Real-time information is transit’s future

Like any self-respecting student, I was running late for class by the time I left my apartment in the up-and-coming mixed-use development around Ponce City Market.

Hopping on my bike, I logged onto the CycleAtlanta app to record my trip and climbed the Beltline path from Kroger. I have a symbiotic relationship with my bike, so it was no surprise when my front tire popped in a sardonic deflation. My first instinct was to take MARTA, so I looked up arriving buses with the OneBusAway real-time smartphone app, but the next one was predicted to arrive in 20 minutes. I ended up ordering an Uber and arrived to class in style with customary lateness.

Like many people of my generation, I use my phone to travel through the city, and juggle between transportation modes. Real-time information is changing travel patterns as it allows users to make last-minute plans and to change their route spontaneously. Ridesharing apps such as Uber and Lyft are taking over the taxi market by providing a cheaper and more reliable alternative. Interactive navigation tools like Waze inform drivers on traffic congestion, and provide a trip planner to avoid it. Since the recent opening of MARTA’s vehicle-positioning feeds, transit riders have access to real time information and get notified of service disruptions through the MARTA app and OneBusAway.

With the bike-share program, scheduled to start in 2015, riders will be able to find a bike with their smart-phones anywhere within a bikeshare zone, not just at stations.

The transportation network is an inherently unstable system where breakdowns and bottlenecks form randomly. Real-time information allows users to get around some of those disruptions. Transit agencies address uncertainty differently; they include buffer time in their schedules to ensure reliable operations. This buffer time, however, can be expensive because it slows down operations and reduces frequency. For example, during peak hours, the 102 MARTA bus that goes from North Avenue station to Edgewood Avenue spends as much time in layover as it does running the route.

In the future, transit agencies could use information to improve reliability and quality of service. On frequent bus routes (10 minutes headway or less), passengers tend to show up without consulting a schedule. The buffer time that helps agencies maintain a schedule could then be eliminated to improve frequency of service.

On low-frequency routes, connecting buses could communicate with each other to avoid passengers missing their transfers and avoid having to wait for the next passing bus. At the Urban Transportation Information Lab at Georgia Tech, we work on tools to improve transportation services using real-time information. In a growing effort to connect Atlanta’s neighborhoods and to provide a viable alternative to driving, information will be the key.