'Smart' Transit and Data - We Need More Of It

By Mark Samaan

Without good data you cannot make good decisions.  When it comes to transportation, reliable and timely data on traffic patterns, route choice, transit trips, and congestion are vital to addressing current issues in the transportation network as well as planning for future changes and upgrades.  Vehicle counts tell us how many vehicles are using a road at certain times of day to allow Departments of Transportation to plan the street’s design, width, traffic patterns, and parking restrictions.  The routes vehicles take from point a to point b tell us how people are using the existing road network, and where changes could be made to positively impact their travel.  Ridership and boarding numbers from bus routes tell us where there is existing demand for transit and how travel patterns are shifting over time, allowing transit providers to improve and rearrange their services to better fit riders’ needs both existing and potential.  These and thousands of other data points inform the decisions made by planners in how they address issues in the transportation network as a whole.

When we do not have reliable or timely data this can all fall apart.  Decisions have to be made throughout the years and months whether there is data to support the decision made or not.  Without this data, planners must use projections or observation data which is unreliable as it can lead to ‘assumption-bias,’ where decisions are made based on the decision-makers’ preconceived notions and worldviews.  People tend to assume that what they observe in their daily lives is representative of reality.  While their assumptions can be correct, especially when backed up by decades of real-world experience, they are not always right.  It is important to back up observations with hard data collected continuously to ensure the best outcomes in the decision-making process.

The advent of the ‘Smart City’ in the 21st century is based on the idea that decision-making should be informed with the best data possible, and that automatic digital data collection within the ‘Internet of Things’ will drive better decision-making and optimal policy outcomes.  For example, if we know exactly how many cars per day will turn left from Main St to 7th St and how many of those vehicles will likely have to wait for pedestrians to cross the intersection before being able to turn, then we know how to design the street to minimize pedestrian/car conflicts and allow for the smoothest travel possible.  If we know that X number of passengers will board the 7:45 am bus in College Hill and that ½ of those passengers are going all the way downtown, then when that number of passengers reaches a certain point it may be prudent to start running express service from College Hill to Downtown to shorten the commutes of those taking it the full length of the route and open up capacity on the existing bus service.  In order to make these decisions, we need to know the numbers.

We can significantly improve the efficiencies of our transit network just by improving data collection.  With Automatic Passenger Counters (APCs) Metro and TANK can track bus boardings in real-time system-wide.  This data can be compiled over months to create an accurate picture for transit planners on how the system is being used and where it could be improved.  Passenger counts are the basis of many decisions on service changes, so ensuring that the numbers presented to the decision-makers are as accurate as possible is paramount.

 Unfortunately, the current transit fleet is not well-equipped to take these kinds of measurements.  Of the roughly 450 standard buses that Metro and TANK have, only 1/6 are equipped with APCs.  The ridership data they present is projected from those few counters, but in order to fill in the gaps ridership is tracked manually at least once a month.  This involves either the bus operator or another person manually counting boardings and ridership data.  Yes, this is how they do it.  No, I am not making it up.

This is the state of transit and ‘Smart’ technology in 2018 Cincinnati: we are literally relying on hand counts and projections from a small amount of automatic counters to make our transit decisions.  In the past few years the terms ‘Smart City’ has come into vogue in our region, yet for some reason our bus systems have to make due with technology that was outdated in the early 2000’s.  Let’s not beat around the bush here.  The only thing standing in the way of having APCs on every bus is, as usual, money.  Our transit systems are in dire straits budget-wise, and there are a lot of competing financial needs from a backlog of aging buses to an operating deficit that will bring service cuts at the end of 2019 without new revenue.  In that context it may seem that outfitting several hundred buses with new technology is a cost that can be deferred to other priorities.  I would argue that it is near the top of the list for what should be funded given our limited resources.  Any organization, whether it is a private company, a charity, or a government-operated service, needs to be investing in itself to meet future demands and thrive.  Reliable and accurate data is what tells us how, where, and when to implement changes.  Without it we are hypothesizing based on incomplete or projected information.  We live in an era where I can track my pizza from order to delivery, yet our bus systems are relying on hand counts and paper surveys.  That doesn’t sound very Smart™ to me.

It’s one thing to say that we are a Smart City.  It’s another to actually be one.  I encourage our elected officials and regional power players to work on a strategy to eliminate this information gap.  Maybe make it a contest or a project for University students; maybe get big local companies on board to develop a practical and cost-effective way to track ridership data in real-time.  Whatever it takes, it will be worth it.  Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake; let’s make sure we have the data to spend it wisely.