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Could a Plug-and-Play App Make Transit More Efficient?

Austin’s Capital Metro is piloting a mobile app that siphons real-time bus location data to help officials make better scheduling decisions. Officials hope the tool will be useful in pushing back on the disruptive force that is COVID-19.

a few passengers on a bus
A mobile app pilot is helping transit agencies and bus drivers keep to their schedules by siphoning the data needed to make decisions in real time. 

In July, Capital Metro in Austin, Texas, put the Swiftly app on tablets in five of its buses, which has improved on-time performance by five percent, said Jenna Maxfield, a spokesperson for the transit agency.

“This information helps us understand when the bus is running late and if there is a need for additional running time in the schedule. It also helps us to determine when we may need to add an additional vehicle because the schedule cannot be maintained,” Maxfield remarked of the data Cap Metro is receiving from the Swiftly pilot program.

The app does not require hardware or advanced installation and can quickly be downloaded onto mobile devices, which then are able to track a bus’s movements, said John Eng, chief marketing officer for the digital transit data platform.

“Once an agency sets it up and an operator logs in to their daily assignment, the app starts sending vehicle location information to the Swiftly cloud,” Eng explained. “A countdown view helps the operator pull out exactly on time, and then Swiftly's best-in-class prediction engine displays on-time status at every moment.”

That ability to plug and go fulfilled a technology aim for Capital Metro.

“Our real driving motivation has been to try to get something easier to interface with into the hands of our bus operators, and to really test out our hope and belief that we can one day move away from a large, clunky proprietary system,” said Dottie Watkins, chief customer officer and chief operating officer for Capital Metro in Austin, in comments during a recent Swiftly webinar.

“I’ve long wanted to test out the theory that we could put, basically, a tablet on our vehicles and load an app or two onto that tablet and feed information to our workforce and not need a large proprietary piece of equipment,” she added.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects on transit ridership, and the financial outlook for a number of agencies, it is also precipitating a move toward technologies to improve efficiencies and safety. 

Technology to improve the spacing of buses on a route to help prevent the over-crowding of vehicles has become especially attractive during the COVID-19 pandemic, say officials. 

“For high-frequency routes, the onboard [Swiftly] app provides feedback on headway status — bunched, gapped, or okay — based on data collected from the entire fleet,” said Eng.

“The super-crowded bus followed by a bus with a lighter load is referred to as ‘bus bunching,’” Maxfield explained. “The real-time information assists the operations control center in managing the service and mitigating the bus bunching by increasing the spacing of buses to allow for better distribution of riders.”

The app is just one example of how the Austin agency is trying to boost transit and public health and safety. CapMetro is also moving forward with technology advances like contactless ticketing in a plan later this year to allow for “tap and go” payments, as well as features to allow riders to load their accounts in cash at retail locations, giving “unbanked” riders an entry into the digital, and contactless, fare system. The updated fare operations system is provided by the transit tech firm Bytemark and includes platforms for trip-planning, fare payment, parking management and other features. 

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.