“Bus Bunching” Being Solved in D.C. Thanks to Low-Cost Technology

Circulator Bunch

Bus bunching is one of the biggest problems that city transportation networks face.

It’s when buses – due to traffic, delays in loading and unloading passengers, or variations in driver speed – cause other buses from the same route to be unevenly spaced. Instead of arriving every 10 minutes, multiple buses from the same route arrive at the same time and then another bus doesn’t come for 30 minutes or more.

For Washington D.C.’s Circulator lines, the goal is to have a bus arrive every 10 minutes. But at some stations, particularly at stops around Union Station, the buses weren’t quite meeting that mark.

That’s where EastBanc Technologies came in. Peter Shashkin, a technical partner there, said the main issue is that the Circulator had horrible data on bus location.

“The frequency they [the Circulator’s bus trackers] provided was one every two minutes, every 20 minutes, sometimes it was never,” Shashkin said. “You can’t derive anything useful.”

With the support of Georgetown’s Business Improvement District, EastBanc approached the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) with a proposal to install smartphones that would transmit a positioning signal every three seconds from every bus through EastBanc’s TransitIQ system. Tracking began this spring.

By reliably tracking bus positions every three seconds, TransitIQ allows dispatchers to alert bus drivers in real time if they need to speed up or slow down to avoid bus bunching. Shashkin said that their focus on better data first is essential for public transportation networks to build trust with their customers through better reliability, which in turn saves money and creates revenue for the services.

Convincing DDOT to take on this project was also a community effort, Shashkin said. Without the buy-in of the Georgetown businesses that saw the value of better public transportation, it’s unlikely EastBanc would have been successful in its proposal.

The data also allows for a more holistic study of problem points. By using EastBanc’s data-reporting solution, DDOT was able to understand how it could modify routes to help buses maintain 10-minute intervals. For Union Station – which has been a problem area for bus bunching – DDOT found that by adding a bus to the line three stops closer to Union Station, the buses were able to make it through traffic and continue to hit the 10-minute mark every time for the rest of their routes.

Shashkin also pointed out that EastBanc’s solution is surprisingly low-tech. The devices used are smartphones, and the data is stored in a cloud and publicly available.

“It’s easy, reliable, and cheap,” he said of EastBanc’s data collection solution. “Cloud technology is now mainstream. We just need to take advantage of it.”

EastBanc’s commitment to open data also speaks to its vision of themselves not as selling a better way to collect data, but as an analyzer of that data or business intelligence. And if they have to build a system to get the accuracy they want, then so be it.

“We want people to abandon cars and we want them to use public transportation more,” Shashkin said. “Data opening can help. Mobile apps, arrival screens, policy decisions – everybody wins.”

Photo by Mr.TinDC

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2 Comment(s)

Amy Jacobi (DDOT Staff)

While DC Circulator has been using other GPS tracking systems to gather location information over the last several years, the system developed by East Banc Technologies provides improved real-time information for the management and supervision of the Circulator system. Previous systems, including NextBus which is also currently active on the Circulator vehicles, focused on providing bus arrival estimates to the public.

The improved user interface for oversight of the system in real-time with more frequent and reliable bus locations being reported allows for more accurate data reporting and decision making to help maintain 10-minute headways systemwide.

The data from previous systems is not gone. It is still being used for historical analysis, but the improved fidelity of GPS data will lead to more robust analyses of the system in the future.



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