Edmonton Transit (ETS) Text Messaging: Statistics & Advertising

About six months ago, Edmonton Transit launched its text messaging service which enables riders to get schedule information via a simple SMS text message to 31100. The service was really well received, even though it was described by ETS as a pilot. I use the service almost every time I need to hop on a bus, and it works great! I’m definitely not the only one using the service either, as the latest statistics show.

usage stats

You can see that the initial growth was quite impressive, with usage doubling from January to March. Nathan Walters, Strategic Marketing Supervisor at ETS, told me that the adoption curve was “slightly steeper than expected” but that it is following projected usage quite closely. Since then usage has plateaued a little, probably due in part to the school year ending. Nathan said that usage of the service is probably going to be somewhat seasonal, just like BusLink.

As of Monday afternoon, just over 1.2 million messages had been sent, which works out to about 7050 messages per day. For comparison, Winnipeg Transit was delivering about 6000 messages per day back in May. Not a bad start at all!

text ads

When the service launched back in January, ETS said it would open up the ability to advertise on the text messages some time in the spring (the last 40 characters of each message are reserved for advertising). That service officially launched on June 17.

Advertising on the ETS Text Messaging Service provides a direct way to reach thousands of commuters riding the transit system every day. As an ETS text messaging advertiser, you have the opportunity to customize your campaign by location, time, bus route and even budget. This opportunity is affordable, tailored and easy to manage.

You can register for an account here and start advertising right away. The price can be as low as a penny per ad, but it is market-driven. Basically you buy credits and then place bids. You can customize your ads by specific bus stops, routes, time, and mobile phone provider. There’s a user guide in PDF here with more information.

demographic stats
(click for a larger version)

I’d encourage you to check out the Text Messaging Ad Media Kit in PDF too, as it contains a ton of useful information about the service. Some of the demographic information is a bit old, but it is still instructive.

You can learn more about the ETS text messaging service here.

Edmonton Transit (ETS) now offers schedule information via SMS text messaging

Today Edmonton Transit (ETS) officially launched its new text messaging service. You can now send an SMS text message to 31100 from virtually any cell phone to get bus schedule information for free (standard messaging rates may apply). The service is yet another example of the GTFS feed that ETS released in 2009 paying dividends.

The way it works is simple – text the bus stop number you’re interested in to 31100 and you’ll get a response like this (using 1859 as an example):

1859 (111) 01:26P 01:56P (112) 01:06P 01:36P (2) 01:08P 01:23P ETS – THE EVERY DAY WAY

That’s the stop number, followed by each route with two upcoming times for each. If you’re interested in just a particular route, say the 2, simply text the stop number followed by the route number, and you’ll get upcoming times for just that route at that stop:

1859 (2) 01:08P 01:23P 01:38P 02:08P ETS – THE EVERY DAY WAY

ETS has produced two videos that demonstrate how it works (they were filmed just before Christmas). Here’s part 1:

And here’s part 2:

Starting next week you’ll also be able to create a profile on the website to setup favorite routes and stops specific to your daily routine.

The ability to get route & stop schedules via text messaging might be new here in Edmonton, but it’s not a new concept elsewhere. Transit riders in Vancouver have had that functionality for years, first unofficially thanks to a couple of enterprising students, and later as an official service from TransLink. The story is somewhat similar here. Local developers Sean Healy and Joel Jackson hacked together a service called TXT.2.ETS back in March of last year, something they won a prize for in the Apps4Edmonton competition. They subsequently met with ETS representatives and talked about what an official service might look like.

I talked to Nathan Walters, Strategic Marketing Supervisor for ETS, about the new service yesterday. He told me the service is run by Vancouver-based Upside Wireless (presumably their Transit SMS product). Nathan confirmed that it uses the same GTFS data that anyone can download from the City of Edmonton’s open data catalogue. “The GTFS feed made things significantly easier, and brought the service to market a lot faster,” Nathan told me. He also said it “speaks to how much we stand behind that information.”

Though it is a pilot, don’t expect the service to shut down any time soon. Instead, ETS plans to monitor usage, gather feedback, and will be conducting market research later this year, and will re-evaluate and improve the service as necessary. In fact, if all goes well, the service will pay for itself and perhaps even drive an additional return to the City via the advertising service that will launch in the spring. The last 40 characters of the messages sent back to commuters will be allocated toward advertising (the “ETS – THE EVERY DAY WAY” part in the example above). I think that’s a smart move.

It turns out the service has actually been live for about a month, in testing by Upside and City of Edmonton employees. Apparently there has been quite a bit of buzz internally at the City about it. Today was not the planned launch date, but the accidental release of parts of the outdoor marketing campaign pushed things up. Nathan confirmed that we’ll see lots of advertising for the new service, including billboards, benches, and transit shelters. He sounded pleasantly surprised that they had been able to keep the service under wraps for so long (no doubt the holidays helped in that regard).

I had to ask Nathan the question he’s undoubtedly going to be asked over and over now that the text messaging service is live: scheduled information is great, but when are we going to get live information, perhaps via GPS? His answer: “The technologies that transit uses are always evolving, and the service will evolve as well.” In other words, nothing to announce, and don’t hold your breath.

I also asked about the shortcode, 31100. Nathan said they briefly considered a repeating number (such as TransLink’s 33333) or something like “txtets” but realized that using letters would be problematic considering most modern smartphones do not have traditional numeric keypads. They settled on 31100 because it offered great potential for the future. Just like 311, other departments at the City could make use of the shortcode for their services as well. Nathan confirmed that at least one business unit outside of transportation has already expressed interest in exploring that possibility.

This new service is exciting and will have a positive impact on the daily commute for thousands of Edmontonians. But it’s more than that. ETS made a decision to open up its data to anyone for free, and they continue to see a return on that very minimal investment. Releasing the GTFS data feed has resulted in Google Maps support, apps for the iPhone, and now text messaging. Importantly, all ETS had to do for all of this to happen was focus on its core competency – providing transit service. It’s a success story that other business units at the City of Edmonton should be very eager to replicate.

Having said that, I would have preferred to see a solution from a local company or even the adoption of Sean & Joel’s project, but I realize there are other considerations. As the Apps4Edmonton competition evolves, I hope we’ll see the City adopting more of the solutions that Edmonton’s talented entrepreneurs create.

The new text messaging service is a great way to start 2011. In fact, Nathan said it “sets the tone for the year” and indicated that ETS was going to be looking at additional opportunities to work with the community on other services as 2011 unfolds. I can’t wait!

You can learn more about the service here, and you can find additional Apps for ETS here. Check out the Open Data catalogue for ETS data and more, and follow the #yegtransit hashtag on Twitter for ETS-related updates.

UPDATE: Does the new text messaging service work for the LRT? The answer is yes! If you know the stop numbers, that is. The route for the LRT is always 201, but here are the stop numbers you need.

Station Name North Stop # South Stop #
Clareview 7797 7797
Belvedere 7692 7830
Coliseum 1889 1742
Stadium 1981 1723
Churchill 1691 1876
Central 1863 1935
Bay/Enterprise Square 1985 1774
Corona 1926 1891
Grandin/Government Centre 1754 1925
University 2969 2316
Health Sciences/Jubilee 2014 2019
McKernan/Belgravia 9982 9981
South Campus 2116 2115
Southgate 2114 2113
Century Park 4982 4982


Hopefully they can make it more user friendly in the future.

LRT Expansion was never just icing on the Edmonton EXPO 2017 cake

Allow me to begin with a passage from the executive summary of The Way We Move, the City of Edmonton’s current Transportation Master Plan:

We are building a 21st century city, shaping an Edmonton that will meet the needs of our diverse and growing urban and regional population. Growing environmental concerns, acknowledgment of the ongoing investment needed to maintain our transportation infrastructure and the rapid growth of our city demand a shift in transportation priority setting. It is a shift from single passenger vehicle use to more public transit; from building outward to a compact urban form. From an auto oriented view of transportation to a more holistic view of an interconnected, multi-modal transportation system where citizens can walk, bike, bus and train efficiently and conveniently to their desired location.

The City of Edmonton is working to achieve this vision through the LRT Network Plan, as well as other initiatives. This vision does not ignore automobiles, but it certainly places greater emphasis on public transit.

At the top of the list of benefits that EXPO 2017 could have brought to Edmonton was funding for infrastructure. Was it the best way to try to get higher levels of government to commit to funding something that Edmonton so desperately needs? Perhaps not. But make no mistake about it: funding for LRT expansion was never just icing on the EXPO 2017 cake. Expanding our LRT network is vital for Edmonton’s future. Here’s what Councillor Don Iveson wrote nearly a year ago:

Projects like this require the alignment of at least two and, properly, three orders of government. It will require the relentless pressure of citizens on Councillors, but more particularly on MLAs and MPs.

He was right then and still is today. Our quest to be Canada’s host city for EXPO 2017 might have failed, but we cannot allow our plans for LRT expansion to fail as well.

At a news conference yesterday, Transportation GM Bob Boutilier questioned why Edmonton had not received the same level of federal support as Toronto has when it comes to funding for public transit, saying “I just think we’re owed. It’s time.” But he also suggested that LRT expansion plans would be delayed by a year or two now that EXPO is no longer in the picture, something that would potentially save money.

This is unacceptable.

It’s unacceptable that the expansion is being delayed, and it’s unacceptable that it’s Boutilier and not Council questioning the federal government’s support.

Why would LRT expansion have been fast-tracked with EXPO 2017 but not without it? Back in April, Boutilier said that meeting the deadline of 2017 was “do-able” with some creativity, noting that “we cannot use the conventional approach to building transit that we’ve used in the city up to this point.” A few weeks later, he suggested a board of directors to oversee the construction as a way to speed up the project. At the time, the cost of the expansion was pegged at “more than $3 billion”. It has since been narrowed down to $3.4 billion. So either it was going to cost significantly more than Boutilier was letting on, or the cost savings of delaying by a year or two are negligible.

I think Boutilier has one of the toughest jobs at the City of Edmonton, overseeing one of the most vital and controversial parts of the business, so I don’t envy the tough decisions he has to make. Boutilier should definitely be willing to make noise about the lack of resources he has, but in the same week that we lost EXPO, I would have liked to have heard some Councillors speak up for LRT as well. Instead, that job has been left to Boutilier and to EXPO bid committee chair Tony Franceschini. I’ve seen only Councillor Ben Henderson comment, saying “I personally don’t want to see us slow down.” Councillor Kerry Diotte also remarked on funding, “With the feds these days, who knows?”

I want my City Council to stand up for The Way We Move. If there’s a window of opportunity with regards to the federal government as a result of the EXPO decision, take advantage of it. Ask Administration to keep going, not to slow down. Make some noise. Show some of the emotion that Mayor Mandel showed on Monday.

The loss of EXPO shouldn’t be an excuse for us to slow down with LRT expansion. It should be a catalyst for increased pressure to get the job done.

U-Pass Facts & Figures for 2008

Last month, the City of Edmonton’s Office of the City Auditor completed a review of the Universal Transit Pass (U-Pass) pilot program (PDF). They found that although costs for the program rose, ridership has increased. I took a look at the report, and thought I’d share some of the more interesting facts and figures from it.

For those of you new to U-Pass: it’s a partnership between Edmonton Transit (ETS), St. Albert Transit (StAT), and Strathcona County Transit to provide a universal transit pass to eligible students at the University of Alberta and MacEwan. The current pilot started in the fall of 2007 and will finish up in the fall of 2010.

A total of 84,954 students were eligible in 2008 (counting both the Fall & Winter terms). Here’s the breakdown:

Here’s the revenue that each municipality received in 2008 (the City of Edmonton receives 84%, and the other two each receive 8%):

As the report was created by and for the City of Edmonton, it’s not known what, if any, service changes were made by St. Albert Transit or Strathcona County Transit (unless they too have a report somewhere). ETS made the following changes:

  • 437 service hours were added
  • 3 new routes were added
  • 19 more buses were put into service

Again, we only know the costs for the City of Edmonton. Here are the key figures for 2008:

  • U-Pass Sticker Production costs were $14,500
  • U-Pass Advertising and Promotion costs were $2,928
  • The opportunity cost of the U-Pass program, which is the loss of other ETS fare revenue, was estimated at $10,480,846
  • The cost of providing extra bus service hours was $2,571,221

Add it all up, and you get a total cost of $13,069,495. For the U-Pass program to break even, a fee of $155 per student per term would be required (up from the current $94.50).

In the Edmonton Journal, Councillor Krushell said that ridership nearly doubled from 2006 to 2008, from 7.3 million trips to 13.9 million trips. I’m not exactly sure where she got those numbers, because they aren’t in the report. What is in the report are Campus Passenger Boardings:

As you can see, boardings increased by 21,353 or 12.7% from 2006 to 2008. The report notes that some of this increase may have been caused by factors other than the U-Pass. Other non-financial positives include:

  • An 8% decrease in student parking permits at the University of Alberta since 2006
  • A greater than 8% drop in monthly parking passes at MacEwan for 2007 over 2006

And of course, there has likely been a positive impact on the environment with fewer students driving.

What’s next for the U-Pass?

Although NAIT students initially rejected the program in 2007, a recent survey indicated that a majority would now be interested in joining. The NAIT Students Association hopes to hold a referendum on the issue early next year. The expansion of the LRT to NAIT will no doubt have an impact on interest. If approved, NAIT could join the program for the 2010-2011 school year.

I suspect the program will continue after the current agreement ends, though it is likely that U-Pass fees will rise. Watch for news on a new agreement early next year – the U of A will be holding a student referendum in March to approve new fees, according to The Journal.

Recap: TransitCamp Edmonton

On Saturday, May 30th we held the first ever TransitCamp here in Edmonton. Overall I’d say it was a success, though it didn’t quite turn out the way I had expected! I guess that’s the way it goes with unconferences. We had about 50 people in attendance, and my primary goal of getting a group of interested citizens together with ETS to talk about transit was achieved. Most people I had a chance to talk to after said they enjoyed the event, which was great to hear.

The main issue was that we didn’t have Internet access at the World Trade Centre, despite being promised connectivity when we negotiated the space. We had a few other options (AirCard from Chris, going down to the ETS offices in Scotia Place) but they resulted in confusion more than anything. In the end we decided to cancel the two Skype sessions, which was really unfortunate but allowed us to continue.

During the confusion, however, something really interesting happened. People just started sharing and talking in little groups! It was great to see such conversations taking place, and I suppose the lesson is that they probably wouldn’t have if everything had gone according to plan.

The sessions were all great, I thought. Chris Moore started things off with an interactive discussion about Edmonton Transit IT, examining what we have now, what we’ll have if nothing changes, and what we could have if we consider some possibilities. Next up was Rhonda Toohey, who shared with us the 100 Year LRT Expansion Plan that will go before council on June 2nd. We had two ETS Platinum Bus tours with Dennis Nowicki, and everyone seemed quite impressed with the high tech buses. Brendan Van Alstine led a discussion about TRUE. I shared my presentation on Data for Developers – software developers, not land developers! Councillor Iveson finished the day off talking about “Selling Transit”, using Toronto’s Transit City (which is what Adam Giambrone was scheduled to present) as an example of a successful sell. Throughout the day we had a whiteboard where anyone could write down a question, and we answered most of them during the wrap-up session.

I’ll be working to update the TransitCamp Edmonton site with slides, resources, and more information over the next couple weeks. Be sure to check out Alain’s post on the event, and the iNews880 coverage also. Sharon took a few photos during the day, which you can see here. Eugene posted some photos here, and Grant recorded some video that you can watch here.

Thanks to everyone who came out to TransitCamp, and a special shout-out to the three who came up from Calgary! I hope we’re able to do it again soon (in a venue with Internet) – though maybe in a different format. Let me know if you have any feedback, suggestions, or other ideas!

TransitCamp Edmonton – Saturday, May 30th

Edmonton’s first TransitCamp is less than two days away! We’ll be getting underway at about noon on Saturday at the World Trade Centre downtown. You can find all the details on our website. I’m excited for the event and I hope you are too!

We’ve got some more details to share now. You’ll have a couple opportunities to check out the ETS Platinum bus during the event, and we’ve confirmed some guest presenters. Toronto City Councillor Adam Giambrone will be joining us via Skype to talk about Transit City. TransLink’s Online Communications Advisor Jhenifer Pabillano will also join us via Skype to discuss the popular Buzzer blog, and TransLink’s other social media and community engagement initiatives.

Here’s the tentative schedule:

12:00pm Welcome & Intro
Mack Male & Councillor Don Iveson
12:05pm Edmonton Transit IT
Chris Moore, Chief Information Officer, CoE
12:30pm 100-Year LRT Vision
Rhonda Toohey, General Supervisor
Strategic Planning Section, Transportation Planning, CoE
1:00pm Transit City
Adam Giambrone, Chair of the Toronto Transit Commission
via Skype
1:30pm Data for Developers
Mack Male
2:00pm ETS Platinum Tour Open
2:30pm ETS Platinum Tour Open
3:00pm Jhenifer Pabillano, Online Communications Advisor, Translink
via Skype
3:30pm Open Open
4:00pm Wrap Up
After-Party Rose & Crown Pub (10235 101st Street)

As you can see, we’ve got a location for the official after-party! We’ll be meeting at the Rose & Crown (10235 101st Street) to continue the day’s discussions over drinks and food. Feel free to join us even if you’re unable to attend TransitCamp during the day. It should be fun!

See you on Saturday!

Introducing TransitCamp Edmonton!

I’m excited to finally announce TransitCamp Edmonton! We’re still finalizing all of the details, but we have enough nailed down now that we figured it was time to share. Inspired by BarCamp and similar events, TransitCamp is the start of a two-way dialogue about transit in Edmonton, bringing together ETS officials and citizens to discuss a range of topics. Here are the details so far:

WHO: You!
WHAT: Edmonton’s first TransitCamp!
WHERE: Edmonton World Trade Centre (9990 Jasper Avenue)map
WHEN: Saturday, May 30th, 2009 from noon until 4:30pm
WHY: Let’s work together to improve and celebrate Edmonton’s transit system!

To RSVP, send an email to transitcampedmonton@gmail.com.

There are a number of people who have come together to make this happen, including myself, Leanne Brown, City Councillor Don Iveson, Cam Linke, Dan Nielsen, and thankfully, Dennis Nowicki and Bruce Beecher from ETS. This is not an ETS event, but they are definitely going to be participating.

A few other cities have held TransitCamps in the past, including Vancouver and Toronto. I particularly like this line from the Toronto Transit Camp wiki:

Toronto Transit Camp is not a complaints department, it is a solution playground.

That’s the vibe we hope to have at our TransitCamp too.

We’re going with a pseudo-BarCamp-style schedule. That means we’ll have a few sessions pre-planned, but also time slots for anyone who’s interested to present a topic or lead a discussion. We’re still working on the pre-planned sessions, but here’s what we have so far:

  • I’ll be making an announcement related to the ETS data/API
  • Jhenifer Pabillano, TransLink’s uber blogger, has agreed to join us via Skype to chat about community engagement

I also wanted to provide a little background. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that there would not be an ETS Community Conference this year, though I’ll admit it wasn’t the best event in the world. It was very much a one-way event, but it was better than nothing. True, there was the ETS Community Fair, but that didn’t really provide an opportunity to talk with ETS on a serious, “let’s get stuff done” kind of level. It was more of a fun event, with face-painting, etc.

Don Iveson and his team have been interested in the idea of a TransitCamp for some time. Cam and I were talking with them about it a few months ago, and I volunteered to sort of take the lead on the project. I’ve been working with Leanne since then to make this happen. In the last few weeks, everything started to fall into place!

As you may have seen, quite a few people started using the #yegtransit hashtag on Twitter over the weekend, so let’s keep using that. For now, you can see related tweets here.

There’s lots of cool stuff still to come, so stay tuned. I hope you’ll join us on May 30th!