Old Dog, New Tricks


My bus stop

My bus stop

New technology can have a profound impact on an old industry–in this case public transit. No single innovation has improved bus transit service like GPS. It has transformed bus operations and the customer experience. Here’s how.

Reassuring the bus rider

Taking a bus trip requires some trust on the part of the customer—trust that the bus will show up when the schedule says it will. Before the advent of GPS, there was always that shadow of doubt. What if the bus is late? Did I already miss it because it ran early? What if it broke down and isn’t coming at all? This sort of uncertainty is a powerful deterrent to riding.

GPS—or AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location) as it’s known in the transit industry—changed all that. Unlike regular GPS in a car that just gives the location, AVL tracks the bus location and compares it to the schedule, a crucial additional step and much harder to do. For this story we’ll just call it GPS.

Now the customer can track the bus and get a constantly updated, estimated time of arrival. It’s available on any computer, touch tone phone or mobile device. Real time displays are being installed at the busiest stops. The mystery and uncertainty is gone, replaced by peace of mind. Physical discomfort is minimized as well. On a cold or rainy day, if the bus is running late, you don’t have to wait out in the weather. Stay indoors until a couple of minutes before it arrives.

If you’re a regular bus rider, you probably knew all that. If all GPS did was reduce customer uncertainty, it would be a big deal. But there are many more benefits, all behind the scenes, that have greatly improved how buses operate.

Behind the scenes benefits

Every bus now has a display that gives the driver continuous feedback on his/her on-time performance. It’s that little screen next to the farebox. If you stand behind the driver you can watch it and see how the bus is doing compared to the schedule. This is a labor saver for the driver, who previously had to manually compare a run card to his watch, and had to synchronize the watch daily with a master clock at the garage. That same information is simultaneously available to the Transit Control Center, which supervises bus drivers while they’re on the street.

Having both the driver and supervisor getting a continuous on-time status has eliminated or sharply curtailed the small minority of drivers who had intentionally run off schedule, bad practices that had gone on for over a hundred years. There were never enough on-street supervisors to prevent it.

Some drivers would run early, a major sin, because it reduced the number of passengers they had to carry. The following bus would get overloaded, fall behind schedule and soon there would be two buses running together and a big hole in the service. Now the computer immediately flags anyone who does it. The result—virtually no early buses.

Or a driver might intentionally run later than his scheduled follower, sticking the follower with the load. These practices tended to be worse on lines operated out of two garages, since the offending driver was less likely to meet his victim at the garage.

Before GPS, some drivers would arrive late at their terminal but still take their full layover time between trips and leave late. Their justification was that this is their break time. It isn’t, and never has been. It’s “recovery time”, used to get back on schedule after a late trip. Thanks to GPS, that practice has been drastically curtailed. Also virtually eliminated is the practice called “shortlining”, failing to complete a full trip, usually the last one of the day.

Besides its day-to-day use, the GPS data is archived, which allows it to be analyzed. This has all sorts of benefits. Before GPS, scheduled running time was based on a very limited sample of manual ride checks, load checks at selected points along the line, and complaints from drivers and customers. Now the on-time performance of every trip, every day at every time point is known. A complete data set means a much more accurate schedule can be written.

Like anyone else, bus drivers run the gamut from slow to fast. Because of that archived data, the slow ones who habitually run late can be identified and retrained.

Put all these things together and on-time performance (defined as zero minutes early to 5 minutes late) improves. In fact GPS has improved it from about 80 percent to something approaching 90 percent.

Another good thing about GPS—it has completely changed the investigation of customer complaints. In the past it was impossible to determine if a complaint about the bus being early, late, or even off route was valid. Maybe the customer’s watch was a couple of minutes off. However, with GPS, the customer service representative can replay the bus GPS and much of the time can get to the truth while still on the phone. The customer gets the correct answer. If it’s the driver’s fault, he hears about it. If the customer was mistaken, it ends there and the driver doesn’t have to defend himself against a wrong accusation.

One last GPS benefit is currently being tested, automated street calling. It’s Metro Transit policy for the driver to call out streets that have a traffic signal or a stop sign. Most do, some don’t, so it’s been a supervisory challenge for years. Now the GPS determines the location and an automated voice calls out the street. It can add information, such as landmarks and connecting routes. GPS street calling is being tested on Nicollet Mall routes, and will be implemented systemwide.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.