Bringing Smart Bus technology to Edmonton

On Tuesday the Transportation & Public Works Committee will receive a report on Smart Bus technology. In short, Smart Bus technology is actually a collection of technologies that will help modernize Edmonton Transit’s entire fleet of nearly 1000 buses. It includes things like automated stop announcements, automated vehicle monitoring, and yes, GPS location services.

There are a number of reasons that this technology is becoming necessary. For instance, between 2000 and 2009:

  • Annual ridership increased from 43 million to 68 million (60% increase)
  • Annual service hours increased from 1.56 million to 2.08 million (30% increase)
  • Annual passenger concerns increased from 8,327 to 13,616 (60% increase)

During the same timeframe, the number of staff to manage service and concerns increased from 25 to 30, which is just a 20% increase. In other words, “staffing has not kept pace with the growth and complexity of the increased workload.” I would add that if we really want to shift Edmonton’s transportation modes, we need to ensure our transit system is modern and efficient.

That’s where Smart Bus technology comes in. The technologies include:

  • Automatic Vehicle Location
  • Computer-Aided Dispatch
  • On-board Mobile Data Terminals
  • Real-Time Passenger Information Systems
  • Automated Stop Announcements
  • Automated Vehicle Monitoring

What will those technologies do for the day-to-day transit rider? Automated Vehicle Location and Real-Time Passenger Information Systems means no more waiting outside when it is 30 degrees below zero for a bus that is running late – you’ll be able to see the real-time location of your bus using the web or a mobile device. Computer-Aided Dispatch and On-board Mobile Data Terminals means that three buses on your route will never be running together – they’ll be evenly spaced out and thus will stay closer to the schedule because ETS control will know where they are and can provide direction. Automated Vehicle Monitoring means fewer buses broken down on the road, and fewer spare buses sitting in the garage – it’ll help ETS monitor the health of its vehicles to ensure they stay on the roads.

The other technology, Automated Stop Announcements, is really what drove this report in the first place. In some jurisdictions, calling out stops has become law, and there have been fines handed out when drivers failed to call out stops. There is no such legislation here, at least not yet, but we shouldn’t have to wait for that to happen. Automated Stop Announcements is an important accessibility feature of modern transit systems, and helps to support Edmonton’s diverse community of transit riders.

The report has been written to highlight the direct benefits to Edmontonians, but there’s important benefits for ETS itself too. The fleet size for 2011 is 959 buses, and that number is not getting any smaller. It’s amazing how much is done manually at the moment, and how “in the dark” ETS control is most of the time. There is no live telemetry from buses right now, which means any information control does receive is via radio transmission. I have heard that even on a normal day, there are a couple thousand calls into control from drivers. Furthermore, bus maintenance is difficult at best right now. There is scheduled maintenance of course, oil changes, etc., but really until a bus breaks down and must be towed into the garage, ETS doesn’t know if something is wrong. And because of the size of the fleet, the garage is packed – buses are parked nose to tail. The automated vehicle monitoring would let ETS know if something was wrong on a bus currently on the roads, and would enable them to pull problem buses into a “trouble lane” when they come back into the garage.

In the implementation details, the report says that tapping into the City’s open data catalogue “could” be possible. I think that once we have GPS technology on the buses, making that information available to citizens is vitally important and should be considered a “must”. In other cities with the technology, coffee shops have mounted LCD screens that show when nearby buses have arrived (kind of like airport display screens). Citizens always know where the bus is simply by glancing at their mobile device. ETS cannot be expected to write all of that software – Edmontonians will, as long as the data is made available (likely as an API rather than in the catalogue, because the data is “live”).

According to the report, outfitting the entire fleet with all of this technology would cost $32.7 million, and would cost $4.3 million to operate each year. It would take between three and five years to roll out completely. A pilot has been proposed (for 50 buses covering 2 routes) which would cost $3.4 million and would likely start by September 2012. For budgetary purposes, a second option has been included, which is just the Automated Stop Announcements. That would cost $11.5 million to equip the entire fleet, and would cost $1.2 million  to operate each year. The corresponding pilot would cost $2 million.

City Council likes options, but they shouldn’t have one in this case. Going with just part of the technology doesn’t make sense. It’ll deliver only partial benefits today, and will cost much more in the future to add the other technologies (which we will have to do at some point). Furthermore, if the Smart Bus technologies are separated, that opens the door for multiple vendors and thus integration problems. I really hope Council recognizes the importance of having all of the Smart Bus technology together at once and doesn’t delay unnecessarily (though I do think it would be worthwhile to figure out if/how Smart Bus technology can be deployed alongside the proposed civic smart card).

I think $33 million to make Smart Bus technology happen across the entire ETS fleet is worth it. The notion of using commodity GPS systems (like cheap cell phones) is attractive, but probably unrealistic given the harsh environment of a bus (hardware needs to be hardened and you can’t be running out to replace components all the time) and other operating requirements. The suite of Smart Bus technologies will provide major benefits to both riders and to ETS itself. And to be frank, the proposed budget is a rounding error compared to the amount of money we plan to spend on LRT, and we need buses to efficiently feed our LRT system to really get the return on investment that is possible.

Let’s bring Smart Bus technology to Edmonton!

You can see the report and attachments here, and you can follow along on Tuesday here.