City may see new transportation app

Yvonne White had been waiting for 20 minutes at the corner of Elm and Temple Streets, bundled up in a hat and scarf. Her bus was nowhere in sight.

White, on her way to work at Wal-Mart, wondered how far away her Connecticut Transit bus was. She feared she had already missed it. As early as next year, there might be an application on her smart phone that gives her peace of mind.

Global Positioning System technology is scheduled for installation on CT Transit buses — roughly 80 percent of the state’s public buses — beginning in January 2015. The infrastructure will first be installed as a part of CTfastrak, a new 9.4-mile line between Hartford and New Britain. The technology will then be phased in for existing CT Transit lines throughout the state, including those in New Haven, according to Michael Sanders, a transit administrator for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

“Once we have vehicle location data, we can make that available for services like smart phone apps,” Sanders said.

New Haven’s new transit chief, Doug Hausladen ’04, backed the idea of real-time tracking devices at a press conference last week — when he was tapped by Mayor Toni Harp to head the city’s Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking. He will start in that role Feb. 1.

Hausladen said he would support the development of GPS tracking equipment on Connecticut buses operating in New Haven. That pledge may mean pushing for expedited roll-out or clarifying technical aspects of implementation, as the state DOT already has a contract in place to implement GPS technology first on the CTfastrak line at the beginning of next year and then gradually to the rest of the CT Transit system.

But the installation of the equipment does not ensure that real-time location information reaches city riders. It remains to be seen, Sanders said, what precise software will transmit the GPS data for public consumption. He said one option is sending users text messages that alert them of approaching buses. Screens at bus stops might be another means of displaying route information.

In order to provide a smart phone application, the state would have to enter into a contract with a private company or individual capable of building the software, Sanders added.

“Once we have vehicle locator capacity set up, we could do smart phones in two months,” he said.

Philip Fry, the assistant general manager for planning and marketing at CT Transit, said tracking applications on smart phones are the “holy grail of passenger information.” He said many interferences can delay buses — traffic, accidents, weather — and allowing users to tailor their schedules to the precise location of their buses drastically improves the experience of taking public transportation.

Fry said the state DOT has committed to expanding GPS technology to all CT Transit buses following the opening of the Hartford-New Britain line in January 2015. He said McPhee Electric is operating as the general contractor, and Toronto-based Trapeze Software is the GPS provider under the state’s contract.

On Tuesday, Harp endorsed the idea of mobilizing GPS technology to improve the reliability of the city’s public transportation.

“GPS technology has become increasingly accepted as a tracking tool in the private sector and prospects for its application to gauge mass transit reliability will likely flow from that,” Harp said.

In describing the idea last week, Hausladen drew a comparison to the TransLoc smart phone application available for the Yale Shuttle, which operates principally on campus, in the downtown area and in East Rock. Ed Bebyn, Yale’s transit and parking manager, said ridership on the Yale Shuttle has increased annually in recent years, citing TransLoc as a major factor.

“The number of hits [TransLoc] gets is constantly increasing,” Bebyn said in a Tuesday email. “In polling we also continue to get positive feedback about the system.”

Bebyn said customer satisfaction has soared since the advent of real-time tracking capacities.

Evelyn Davis ’17 said her ability to determine the exact location of the shuttle on her iPhone is decisive in the utility of the transit system. When she leaves her job on the far end of Prospect Street in the evening, Davis said, the timing of her ride back to central campus is a “safety issue.”

John Mickey, the director of marketing and external communications for TransLoc, said the application was launched in 2004, first put to use at North Carolina State University. It spread quickly to other college campuses, including Auburn and Harvard Universities, he said.

The application was novel in providing location information every second, he added.

“No one had ever done that — the best tracking systems were doing every 30 seconds at best, or every couple of minutes,” Mickey said. “Not even transit administators had this information. If they wanted to know where their buses were, they had to be in a car following the buses.”

Mickey said the company has tracked an average 13 to 15 percent increase in ridership after the implementation of TransLoc in transit systems. He said mainly universities and corporate locations — including Gap and Netflix headquarters — have used the software, but said it has also expanded to municipal transit systems in places such as Chapel Hill, N.C. and Silicon Valley.

One-hundred and twenty CT Transit buses operate in New Haven. They are used by roughly 9 million passengers annually, according to Fry.

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