The venerable #1 Spring Garden. Photo by Michael Taylor.

Transit riders may think that they are already reaping the benefits of our latest bus technology upgrades, what with next stops being called out on board, and real time data being pumped out to the likes of Google Transit and Transit App. Sure, we are now more accessible, less prone to miss a stop, and far less likely to stand out in the rain for a bus that is 20 minutes behind. But in terms of improvements made possible by this current AVL (automatic vehicle location) technology, the best could be yet to come.

Halifax Transit has been collecting and storing the data on how our bus system works for about a year, but recently it starting to analyze that data. And that analysis could mean smarter scheduling and route planning. It could also mean a better case for on street improvements to give buses priority where they need it.

One big difference in our new system is in how ridership data is collected and reported, with automated passenger counts telling us how many people get on or off at any given stop, at any given time.

“Before we were doing a manual count,” explains Patricia Hughes, HT’s manager of planning and scheduling, “it was months and months of work,” that in the end turned out a snapshot of a typical day. “Say you were looking at the 1:15pm trip on the route 52. That particular trip only got counted once a year,” says Hughes. The new data stream allows Hughes and staff to see not only which routes are busy (which was approximated previously from fare box counts), but which stops on which routes at which times of day are busy. It also shows seasonal variations in detail, along with changes in ridership due to construction and weather.

“We never knew very much what ridership was like in March before,” says Hughes. Even better, this detailed ridership data will allow Halifax Transit to see the real time results of changes it makes to scheduling and routing.

The last time I wrote about transit tech, readers pointed out that data on the current use of the system is one thing, but what about data on the desired use of the system?  There is hope there too, but in a different place. DalTrac has been commissioned by the city for a randomized trip diary study that can give us a snapshot of where people are going each day, and which modes they are choosing to use. The idea, of course, will be to use the information coming out of that study to make sure Halifax Transit (and our other transportation infrastructure) is being put to the right use in getting people from their “A”s to their “B”s.

Another potential game-changing feature of our new transit tech is its ability to give us a picture of the on-time performance of the system and its individual routes.

Although we have had a version of AVL for years (it was what fed the old GoTime system), staff were only able to pull out real time data on specific trips of specific routes, one at a time.

This new system actually allows them to get reports on average time performance for all routes and trips at a particular stop, or average performance for a route showing variations across the day.

Transit staff’s new data analysis capabilities have already meant tweaks to the schedule for the new route 9, which launches in November to replace the current routes 19 and 20. From the data, staff could see that at peak hour the new #9 would take up to 10 minutes longer to make its crosstown trip. So they are adding trips for the #9, starting at Mumford, to help fill those gaps. The fix means people transferring towards Spryfield at Mumford will not necessarily suffer from gaps caused by peak hour traffic.

Of course adding an extra departure from Mumford is not going to help the people already stuck in traffic on the new #9 at rush hour. For that you need actual transit priority measures: special transit jump lanes and lights to help buses get through the city faster than cars. The good news is the analysis from this new AVL system can help make the case for more transit priority measures. I’m picturing a heat map of the city showing the streets and intersections where buses are most falling behind as indisputable evidence of where we need TPMs.

“We don’t have any concrete plans yet as to how we are going to approach that,” says Hughes. “But we are very interested in transit priority measures and looking at, through the [Integrated Mobility Plan], key ones that we need right away. But also there’s lots of little tweaks that could happen all over the city that would really help.“

Now that Halifax Transit staff are not only collecting our transit system data, but also analyzing it, it’s time to take one final step and make all of this data public.

Right now, we have a public real-time data stream showing where each bus is very minute of the day. This is what Google and Transit App use, to make life easier for transit riders.

But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t also see our ridership data made public. Halifax has a healthy community of transit enthusiasts, and we can all benefit if more folks like @danp128 are set loose on all of the data that’s currently flowing:

Here is a fun @hfxtransit realtime data graph! It shows when each 7 Robie ➡️ Gottingen bus departed each stop between 4-7 pm on Jul 31

— Dan Peterson (@danp128) August 9, 2017

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