Community Transit’s GPS to let riders track buses

LYNNWOOD — Within six months, riders of Community Transit buses will be able to check their smart phones and find out quickly if their buses are running on time.

The agency is outfitting its buses with a $10 million GPS system that will not only provide this type of on-the-spot information for riders, but already is helping buses run more efficiently, officials say.

Starting in July, Community Transit installed GPS devices on a small set of commuter buses to downtown Seattle. The system was expanded in August to include all six Sound Transit Regional Express buses to King County operated by Community Transit. It’s also in effect on the fleet of DART paratransit buses.

This month, the technology was rolled out on Swift buses that operate on Highway 99 between Everett Station and Aurora Village Transit Center in Shoreline.

In about six months, the remaining commuter routes and all the local buses will be fitted with the system as well, and the “real-time” information capability for riders will be activated, spokesman Martin Munguia said.

Roughly half of the bus systems in the nation have similar systems, “so we’re in the middle of the pack,” Munguia said. Sound Transit has GPS systems on all its Pierce County routes and about 80 percent of its routes in King County, spokesman Bruce Gray said. In the next couple of years it plans to implement a real-time information system similar to the one in the works by Community Transit.

Public transportation is becoming increasingly technology driven, Community Transit CEO Joyce Eleanor said.

“Three years ago we introduced the ORCA card, and now 75 percent of our riders use that technology to pay their fare,” she said in a written statement. “We have 14,000 subscribers to our electronic alert system, receiving text and email alerts about our routes.”

Most of those alerts are about situations known in advance, such as buses being out of service, or factors affecting several routes or more, such as a major traffic tie-up on I-5, Munguia said.

The GPS system will take it a step further, enabling riders to call or send emails to find out exactly where a particular bus is at the time and how long it will be before it arrives at a certain stop.

“That’s the No. 1 thing customers have wanted since I’ve been here,” he said. “We just haven’t had the technology.”

The devices on the buses are tied into a computer screen at the dispatch center that shows where the buses are on their routes. Because Swift buses are supposed to arrive every 12 minutes, drivers previously had to call dispatchers to tell them if they were on time or running late, and dispatchers had to call back out to provide feedback, Munguia said.

Now the signal is automatically sent to the driver to slow down or speed up a little to maintain the spacing, he said.

If an accident is holding things up, “the dispatcher will be able to see that in a more visual way. Right now everything happens by radio communications.”

Another feature already begun is an automated voice informing riders of the next stop. The notices, recorded by a female employee, provide a calm voice that’s the same for all routes, days and times.

Swift rider Paul Trombley, of Edmonds, said he likes the new voice. Before, drivers would announce the previous stop as well as the next one, which sometimes was confusing, he said. The new voice gives only the next stop.

“That’s convenient,” he said.

Munguia said Community Transit said the GPS system has been in the works for a while.

“We looked at implementing it two years ago. We were in the throes of our service cuts then so we held off,” he said.

The agency considered whether to use the $10 million to restore some of the $23 million in service that was cut starting in 2010, Munguia said.

Considering that the $23 million is an annual figure while the $10 million is a one-time expenditure, it wouldn’t have made much difference, he said. Any service added back would have had to be removed again when the money was gone, Munguia said.

“This is something we knew would benefit our customers and really benefit our operations,” he said.

Another advantage will be the ability to automatically count passengers. Now, it’s up to drivers and the fare box to record passenger boardings, Munguia said.

“We’re going to have really good data,” he said.

Rider Paul Harvey, of Lynnwood, said he didn’t think the new system would help him much.

“I look at it as more of a ‘Big Brother’ thing, where ‘we’re keeping an eye on you,’ I think,” he said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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