Deploying advanced wayfinding technologies in transit agencies present communications, legal, institutional, and technical challenges

Review of wayfinding technologies and deployments within nine U.S. metropolitan areas

Date Posted

Traveler Information Systems and Wayfinding Technologies in Transit Systems: Summary of State-of-the-Practice and State-of-the-Art

Summary Information

Transportation related information technologies including those installed in vehicles, on personal mobile devices, or as part of the infrastructure—have grown significantly in the past several years, leading to increased consumer expectations for easily accessible and instantaneous traveler and wayfinding information. The purpose of this study is to provide an assessment of current and future transportation trends in the application of traveler information technologies as a means to expand transit agencies’ deployments of these tools. The final report features recommendations and lessons learned based on study of existing technologies and deployments as well as agency interviews nationwide.

This study conducted by the Volpe Center surveyed and analyzed wayfinding technologies in nine metropolitan areas: (1) San Francisco, California, (2) Portland, Oregon, (3) Seattle, Washington, (4) Chicago, Illinois, (5) Houston, Dallas, and Austin, Texas (6) Washington, D.C., (7) New York City (New York – New Jersey). Challenges in developing and deploying advanced wayfinding technologies transit agencies, local and state governments and third-party developers face fall into the categories of communication, institutional, technological, and legal. General lessons learned from research and site interviews represent common sense approaches to project implementation.


Communication challenges:

  • Agencies need to clearly communicate with customers both the advantages and limitations of new systems.
  • Communication is important among agency departments because internal departments may have different goals and not communicate those goals to each other.
  • Regular customers want service disruption updates and expect quick service delay notification.
  • Some customers may be extremely tech-savvy while others may not have access or the ability to use advanced devices like smartphones, know your audience.
  • Communicate transparently with the public regarding implementation and actively work to avoid public discontent.
  • Better customer service information and interagency communication enhances the comprehensiveness and efficacy of emergency planning.
  • Evaluation is fundamental to gauge effectiveness. Understanding how customers use advanced wayfinding technologies is vital to achieve optimal effectiveness and plan future activities.

Legal challenges:

  • Some agencies electronically share data hoping to increase ridership and improve customer service. Others attempt to maintain tight ownership of their data, hoping it could generate revenue, though an agency’s right to ownership or control of data for financial gain has no legal precedent.
  • For maximum flexibility for future transit information products and service, transit agencies should seek to retain complete ownership of data. Vendors may specify ownership of proprietary algorithms or processing techniques.
  • Agencies were concerned automatic extraction programs would misinterpret or misrepresent information and the agency would be liable for incorrect information distributed by developers. Thus, many agencies now publish official feeds of information for developers, who must agree to terms of use to obtain data.
  • Many transit agencies share information with Google Transit to distribute information, agreeing to their Terms of Use agreement before participating. Similar expectations can be anticipated with other third-party services.
  • Agencies should develop requests for proposals (RFPs) and contracts with flexibility to keep up with technological advances and ensure they get exactly what they are expecting.
  • States or regional governments can play an important role in assisting transit providers to develop and deploy advanced wayfinding solutions.

Institutional challenges:

  • Providing arrival information on transit routes is often a low priority with respect to other, more pressing needs of a transit agency.
  • Many agencies must rely on outside vendors and consultants to develop advanced wayfinding applications due to lack of internal skill and/or capacity.
  • When planning deployment, agencies need to work closely with staff, ensuring they are supportive and will not sabotage.
  • An integrated Systems Engineering approach to technology planning and deployment ensuring interoperability between complex systems is rare, yet offers many opportunities.
  • Lack of data sharing between agencies means transit customers have to access multiple sources in order to receive complete wayfinding information for a region’s entire public transportation system.
  • Providing a trip planner in languages other than English may be costly and measuring what communities need in terms of wayfinding information is challenging.
  • Capital funding programs provide little incentive to minimize cost, encouraging agencies to purchase systems without an integrated approach.
  • Use an interdisciplinary team to design and develop wayfinding systems to improve interoperability, reduce effort duplication, and ensure the consideration of a broad range of issues.

Technical challenges:

  • Integrating data/systems from disparate departments and legacy systems can pose challenges. Differences in vendors, technologies, and data formats are a significant technical challenge if and when a region begins working on a multi-agency basis.
  • Data integrity of the core rail and bus operational systems producing customer information is important. Inaccurate and/or non-normalized data cannot support reliable customer information systems.
  • Many agencies have intricate naming systems for their routes, which may differ from published route numbers. When selecting or developing an ITS system, for real-time arrivals, an agency (and vendor) must be aware of this.
  • Rigorous field testing is invaluable to see how software behaves in the real world and to fix glitches with data delivery, particularly real-time data, because providing inaccurate information can lead to customer frustration.
  • GPS accuracy ranges from less than 3 meters to more than 250 meters in the presence of tall structures. Building additional delay into their customer information system helps overcome this.
  • Some bus systems have multiple GPS antennae on vehicles, each fulfilling different functions, maintaining duplicative systems is not cost effective.
  • Creation of data standards is vital to integration between systems. Often development of data standards lags behind development of new software. The development of standards as an issue applies to both real-time and static data.
  • Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) is not always compatible with provision of real-time information. Polling rate of vehicles is often inadequate for useful real-time predictions, ensure calibration algorithms include extra time to overcome this lag.
  • Providing targeted real time information is desired, especially regarding inclement weather. Disruptions do not necessarily affect an entire route or group of routes, creating a need to be able to differentiate the exact stops experiencing delays.
  • The delivery method, quality of message and willingness to pay for real time information are impediments to using email, text messaging, and RSS feeds for information dissemination.
  • Sending real time location information from a cell phone to a server and back to another cell phone can take 10-30 seconds but there is no bound on how long it takes. Amount of storage on the phone and data usage are also issues of consideration.
  • Static data requires a human touch, often requiring manipulation to be useful. Many agencies face this when converting data to the GTFS standard.
  • Several agencies using the General Transit Feed Specification note that not all connecting agencies participate, yet customers expect Google Transit accurately represents interagency transit connections. In this situation, the tool may not accurately route travelers to connecting services.
  • When introducing technology in a piecemeal manner, technology often changes so fast that the delay between the start of implementation and completion may mean when the project is finished, the original technology is obsolete.
  • Agencies using proprietary systems require support from the original vendor, which may be costly to maintain or alter once the contract is complete. These systems may not be compatible with newer systems leading to duplication of equipment.
  • Providing web-based wayfinding information is increasingly complex and it is difficult for agencies to keep up with the different technologies and standards. Some agencies, taking a hands-off approach, are releasing their data, allowing the market to deal with the development of applications.