Small and rural transit agencies can benefit from intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies; however, they frequently lack the resources to assess their technology needs and to fund the implementation of ITS. Another problem is that vendors often develop systems for larger agencies, and these more complicated systems are ill suited to meeting the needs of smaller, rural transit agencies.
The purpose of this research is to identify and examine available and emerging ITS technologies, their benefits, and their deployment potential to rural transit systems. This study includes a literature review of previous research, as well as interviews with five rural agencies that have implemented or are planning to implement ITS technologies. The five agencies are:
- The Kansas Department of Transportation (DOT),
- The Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska,
- Iowa DOT,
- California DOT, and
- Oregon DOT
Data on the agencies' needs and the planned or implemented technology was gathered. Further analysis reviewed each of the technologies to determine the benefits of the product, additional infrastructure required, and the costs. This research includes organizational information from the agencies and historical project evolution, so that other agencies in similar situations or looking to implement similar technologies can understand what may be involved. System integration with existing or planned statewide or regional systems is also addressed. The findings, presented as a set of lessons learned, are offered to assist other small and rural agencies considering ITS implementations.
A key requirement for many rural transit agencies is reducing the time it takes to schedule trips and streamline the process of planning trips. Manual scheduling and planning of trips requires a considerable amount of staff time, and does not always meet the needs of riders. There are a number of ITS technologies that can assist rural transit agencies in quickly scheduling and planning the most effective routes. This will lead to greater responsiveness to passenger needs while reducing agency effort. General accounting is another process where ITS can be used to save agency staff time and create more efficient office operations. In addition, agencies need to consider effective ways for communicating with their customers. Due to the geographic dispersion of rural populations it is essential that adequate means of communication are established between the agency and the rider base to ensure user’s needs are met. The following lessons learned illustrate how ITS can benefit rural areas:
- Implement computer aided dispatch (CAD) in conjunction with automatic vehicle location (AVL) and mobile data terminals (MDT), to provide greater service to riders. CAD helps to coordinate and automate dispatching so that the most efficient schedules and pick-up locations are used for on-demand services. Manual entry of information can be reduced or eliminated, and multiple legs of trips can be scheduled simultaneously. Because automatic or semi-automatic scheduling increases the speed with which trips are scheduled, agencies can offer greatly improved response times. However, an AVL system is required as well as the CAD system so that the location of each bus can be determined to create the most efficient route.
- AVL systems allow the control center to locate and plan the route of any vehicle as well as determine the most efficient use and route for each trip. Calculations can be made by distance and by average traffic speeds per time of day to give patrons a convenient and accurate online tool (if a website is used for customer service) for assessing wait times for on-call services. Global Positioning System (GPS) is the most efficient technology for transportation that requires variable routes because it uses satellite triangulation to find the exact location of an object or place. GPS modules provide AVL functionality to the transit agency, allowing the agency to monitor a vehicle’s travel and progress.
When using CAD in conjunction with an MDT, dispatch information can be relayed to a driver in real time, allowing for greater responsiveness while still planning efficient routes. An MDT is an onboard computer unit that displays relevant information to the driver in either text or graphical form. The data are received from the control center through the digital radio receiver. An MDT eliminates the need for transit drivers to rely solely on voice radio communication for information. The MDT can also send vehicle location, passenger counts, engine performance, mileage, and other information to the control center.
- Prior to implementing automated dispatch software, the Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska, conducted scheduling and dispatch by hand and through the use of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. The scheduling software greatly reduced the amount of effort required to set up and dispatch a driver to pick up a rider. Multiple-leg trips could also be scheduled, and riders who called less than 24 hours prior to a pick-up could be accommodated. These abilities greatly increased the convenience of the service, which in turn increased ridership, revenue, and return on the investment.
- The Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska is also implementing geographic information systems (GIS) and GPS to aid in the real-time deployment and tracking of vehicles. The GIS/GPS accompanies AVL and relays information, from an MDT onboard the vehicle, on the exact location of a vehicle at any given time. This information is then uploaded via radio data transfer and used by the scheduling software to plan the most efficient trips. The real-time schedule is then provided to travelers.
- The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) is looking to tie automatic scheduling and dispatch technology into MDTs onboard vehicles to provide more efficient, real-time customer response. The MDTs will provide trip manifests and customer information to drivers and provide radio communications to central dispatch and AVL functionality.
- Implement a strong and robust wireless communications system. Wireless communications is the backbone of ITS because communications with the vehicles is central to the operation of a CAD system, AVL, and the MDTs. Without the wireless communications technology, none of the other systems will function because they depend on communication with the vehicles. Communication from the dispatcher to the driver informs the driver where to go in the case of on-demand systems, and gives traffic information and other updates in the case of fixed routes.
- The communications systems can be as simple as two-way radios where the dispatcher and driver relay information about pick-up appointments, vehicle location, and status. The systems can also be more complex and use Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD). CDPD is a communications system that sends out bursts of data. When combined with AVL/GPS and MDTs, this data system is extremely useful in sending information automatically to a receiver without distracting the driver. The information can be stored as a manifest to the driver on the MDT, provide directions to pick-up locations, and provide vehicle status and location information to the central system. This information received by CDPD can then be uploaded to a website to provide real-time information to travelers. Digital data over voice radio systems, such as the one used by the California DOT, can provide a low-cost alternative to CDPD while still providing the same basic functionality. Digital radios allow data to be transferred via satellite to remote locations. Therefore, the control center can transfer a manifest to a bus in the field, giving the driver directions to the next patron pick-up. The driver does not have to answer a radio or write down directions, and the patrons can request service just a few hours prior to the pick-up because the information can be available for the driver instantaneously.
- Utilize Web-based tools to aid in rider convenience.
- The Oregon DOT was in the development stage of a website (www.TripCheck.com), where passengers can plan trips end-to-end, obtain real time information on services, and pre-pay for services. The $1.5 million development was planned to allow website visitors to schedule trips using a variety of transit sources, including fixed-schedule services, demand-responsive services, heavy rail, and shuttle/taxi services. The website will use GIS-based map information provided by the transit operators to aid customers. Therefore, a customer can plan a trip, using several transit agencies, and all trip information is available online interactively. This tool is valuable for people needing to use several services because it aids in the coordination of connections in an interactive fashion. Eventually, an individual will be able to plan entire trips across the states of Oregon and Washington as well, with times and connections clearly defined.
- The Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska is planning on deploying two web-based tools. The first is an online ride request system where travelers can schedule pick-up times and locations through a Microsoft Exchange system. The other tool is real-time schedule downloads, allowing riders to know the exact status of their pick-up vehicle.
- Automate fare reconciliation and general accounting. Manually performing fare reconciliation and general accounting consumes staff time, creates errors, and does not allow for easy manipulation of data. Software packages can be purchased to automate many currently manual functions. Factors to be considered are the amount of staff time spent on accounting, the need for better statistics, and faster error-free reconciliation. Automatic fare collection (AFC) systems can be installed that will count fares as they are inserted, electronically transfer that information to a back-end system once the vehicle returns to the garage, count the currency when it is retrieved from the fare collection boxes, and provide statistics to the agency. Software or back office systems can assist with payroll and schedule employee shifts and equipment maintenance.
- The Iowa DOT is interested in implementing automatic billing for para-transit and ride-on-demand services. This technology would streamline manual processes and provide uniformity to collections and reporting. Automatic billing is a key technology, as the majority of all rural and non-urban transit is demand-service based.
By reducing the time and effort involved with general accounting and scheduling and planning trips, rural transit agencies will be able to focus on providing better service to their riders. ITS technologies have the ability to allow rural transit agencies to quickly schedule and plan trips, providing riders with same day service where maybe in the past a 24-hour advance notice was required. The key initial step is implementing a strong wireless communications system to facilitate further implementation of CAD and AVL/MDT. Establishing strong communications between the agency and its riders is also an important method used by successful rural transit agencies. The Web has proven to be extremely useful in this regard, providing riders with easily attainable, up to date information.
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