young. VIA operates nearly 500 buses, several hundred paratransit vehicles, as well as dozens of fleet-service vehicles.

Several years ago, the agency introduced mobile ticketing. And then in 2016, VIA began releasing its bus-tracking data allowing private-sector companies, like transit apps and big technology companies such as Google and Apple to access it.

“It wasn’t that long ago that –– unless there was a sign at your transit stop or station –– you didn’t know when that vehicle was coming,” said Young. 

The implementation of flash storage –– an admittedly back-of-the-house sort of development –– opens the door to the sort of smoother operations speed needed at VIA. Using technology to tweak operations, along with other changes like increasing the frequency of buses on some of the most popular routes, is expected to encourage and support increased ridership.

To date, ridership is down about 2.7 percent, compared to the same period last year, but it is trending up, according to a metrics dashboard VIA maintains.

“We’ve really seen that frequency matters,” said Young. 

Other projects being explored include deploying digital signage announcing arrivals, a system to let riders know status updates, and onboard next stop announcements.

“When you’re on the bus, maybe it’s dark. Maybe you don’t know the city. Maybe you can’t see well for any number of reasons … that lets the rider know, ‘Here’s your next stop,’” said Young.

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.