B.C. pilots dynamic transit display

Transit riders standing on the corner of Highway 99 and Stevenson Highway in a suburb of Vancouver no longer have to wonder if they were forgotten by the bus.

A 46-inch LCD television screen, recently installed at the southbound bus stop on Highway 99, displays a map of the route with real-time markers of approaching buses and estimated arrival times based on real-time data.

The dynamic transit display is the first of its kind in the area and part of a pilot project from the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, Tropos Networks Inc. and Novax Industries Corp.

Based at Bridgeport station, a part of the Canada Line that runs from Richmond to downtown Vancouver, the IP-based system tracks express buses that leave the station for the Highway 99 / Stevenson Highway stop, said Frank Suto, director of corporate development at Novax.

The system updates bus positions once every second and the real-time data is then interpreted and driven to the display, he said. “A lot of the systems out there really just parrot the schedule … here we are going one step beyond that. In other words, if the bus is not on the route, it would not show up on the system,” he said.

Buses traditionally are “not the easiest things to keep track of” because of their movement, but this system is “as real-time as you can get,” said Suto. If a bus gets stuck in traffic or an accident occurs on the highway, for example, the display will re-calculate the arrival time for passengers waiting at the stop.

The system uses Novax’s InfoPOD software and runs on a wireless broadband mesh network, which Novax is sourcing through Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Tropos Networks. The network extends roughly five miles south of Bridgeport station in a corridor-like shape along the highway, said Suto.

The pilot is an extension of a project that Novax and Tropos also worked on together in the City of Vancouver, which installed a wireless mesh network along Main Street to provide traffic-light priority to buses, he said. “We also tie into their schedules so if a bus is behind schedule, we do not give it priority,” he said.

“Getting stuck at a red light is probably one of the biggest contributors to unproductive delays,” said Suto. A productive delay, he said, is stopping to pick up and drop off passengers.

Roughly 500 intersections in the Greater Toronto Area are also equipped with Novax’s transit signal priority equipment, which detects buses as they approach an intersection and either holds the green light longer or shortens the time that a light sits at red, he said.

The equipment in Toronto, however, is a few generations old and doesn’t take the IP-based approach used in Vancouver, he said.

Novax has a central server for changing parameters or updating the software, but there is no central control area, said Suto. “Everything is designed to run autonomously on the street … the notion of single-point failure is gone,” he said.

A few guys with backgrounds in air traffic control were involved in the design of the system, he said. “Everything responds to the environment independently on the street, so it works very well,” he said.

The Bridgeport pilot, which became live last week, is scheduled to run into the spring of 2011.

The display is capable of receiving customized audio or text-based messages from a central transit control center and displaying these to passengers in waiting, he noted, but this feature isn’t part of the pilot project. The display could also be used for streaming the latest weather, news, sports, or even Amber alerts, he pointed out.

“Once you have a system like this in place … you can actually type whatever messages you want – verbal, visual or both – and then send that particular message to a particular IP address, which is the display,” said Suto.

Suto also sees potential for accessing the real-time time maps and arrival times through an app on a smart phone. “Because of how the information is packaged, there is no reason this couldn’t be made available on smart phones,” he said.

Tropos’ network is used by cities for a wide range of applications, from utilities to smart grids to traffic applications to public safety, said Denise Barton, marketing director at Tropos. For the Bridgeport pilot, the network is dedicated to public transportation, she said.

“It’s a private network so there’s no other applications being used so that makes sure there’s no interference … the network is always there and always available for use,” she said.

Barton said a number of cities are starting to take similar actions to make people more comfortable using public transportation and “providing them with a positive all-around experience.”

“Many cities are becoming more congested with traffic and they are trying to get more people to ride public transportation, but one of the concerns many people have is, ‘Will I get there on time?’” she said. 

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur. 

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