Automated subway cars, intelligent vehicle systems in TTC upgrade plan

On the day Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) workers gave warning of their intention to strike, chairman Adam Giambrone mused over replacing subway drivers with automated systems.

But the city councilor wasn’t brainstorming about ways to cope during a strike – one that was averted – but speaking of one facet of project that will see North America’s third-largest transit system modernized.

From next-vehicle prediction to a revamped Web site, Toronto plans to make up some ground on other world-class cities.

“The TTC was under-funded for years, but we are now in a period of expansion,” Giambrone says. “No one in Toronto should be disadvantaged by not owning a car.”

The TTC chair spoke to an audience of about 80 senior executives at the CIO Association of Canada’s Peer Forum on April 17.

He related how IT would play a major role in boosting customer communications at the TTC.

With 1.5 million daily riders and growing, there are a lot of customers to get in touch with.

Currently, riders check a 10-year-old Web site for route information, or read a paper schedule fastened to a concrete wall to check arrival times.

But all that is going to change.

It is no small task to revamp an IT plan that relies on at least nine different legacy components and has an operating budget of $20 million annually, Giambrone says.

But after stretching out those systems for years, millions will now be spent over the next couple of years on an overhaul.

TTC chairman Adam Giambrone.

Intelligent vehicle system

The TTC will begin displaying reactive predicted arrival times of the next bus or streetcar, similar to what is done in other cities. But new bus shelters containing the displays will also show riders exactly where the closest vehicle is along its route.

“All of our vehicles have GPS on them, so we know where they are at all times,” Giambrone says. It was just a matter of sharing that information with riders in addition to internally.

The pilot program for the new smart system begins in July for the subway and in November for ground vehicles.

Much of the funding for new bus shelters comes from a $1 billion budget for new street furniture in Toronto. The first 400 shelters will be on streets this year.

Underground, a wireless system will communicate with mobile devices to fill passengers in on when the next train is coming.

“Passengers can decide if they want to skip a bus that’s too busy to catch the next bus [that’s] just a couple stops away,” Giambrone says. “They’ll be able to make more informed decisions.”

Web site re-design

Many Torontonians are familiar with the decade-old TTC Web site that greets visitors with the same three chimes as their vehicles. That’s because it hasn’t been updated since launch.

But a budget of $400,000 to improve the audio and visual accessibility of the site, and allow for future trip-planning and e-commerce applications will change that. A new site is currently being beta tested and will be launched within a week or two.

“One of the interesting things we did with the Web page was go out to the blogging community and have a series of online consultations,” Giambrone says. “It led to a much better product.”

With transit riders giving suggestions on what to include on the new site, the TTC hopes more customers will actually use it.

The new Web planner, the TTC chairman believes, will dramatically drive up the number of visitors to the site.

The $2.3 million tool will replace a current call centre that is staffed by 35 employees and doesn’t run around the clock. Transit riders can start having their trips planned online in 2009.

It will be similar to a tool used in other Canadian cities like Ottawa and Vancouver.

“One of the benefits of when you’re a little bit behind is that you learn from other jurisdictions,” Giambrone says.

By mid-2009, riders could be buying their transit pass for Toronto and surrounding areas (the GTA pass) online. By July of this year, the TTC Metro Pass will be available for purchase online.

With up to 300,000 passes sold per a month, and a majority of purchases for those passes taking place over four days around the end of each month, the TTC wants to move their riders out of store line-ups and onto the Internet.

“The volume is so huge,” Giambrone says. “This is a part of a strategy to diversify how we get people on to these passes.”

Service disruption alerts

One pilot project that has been in place since November is an e-mail and electronic signage alert system warning riders about delays.

“We [could] have medical emergencies that lead to 45 minute delays,” Giambrone notes.

But riders will be able to sign on to receive e-mails instead of waiting at a station hopelessly, wondering where that bus might be.

IT future

TTC’s communications plan is the just the first plank for a greater plan of IT that will eventually see automated subway cars running along the Yonge Street subway line, Giambrone says.

That could boost the number of hourly riders from 35,000 to 50,000 with a rigorously-kept schedule, he adds.

It might also be one way a city that depends on public transportation could keep running if the TTC’s 12,000 employees ever did walk off the job.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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