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New Software Tool Links Travelers to Real-Time Transit Info

Changing Traveler Behavior with Timely, Trustworthy, and Mobile Information

FALL 2010 — Transit faces an ongoing crisis of confidence. Many commuters who might otherwise be eager to reduce their energy consumption, CO2 emissions, and stress levels by choosing transit have been so frustrated by late arrivals, mysterious mid-trip delays, and other time-wasting surprises that they prefer their cars — traffic jam or not.

If a perceived lack of reliability is the culprit for underutilization of transit, it begs the question: Can better information change traveler behavior? If seamless, highly accurate transit information across multiple modes of transportation were instantly accessible to travelers before and during their trips, would they make different decisions?

Researchers at the California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH), are seeking to answer that question with the Networked Traveler project, a study launched this August that blankets the entire US 101 commute corridor with real-time transit information — that is, information based on the actual GPS-identified location of the transit vehicles, rather than schedule-based arrival times — updated vehicle counts at transit stations, and real-time traffic conditions.

Wei-bin Zhang is the Transit Program Lead at PATH

Project Manager Wei-bin Zhang says the goals of the project are to reduce the wait time at stations (thus also reducing total trip time), eliminate the frustrations of passenger uncertainty, and assist travelers in choosing transit when the highway is congested. “At its core, this project is meant to be a congestion relief tool that will help balance demand across all dimensions of the transportation network,” Zhang said.

Informed Choices

The data-rich software tool features a trip planner that uses real-time bus and train arrival times to find the fastest routes. It compares those with drive times based on live traffic conditions, and, for shorter distances, biking times.

It functions much like Google’s trip planner, with a starting location and a destination, but the results page displays options for multiple modes in a simple-to-read grid (below), while not-so-subtle 

color-coding uses green to show the relative CO2-emission savings among the various modes, and blue to show the option of gaining work and relaxation time, even if transit may take longer than driving.

The trip planner also provides potential Park-and-Ride commuters with “smart parking” information, displaying the real-time availability of parking spots at four busy Caltrain stations: Millbrae, Redwood City, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park.

For travelers who already know their routes, there is a comprehensive menu of next-bus/next-train arrivals for all transit agencies in the region, one of the Bay Area’s most clogged commute corridors.

Along for the Ride

PATH2Go, the project’s mobile application, has the transit features of the trip planner, and more importantly, includes a series of in-transit alerts that apprise travelers of up-to-the-minute arrival-time adjustments and trip milestones.

Users simply plan a trip on the website, then download it to their mobile phone to receive dynamically generated alerts. iPhones, Androids, and Windows-based smart phones are supported. Read a complete list

“Killing yourself to make your train only to arrive and find out it’s 10 minutes late is really aggravating,” says Liping Zhang, the project’s lead developer. [no relation to Wei-bin] “We designed these alerts to make trips more predictable and more time-efficient, and to build confidence in the transit experience. If you can stop for your coffee with the certainty that the arrival time showing on your phone is based on your train’s actual location, you will have a more efficient morning and a less stressful trip,” Zhang said.

Wake-Up Call

PATH2Go in-transit services include regularly updated trip-duration times and alerts that tell travelers when their next train or bus is due (right) and when their train is approaching the station, both where they are waiting and where they exit.

Alerts can be set to screen text, sound, or vibrate. “We designed the ‘Your stop is approaching’ ping as an aid for commuters who get absorbed in their work or music, as well as for people with hearing and vision disabilities and people traveling in unfamiliar territory,” Liping Zhang said.

For driver safety, "geofencing" technology is used to block the cell phone application while a driver is in a moving automobile.

Options and more options

For shorter trips, entering an urban segment into the trip planner will yield a bicycle option with estimated times that users can compare to transit and driving.

Project Manager Wei-bin Zhang concedes that sometimes driving will be the best option — for example, when traffic is clear and a traveler is in a hurry. “The project’s larger purpose is to allow travelers to make informed choices,” Zhang said. The comparisons also include cost estimates.

The Networked Traveler project also provides help for drivers already on the road. The “smart parking” feature is linked to a freeway message sign at Millbrae Avenue on US 101 that displays the available parking at the Caltrain stations. Another linked sign shows a real-time comparison between staying on the freeway and exiting to take Caltrain.

“We are encouraging the public to consider using transit, even after they have begun their trip,” said Greg Larson, project manager at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which is supporting the project with the aim of developing tools that will reduce traffic congestion and alleviate traveler stress.

Regional Partners

Wei-bin Zhang said that the study’s multi-agency cooperation was key to attaining real-time, region-wide data for multiple modes of transportation. “Getting data for all the parallel systems within this regional commute corridor was critical to providing the quality of information that can build traveler confidence in the network,” Zhang said.

Project partners include the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans), which operates Caltrain;  Valley Transportation Authority, NAVTEQ, ParkingCarma, and SpeedInfo.

At the Redwood City Caltrain Station, parking sensors count incoming vehicles.

The Networked Traveler project equipped Caltrain cars and VTA and San Trans buses with GPS locators, and installed smart parking technology to count cars and transit data Caltrain Park and Ride lots. BART and Muni already generate real-time information that is accessible to third-party application developers; SamTrans provides its bus data to the project.

What’s Next

The field test is slated to continue throughout the fall. Researchers will analyze various sources of user input to learn which information is most likely to influence traveler behavior.

Lead developer Liping Zhang said the team will use website metrics, survey data, and data from interactive windows on PATH2GO that ask users “Did you find this useful?” to study how and when people use the services and which services were likely to influence user behavior. Zhang said, "We hope to learn whether providing information that is both comprehensive and accurate can improve mobility, decrease traveler stress, and ultimately, help to decrease congestion on the roadways.”

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