The Best Practices in Rural Transit ITS project was conducted to identify planning and operational best practices for applying ITS to rural transit. The project team gathered information through case studies to produce the Best Practices recommendations. On-site case studies were performed at the following rural transit agencies:
- The Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) in Austin, TX;
- St. Johns County, Marion County, and Putnam County, FL;
- The Public Transportation Programs Bureau (PTPB), a division of the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department;
- Ottumwa Transit Authority (OTA) in Ottumwa, IA; and
- River Valley Transit in Williamsport, PA.
The on-site visits consisted of conducting interviews with staff from different levels of the agency, including operations, management, and maintenance staff. The ITS technologies were then catalogued and the case study results were synthesized into a number of recommendations and lessons learned. Lessons were developed in a number of areas, including: training, institutional and organizational issues, technology, funding and other financial considerations, planning and procurement, installation and implementation, and lastly, operational lessons learned.
When deploying ITS to rural transit, there are a number of well-recognized technical processes and applications that should be considered to help ensure its success. There will almost always be technical issues encountered while integrating ITS and agencies will not be able to anticipate all issues that might occur during a project deployment; however, they should certainly anticipate that technical issues will occur. The key will be to identify those issues and develop solutions prior to project deployment as much as possible. Additionally, there are ITS applications that should be carefully considered when deploying ITS. A number of rural ITS considerations emerged from the case studies and offer the following lessons:
- Do not underestimate the power of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). While GIS is an assumed component in many (especially urban) ITS deployments, it can be a significant stand-alone ITS deployment for rural transit agencies. Results of GIS applications have given smaller operators new tools for improving service, planning, and operations. Also, GIS may provide the basis for additional transit ITS deployments such as Automatic Vehicle Location/Computer Aided Dispatching (AVL/CAD) and scheduling systems.
- In Florida, the rural transit providers, called Community Transportation Coordinators (CTC), developed fixed-route overlays for the GIS component of their paratransit software, enabling CTC’s to conduct more detailed travel route analysis.
- Again in Florida, two counties used a demand response software suite with GIS capabilities that electronically communicates with vehicles and displays their locations on a dispatch workstation; the communication process is done via radio or cell phone technology.
- The Ottumwa Transit Authority (OTA), which provides bus service to Ottumwa, Iowa and the surrounding ten county area, implemented a AVL system consisting of in-vehicle Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) and Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment, radios providing a data communication link between vehicles and the base, and a AVL tracking and display system at the dispatch center. Vehicles are polled by the GPS and the AVL system uses ArcView GIS while the vendor uses Census Bureau Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing system (TIGER) files to populate the GIS; showing the location of all vehicles within the service area.
- The Florida Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged (CTD) is looking at GIS applications as an opportunity for ITS projects to grow. Their aim is to use the technology to analyze travel patterns, which will help them further regionalize transportation services and promote better coordination among CTCs. On top of that, the CTD plans to develop fixed-route overlays so that opportunities for coordination between service provided by the CTCs and fixed route services can be more easily identified.
- Make sure ITS systems can be easily upgraded. In today's changing environment, it is important to ensure that ITS systems can be easily expanded as technologies evolve. For example, an agency may want to make sure that their system has "flash" capability or can accept software upgrades via remote access software. These tools may greatly improve the ease with which system upgrades can be made.
- When the Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS), in Austin, Texas, deployed new scheduling and dispatch software they had difficulties with the addition of geographic data. While CARTS staff were able to piecemeal GIS data updates, significant changes had to be sent to the software provider for formatting. As the service area and the transit service provided by CARTS grew, this became an increasingly important issue, particularly since the AVL system would not be able to track vehicles that left the defined area.
- The MDTs installed on the OTA buses have "flash" capabilities allowing the vendor to easily make updates when they come to OTA's facility for repairs. Additionally, the software is enabled with PC Anywhere capability, which allows OTA to easily download software updates.
- In New Mexico, the Alliance for Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) began development of a Web-based software application to coordinate rural transportation funding, called the Client Referral, Ridership, and Financial Tracking system (CRRAFT). At the time of the study the CRRAFT software was GIS capable, but it was not incorporated in the package because the transit system did not feel GIS was high on the functionality priority list. However they recognized that it may become more of a priority, and ATRI designed the software in a way that will accommodate the integration of GIS capabilities in the future.
- Reserve adequate time for data preparation. The case studies showed that agencies' existing databases needed a significant amount of "scrubbing" before they were compatible with new software. In some cases, data interfaces needed to be created between legacy systems and new technology. Agencies often underestimate the amount of time it will take to prepare their data for entry into a new system.
- One of the challenges faced by the CTC in St. Johns County Florida was dealing with the amount of "scrubbing" needed in order to integrate their customer database with the new software. They needed to make significant changes to all customer addresses so that they would be compatible with the software.
- Perform a comprehensive communications/radio analysis. Rural agencies are continuously having problems with new radio systems. Therefore, agencies should do a comprehensive communications analysis prior to implementing an ITS application that will depend heavily on a communications backbone.
- The OTA's radio system was not configured to have the necessary capacity to handle both voice and data transmissions simultaneously, which became a problem when they tried to use the text messaging functions on their MDTs.
- Look into the use of Web-based solutions for rural areas that are spread over a large geographic area. Web-based applications are designed to save the money and time required to install, troubleshoot, and upgrade software, by having a single application reside on a Web server that is accessible to users over the Internet. Though, this type of solution can present a challenge if the remote rural areas do not have adequate Internet access. Therefore, the agency deploying the technology should evaluate the ability of participants to access the Internet before developing a Web-based solution, particularly if a significant amount of data will be transferred on a regular basis.
- The ATRI is planning on installing their system throughout the state of New Mexico, which covers a very large geographic area. They decided it would be most effective to develop a Web-based solution, which allows them to provide support from a remote location.
- Consider building a system from the ground up if a commercial off-the-shelf package does not adequately address agency requirements. If an agency does decide to build a system in-house, they should consider formulating an in-house development team similar to a commercial operation. Additionally, agencies that decide to develop a system in-house should think carefully about the intellectual property rights that may be involved and potential future licensing issues.
- While developing the CRRAFT system the ATRI looked at a number of commercial, off-the-shelf products, ranging in cost from $18,000 to $30,000, many which would require yearly maintenance fees. After considering and eliminating several of these products, they decided to develop a software package in-house. They felt that they would be able to develop a product that was more suitable to their environment at a lower cost.
Rural transit agencies seeking to deploy ITS resources need to adequately address the varying technical and applications and processes critical for ongoing success of the system. By looking into different technical applications including: GIS, Web-based technologies and software built in-house, transit agencies are able to implement a system that adequately meets their need and those of their riders. Critical to any deployment is making sure there is sufficient preparation and analysis to ensure the implementation process will run as smoothly as intended. Due to continually evolving technologies, it is additionally important for transit agencies to develop their systems so that they can be easily upgraded.