Communicating with Riders

If you keep your public informed, it makes everybody's job easier. That's a sentiment echoed by the various companies that provide solutions to help get information out to your riders; the information riders need, when they need it and where they need it.

Jennille Logan, account manager with ACS says, "Agencies provide real-time information to their riders, which helps increase new riders, retain riders and reduce the anxiety for riders." She adds, "If local, commuter and visiting riders feel comfrotable utilizing a system and find it time-effective, reliable and quicker than using single-person vehicles, it will not only increase riders, but assist in reducing heavy traffic on major roadways.

"The ACS-TMS SmartTraveler Plus product suite consists of multiple ways for riders to access real-time information," says Logan. "It is a Web product that allows agencies to customize a Web page for their riders. Riders can plan a trip, be notified through email or text message of their vehicle arrival times, see important transit messages and can search for their bus or bus stop."

Avail Technologies works primarily with small to mid-sized companies, says Marketing Manager Troy Whitesel. And he says it's even more critical for them to have good information for the riders. If the bus only comes to the stop once every hour, riders don't want to be left standing outside in the cold or wet weather.

When riders see from their desk in the office that the bus is going to be 15 minutes late, that's 15 more minutes to work, or to get coffee or to just stay indoors. That also spares the questioning, "Did the bus come early and I missed it?"

Taking things a step further, Continental Public Transit Solutions is working with Booz Allen, the FTA and Chicago's Pace transit agency on its Transit Operations Decision Support System (TODSS), a prototype software that provides real-time data of events and prioritizes necessary responses for those. It organizes the information the agency receives and provides procedures based on standards set up by the agency. The TODSS system is available to agencies as the TransitMaster IDS (Intelligent Decision Support).

Arjan van Andel, director of sales North America with Continental, mentions examples of integrating multiple systems. The communication can be hooked up between all modes, including a city's highway management system. It's not only bus or only train, it's an integration of all information. An example he talks about in Europe also integrates various modes to a higher level.

"They provide connection information already in the bus," van Andel says. So when you're on the bus and you're going to the station to catch a train, you get all the information you need. ?Before you come to the train station in the bus, the bus will have a screen inside and it will show you at what times and what platforms the train will leave and it will show everything in real time."

Using Your Data
The way to providing more -- and better -- information for the rider is the better use of data. Agencies report being inundated with insurmountable amounts of data.

Suppliers focus on how to meet the two challenges: making it easy to utilize the data and providing the most accurate data. They agree that this is an integral part of what they need to provide for the agencies.

According to Whitesel, the biggest thing Doresy Houtz, president of Avail Technologies, tells people is that the companies are installing solutions that gather tons of data on a daily basis, but if you don't have the means to look at that data, than what is that solution really giving you?

"We see that with our own customers, they are getting more data than they ever expected to see," van Andel with Continental, also says.

"ACS provides data to agencies that will assist their agencies, not cripple them with useless information that will not support their No. 1 goal -- providing excellent service for their riders," states Logan. "The OrbCAD CAD/AVL system provides real-time information and integrates with agencies' APC, scheduling and other important tools that help agencies conduct business daily."

To get accurate data, an extensive algorithm uses the location information and travel times to calculate the arrival and departure times for vehicle stops for Init Innovations in Transportation. "Distances really matter," says Init Director of Technical Services, Bill McFarland. MobileSURVEY validates an exact location of where your stops are, compared to what the scheduling software may say. "Maybe there is some construction going on and that stop was moved to the middle of the block or around the corner." He says, "These things happen and don't necessarily get to the planning department. You think it is 2,700 feet from stop to stop, but in reality it's 3,200 feet.

"We can get that data as accurate as humanely possible without having to spend a fortune on labor and weeks of time," he says. "That is one of the ways that we really help agencies in getting their data, which is so vital to making a system like this work."

When McFarland talks about the high level of granularity in the data, he adds, "That just gives me more data that I've got to plow through in order to get information out." To make the process easier, Init provides views into the data, rather than just handing a client the database definition and saying, 'Here, go to it.'"

The views into the data have benefits for the customer, he states. "Should we change or need to change the underlying structure of our database tables, the views remain consistent." Even with behind-the-scenes changes, agencies still have access to all of their data information, in the standard views.

Whether in spreadsheets, charts, graphs or files, agencies are accessing their data in more efficient ways each day.

McFarland explains how data can be viewed as data in sortable lists, graphical form or exported into a preferred database.

These systems can automate which information is pulled, when it's pulled and where it's placed for easiest viewing and reviewing by the customer.

Continental's TODSS program takes the data automatically, but automatically proposes actions to different scenarios. "It's basically helping them in taking the right action," says van Andel. "The system is tearing through all that data and is providing them with the right actions to take so they don't have to look through all those things."

With procedural responses already set in place, the intelligent system tells the agency when it needs to react and how it needs to react.

As an example, if ridership on a particular route drops by more than 5 percent during a given time period, a notification can be sent automatically so that an analysis can be done, Whitesel explains. "If you see that during a time when the weather was good, people should have been out and about but they weren't, then it requires a little more analysis of what could have led to the decrease."

Communicating in times of emergencies
In the unfortunate event of an emergency, Jonathan Zeier, principal with Zeier Associates, talks about the head-end communication system Emcom Systems provides that allows agencies to communicate with riders and emergency personnel.

"The technology is session initiation protocol (SIP) via voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) and Emcom's EmVista Central SoftSwitch, software-based system communication," says Zeier.
"The application is managing audio communications in mass transit and security environments inclusive of all telephony, public address, radio and video integration from a single agency workstation located anywhere on the network.

"A head-on voice communication system can allow the easy management and merging of voice paths, such as radio, telephone, intercom and public address. Utilizing VoIP allows non-blocking communications with large-scale capability," says Zeier. "Multiple agent stations and additional voice path endpoints are easily added to the system with the snap of a network connection."

Zeier says if cameras are being utilized, a view of the phone and surrounding area can appear on the screen when the call is answered. "Police, fire and EMT can also be directly conferenced with the patron over the emergency phone."

Getting it up and running at your system
It can be overwhelming when trying to determine what you need at your system and how you should attain it. And, as Whitesel mentions, there are a lot more companies today that provide a lot more choices.

Van Andel affirms agencies should talk to many companies about what they can offer. "That way you get educated yourself." It's not going shopping to buy a computer in a store where one is $400 and one is $800. "You're basically tying yourself in a partnership for the rest of your life almost," he says.

"It looks like it's just simply, you're installing it and it works, but there's a lot that goes together with the solutions," he adds. It?s important to build a relationship and know it?s a company that you?re going to want to be working with.

They all agree that every agency is unique and so the solutions need to be tailored to the agency and its employees. With companies having broad expertise in technology integration, they all agree it's important to know what outcome you are looking for, and which solution will best fit your agency.

Getting the system running at your agency is a team effort between you and the company.

Whitesel stresses you can't simply install these systems and believe the organization is going to take it all in, in one training session. There is an initial three -to five-day training session at the agency, teaching them the basics of the system so they can do their job on a daily basis. One to three months later they go back for a little bit more in-depth training session and a needs assessment. This training can focus on what the agency needs most or could utilize better.

The goal is for the agency to become independent to be more successful. If they understand how to do it and maintain it, it will be very easy for them to go in and adjust as their needs change.