Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Should all public transportation vehicles have GPS tracking?


Greyhound Bus Lines, Inc. has launched BusTracker, a real-time GPS service that allows passengers to see where their bus is on its route. Greyhound says the new system "takes the uncertainty out of bus travel" by allowing passengers to see where a bus is while on the bus or through their mobile devices.
takes the uncertainty out of bus traveltak
takes the uncertainty out of bus travel
takes the uncertainty out of bus travel

For those of us who frequently use intercity transportation, such a GPS service would be a real boon. On Amtrak, for example, delays are quite frequent (particularly here in upstate New York where Amtrak shares tracks with slow-moving freight trains) and Amtrak is notorious for providing its passengers with precious little information when there's a delay. GPS tracking can show passengers how long it will be before their train arrives, or once they've boarded how far they have left to go before getting to their destination.

(As a sidebar, I know when you log into Amtrak's Wifi network, the landing page has some kind of map showing where your train is. I'm not sure how to access this again once I've left the page, thus I've never really examined it en route. I usually use the GPS on my phone if I want to see where I am on my route.)

One can imagine how such a service would be applicable to transportation within a city, as well. If city busses had this - such as DC's Metrobus or Syracuse's Centro - we'd always know approximately when the next bus would get to our stop. Now, in a major city like DC, buses are usually frequent enough that this might not be that useful, but in a smaller city like Syracuse where bus service is less frequent, a delay can mean missing class or being late to work, so knowing if a bus is behind schedule ahead of time would be valuable.

It would be cool for subways to have this feature as well, but there are obvious implementation challenges associated with, well, all of the vehicles being underground. DC metro stations have signage that states when the next train is coming,  but this isn't always accurate especially when there's track work. Again, unknown delays can mean missing connections (Metro serves Union Station, Reagan National Airport, and soon Dulles Airport) or being late to work.

Speaking of airports, when I flew to London several years ago, my tv monitor showed where the plane was in real time. But when your plane is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it's hard to know what that means in terms of arrival time. For those planning to fly, it would be nice if they could see - perhaps on their phones or laptops before leaving for the airport - where their plane is so they'll know well ahead of time whether to expect a delay.

Ultimately, I think installing GPS in transportation services would be a great way to improve information sharing between the service and its passengers - thereby greatly improving customer service, as well. But public administrators would have to ask themselves several important questions as they evaluate such a plan:

  • Is the transportation system in question unreliable enough for such a service to be necessary/useful?
  • How consistent and reliable will GPS tracking be for that transportation mode? 
  • How much will the GPS service cost to set up and maintain?
  • If being implemented by a public entity, what will be the revenue stream for paying for this service?
  • How will people access the system? Where, or on what devices?

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