A Ride Through SAFIRES : Lessons Learned from SAFIRES : An APTS Operational Test in Prince William County, VA
From 1993 through 1998, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) sponsored an operational test of ITS technologies for OmniRide, a flexible-route, deviation transit service in Prince William County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The test, referred to as the Smart Flex-route Integrated Real-time Enhancement System (SaFIRES), deployed transit ITS applications, including Global Positioning System automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology, mobile data terminals (MDT), automated scheduling and dispatching software, and a digital radio communications system. SaFIRES, a private/public partnership, received $1.2 million in ISTEA funds from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality, and Surface Transportation Programs to administer the test.
Operating fixed-service transit is difficult in suburban-sprawl districts because of inefficient street layouts, widely and unevenly dispersed development, and a lack of concentrated locations of passengers. An alternative is a flexible-route service that follows a fixed route unless passengers have prearranged a pick-up at an off-route location. This type of service also supports the mobility needs of disabled passengers that lack the means to travel to bus stops on the fixed route.
In 1993, Federal Transit Administration (FTA) sponsored an operational test of ITS for a flexible-route service. The test, entitled Smart Flex-route Integrated Real-time Enhancement System (SaFIRES), supported the deployment of a flexible-route service (OmniLink) in Prince William County. OmniLink can deviate from its fixed route up to three-quarters of a mile on either side to pick-up and drop-off passengers.
The objectives of SaFIRES were to provide mobility to a transit-dependent population, test and implement a flexible-route transit service in a low population density area, and support the integration of a new transit service into a pre-existing transit service. An evaluation of SaFIRES from the perspective of key stakeholders provides key lessons learned as follows.
- Ensure that the radio system for enabling communications between the components of the transit service is reliable and performs adequately. Radio communications are central to the transit system because they allow the various system components, such as the Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL), Mobile Data Terminal (MDT), and dispatch, to communicate with each other. Delays or error in transmission will compromise the value of the information. The radio system used in SaFIRES performed poorly. It had a congested radio bandwidth and “dead spots” in which vehicles could not receive or send messages, resulting in delayed and/or inaccurate transmissions, and preventing system components from functioning in an integrated way. This limitation was significant, and prevented the transit service from reaching its potential.
- Involve the end users in the development and deployment of new scheduling software and system hardware. It is important to obtain user input -in this case, from schedulers and dispatchers - on their task needs and usability requirements before asking them to work with new systems. SaFIRES installed an automated scheduling system to replace an inefficient paper-based process, which had the positive result of reducing processing time required to schedule passenger pick-ups from two days to two hours. (The software accelerates the process by automating an analysis of routing alternatives and the availability of vehicles.) However, the deployment of the software had met with difficulty initially due to poor training and inadequate briefing of the users. Stakeholders believe that providing timely, effective training would have served the project, employees and managers better and helped instill employee confidence, skill and acceptance of the new technology.
- Perform a technology assessment when planning a multi-year project. As the SaFIRES project unfolded, some of the already-deployed technologies became obsolete by the time the project added additional technologies. This artifact of scheduling frequently created problems due to incompatibility between systems or aging technology. For example, the OmniLink scheduling software required an MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) platform, but over time, the project installed computers with a Windows 95 platform.
- Designate one project manager with authority for the overall project. SaFIRES had an organizational weakness because it lacked having one project manager with overall authority or responsibility. SaFIRES stakeholders believe that this organizational structure created an environment in which individuals had the capability of identifying problems, but not the responsibility for fixing them. For example, the team had identified significant technical problems in the communications system but there was no mechanism for a central figure to take control over a budget, implement or oversee a solution. Eventually, in 1996, the Director of Planning of the transit commission responsible for OmniLink took on the project manager role for the project.
Despite the challenges noted above, the deployment of ITS technologies resulted in a flexible transit service that creatively serves the needs of passengers in the suburban location of Prince William County. ITS technologies produced a reduction in scheduling time from two days to two hours, boosting public acceptance of the service. Ridership increased from 2,000 to 22,000 boardings per month during three years of the SaFIRES project, from 1995 to 1997. The lessons learned listed above are applicable to similar projects, and support mobility and environment transportation goals.