Talking Tech with Edmonton Transit (ETS)

I was fortunate enough today to chat with Bruce Beecher and Dennis Nowicki from Edmonton Transit (ETS). Bruce is the IT Strategic Advisor for the Transportation department, and Dennis is the Director of Community Relations for ETS. Though we talked about a variety of things, the focus was technology.

I think there was some educating happening on both sides. I learned more about their situation and perspectives, and I hope they soaked up some technical stuff from me. I think it went really well!

What I’d like to share in this post is an overview of what we discussed. There’s nothing confidential here, but some of this information may still be new to you. They’re aware they need to improve on the communication side of things!

ETS has been evaluating potential technologies to deploy to the fleet for quite a while now (I wrote about some at last year’s Community Conference). These technologies include:

  • Automatic Vehicle Locator (AVL) – This is essentially a GPS module that would be installed on each bus.
  • Automated Traveler Information Systems (ATIS) – This is essentially giving riders access to that GPS information. That is, where is my bus right now?
  • Mobile Data Terminals (MDT)
  • Automated Stop Announcement (ASA) – No more peering out into the darkness to see if you’re at the right stop. Also important for accessibility.
  • Automatic Passenger Counter (APC)
  • Automated Fare Booth (Smart Cards)
  • Automatic Vehicle Monitor (AVM) – This would gather information about the engine, fuel consumption, etc. It’s like a black box for the bus.

Those are listed roughly in order of priority, though nothing is set in stone. In fact, the AVM might get bumped to the front of the list simply because it offers the best ROI for ETS. The ability to know what’s wrong with a bus on the fly would have a huge impact on the bottom line. Same goes for being able to determine if a bus is getting poor fuel consumption for some reason. Makes sense to me.

There are a few problems with all of this technology, mostly related to cost:

  • Edmonton has bumpy roads and extremely cold temperatures in the winter. On-board equipment needs to be hardened and reliable. We often can’t use the same stuff that San Francisco uses, for example.
  • Rough estimates place the cost per bus at $15,000. There are currently 903 buses in service.
  • By 2012, the number of buses will be closer to 1300, so it won’t get any cheaper to deploy.

Another issue is maintainability. Ideally, each bus would have one computer with a LAN of some kind that everything else just connects to, so that it’s all integrated. Otherwise you end up with many potentially disparate systems.

What I took away from all of this is essentially that ETS is keen to deploy GPS technologies and to make that information available to riders. The challenge is finding a way to make it happen.

Next we shifted gears and talked about the ETS website, Google Transit and my API idea (though I’m definitely not the only one with the idea…dub5 is another interested group). There are improvements to the ETS Trip Planner in the works, so watch for something during the summer. They’re also looking to improve the main ETS website, now that everyone has had time to digest the edmonton.ca redesign.

Unfortunately I can’t talk as much about Google Transit as I’d like to just yet, but I can tell you that a major announcement is coming in the next week or so. I plan to cover it here, and you’ll no doubt see it in the mainstream media. Bottom line: ETS is fully behind Google Transit, and that’s a good thing for Edmontonians.

As for the API idea? They like it and would like to learn more about it. At this point however, getting access to a dump of the same data that Google gets is probably more likely. It would work like this: you sign some sort of agreement with ETS outlining the terms of use (basically something like “I agree not to misrepresent this information…”, and they send you the GTFS data. From there, you could do whatever you like with it. You could build and release your own API, for instance.

Is that going to happen – are they going to make the data available? No guarantees, but they will definitely consider it. Obviously an API would be better for accessing real-time data, but even a recent snapshot would be a step in the right direction. I think this is very encouraging!

If they do go down the data sharing route, I think we should organize an API building weekend!

The final thing I want to mention is that we talked briefly about RSS. My goal is to get every City of Edmonton department publishing as many RSS feeds as possible! It’s horribly underutilized at the moment. I think Bruce and Dennis definitely understand the benefit of RSS, and I hope to see some ETS feeds published soon!

Thanks to both Bruce and Dennis for a great conversation – I learned a lot, and I look forward to keeping the dialogue going.

  • That’s excellent news!

    Hopefully this will begin a trend of publishing data that should have been public from the start.

  • ch

    I can’t wait for trip planner upgrades. You should be able to put in your address and destination (as cross streets) and then the planner will tell you where the bus stop you need is, etc. Other cities have that and it’s awesome.

    Also, I like you point about the RSS feeds. It sees that it is next to impossible to find out what is going on with the city. Like the Google Transit announcement, if it doesn’t get picked up in papers (unlikely in this case) there is hardly any way of knowing what’s going on.

  • Dickson

    I would really like to see smart cards on the top of the list. In Taipei, their ‘Easy Card’ is not only used to pay for bus and lrt, but also city owned venues such as the zoo.

  • You can do the address search today at Google Transit. I am not sure if that’s what they are adding into their own trip planner or not.

    I definitely think the papers will pick up the Google Transit announcement. They’re making a big deal out of it.

    RSS FTW!

  • I think this kind of open-face to the public is what Edmonton needs. Bringing everyday people with a desire to see this city expand is a great first step. Embracing technology is a huge step in improving the QoL in Edmonton.

    The more I follow people on twitter, the more I learn about the city I live in. Just wish I felt like I had something to contribute, a reason to meet with folks like Mack; pushing the boundaries of public involvement is something I’ve always been interested in. Well done, sir!

  • Allen M.

    Thanks again Mack for the valuable ETS info, I have been using Google Transit on my iPhone since you mentioned and it works great!

    Automated Traveler Information Systems (ATIS) would be very useful as there have been times when I miss the bus because it arrived off schedule and could have easily walked 2 blocks to another bus that would arrive in 10-15 mins but not knowing the status of my ride I decide to wait it out and end up waiting till the next scheduled one comes which is usually about 30 minutes.

  • Thanks Michael, there’s always room for more people such as yourself to get involved and share opinions!

    Allen – glad to hear it 🙂

  • Diana

    Great to hear about the AVL & ATIS. Like Allen says, it would be great knowing you just missed your bus b/c it’s running ahead of schedule – just this week I had it happen to me twice. And on those bitterly cold winter days knowing it’s running late will save you from standing in the cold longer than necessary.

    D

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  • Rado

    Is there something new with ATIS? It could be very useful to know where is bus when is outside -30C to not be late or wait for bus 20-25 min in cold. Just check smartphone for next bus arrival based on its and my GPS position (iPhone, etc) or some other route relevant informations.

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