York region boosts transit efficiency with new tracking system

By installing GPS technology in all its Mobility Plus buses, Ontario’s York Region has dramatically improved speed of service, response times, and route efficiency.

As a result, the service can pick up more customers, ensure timely arrival of buses, notify passengers if they are late, and make same-day requests for special pick ups.

Mobility Plus is York Region’s door-to-door shared ride accessiblepublic transit service for people with disabilities.

To use this service, a person must meet specific criteria, and eligibility is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

See related story: Guelph gets moving on tracking system for transit

The Mobility Plus service offers smaller, all-accessible buses, with a boarding deck closer to the ground, along with space and locks for up to three wheel chairs.

The bus can be ordered in advance, and can now respond to same-day calls thanks to computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location (CAD/AVL).

The system allows dispatch to track bus locations in real-time, and adjusts routes or service based on cancelled requests, road construction or inclement weather.

Dispatchers can transfer schedules wirelessly to a mobile data terminal installed in each bus.

The digital communication tools were deployed by Calgary-based Mentor Engineering and Transched Systems in 2007.

The company has installed similar technology on buses in other Canadian municipalities – B.C. transit in Victoria, TransLink in Vancouver, and Access Calgary – as well as in dozens of American cities.

The implementation in York Region’s Mobility Plus buses was aimed at improving transit efficiency by allowing vehicles to add more same-day trips to buses already in service, said Rajeev Roy, manager, transit management systems at York Region Transit.

He said before the CAD/AVL system was installed, buses were doing 1.98 trips, per hour they were on the road. Now, they do 2.46 trips per revenue hour – a 24 per cent increase.

The technology is also helping dispatchers respond to customer queries faster. According to reports by York Region Transit, the CAD/AVL system has improved customer service by 50 per cent.

York Region transit drivers say the system has led to at least 35 per cent improvement in scheduling same day trips.

Some reasons for this are availability of real time information, and direct transfer of updated schedules to the vehicle’s onboard computer.

When dispatch receives a call from a stranded passenger, the call-taker can pull up a screen and find out exactly how far away the bus is and provide the caller with an estimated time of arrival based on real-time data.

That’s very different from the more laborious procedure followed before the tracking system was implemented.

The earlier procedure required dispatch to radio the driver, who would estimate his location, and guess how long he would take based on traffic and road conditions.

Dispatch would then have to call the passenger back, which could often take five to ten minutes.

Now the information can be provided to customers in a few seconds.

The new system has also improved the accuracy of Mobility Plus driving logs and daily pick-ups by digitizing reports and audits.

The software allows dispatchers to take a driver’s list of trips and build an orderly manifest, said Brent Freer, director of sales at Mentor.

Before the software was installed, he said, the driver’s list for the day was quite static.

If a trip was cancelled, dispatch needed to call the driver, who then had to pull over, adjust the manifest, and wait around if there wasn’t another call to fill in the time gap.

Pick ups were recorded daily on paper, often producing inaccurate arrival times estimates, and an incomplete list of activities.

The new Mentor Ranger – an in-vehicle computer mounted on each dashboard – allows drivers to submit logs digitally.

Management is now equipped with complete logs of driving speed, pickup time, and mileage.

The manifest can be changed at any point during the day, without having to radio drivers. Dispatchers can also see which driver is closest to the call and to better utilize vehicles, improving service to customers.

Flexibility and efficiency has also improved, Roy noted. For instance, he said, typically, construction on a particular stretch of roads could hold up a driver.

“But now we can put that blockage in the system and suggest an alternate route.”

By avoiding construction-related and other types of traffic jams, buses idle less and get to their destinations more efficiently.

As a result, York Transit estimates it has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 57 kg in a single month of operation.

Roy said employees as well as passengers feel safer, with the new system’s tracking and auditing features.

They allow Mobility Plus vehicles to be tracked at all times, reassuring both special needs passengers and their caretakers.

York region also has cameras on all buses and – along with the GPS technology – these provide an added benefit.

“Vehicle tracking is definitely one of the most beneficial features,” Roy said. From a management perspective, he said, it’s beneficial to be able to monitor driver’s speeds.

Moving forward, York Region Transit plans to integrate real-time tracking with an interactive voice response system.

Roy said he wants customers to be able to book, confirm, and cancel trips digitally, rather than have to interact with centre staff – allowing the region to reduce call centre staff and cut costs.

Eventually the CAD/AVL and interactive voice response systems will allow passengers to receive a text message or phone call automatically when their vehicle is a few minutes away.

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