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Real Time Information

As information technology becomes more powerful, mobile communications and computing become more pervasive, and more sensors are built-into infrastructure and vehicles the amount of real time information available to public transport systems will explode. Clever use of this information has the potential to significantly improve public transport attractiveness and efficiency.

There are three main uses of real time information in public transport systems:

  1. Control public transport operations;
  2. Develop public transport improvement plans;
  3. Provide accurate information to customers.

Public transport operators already have processes in place to use information in all three areas. These processes can be improved as modern technology increases the amount, accuracy and timeliness of information available, but the real improvements will come when the higher quality information is used to do new things or old processes in new ways.

True innovation in the use of information requires that public transport agencies make data available to outside organizations through data feeds and APIs. This will bring fresh ideas into the public transport business.

We explore old and new ways of using information below. More information is available in the Best Practices wiki.

1. Control Public Transport Operations

Public transport agencies have operations centers that monitor the position of vehicles, traffic conditions and other important information needed to effectively manage the system. Operations centers play an important role in helping to maintain schedules and reliable vehicle headways. When disturbances occur, staff at the operations center provide instructions to drivers designed to minimize the impact. It’s important to address minor disturbances quickly because when transit headway becomes irregular, vehicles begin to bunch together, causing significant delays and poor service quality.

Operations centers include:

  • Communications systems—Provide information and instructions to drivers and passengers.
  • Vehicle tracking systems—Provide information on the location of all vehicles in the system.
  • Plans for addressing system disturbances—Includes spare vehicles to put into service when needed.

While public transport agencies have always had operations centers, today the amount, quality and timeliness of data has increased significantly. This enables agencies to react more quickly and effectively to disturbances. Once the data is available the key requirement is that agencies have plans in place for how to address different types of disturbances.

Zurich’s public transport operations center was a pioneer in developing comprehensive plans for dealing with disturbances. Staff in the operations center have ready access to pre-arranged detour routes for all bus and tram lines, several spare vehicles are located strategically in the system which are able to enter service in the event of a break-down, and direct communications channels are provided to traffic police, troubleshooters and tow-truck operators. With these systems in place Zurich is ideally positioned to use the increasing amount of real-time information available to improve public transport system operations.

2. Develop Public Transport Improvement Plans

Public transport planning is a multi-level process starting with strategic policy decisions and ending with the development of detailed schedules for specific routes. The process differs depending on the particular agency, situation and question under consideration, but high quality data is always a fundamental requirement.

Public transport agencies must develop a plan for collecting and analyzing real time data that can be integrated into the planning process. For example, in Zurich real time data has been collected for many years and used to examine how travel time on route segments has changed. When travel speeds on a segment decrease by a specified percentage planners are automatically notified and they make an assessment of the problem.

It’s important that agencies consider how they can utilize user-generated information in their planning processes. Too often public transport agencies ignore the potential for ideas and data collection from their passengers. As passengers increasingly use smart phones and GIS-enabled devices they could become an excellent source of real time data.

3. Provide Accurate Real Time Information to Customers

Public transport agencies have always provided schedule information for their customers. Today’s technology allows agencies to provide detailed real time information in many formats and to many different devices.

Public transport agencies should provide feeds of their real time data so that outside developers can create their own schedule applications and especially combine the data with other types of data to create innovative new types of information that could help improve how passengers experience public transport.


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