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Anyone who has ever stood in the rain waiting for a bus will be familiar with the Basic Law of Public Transport: that the number of 15 minute increments a passenger waits at a stop will be roughly equivalent to the number of buses that arrive at that stop simultaneously.

Facing such odds makes sitting in traffic in the comfort of one’s own car rather appealing but, thanks to the spread of real time automated travel scheduling systems, passengers can tell exactly how long they will have to wait until the next bus arrives.

Over the past 15 years, real time travel scheduling has become a fixture of many public transport systems around the world. From a service in Edinburgh allowing passengers to check bus arrival times via text message to digital displays at bus stops in Taipei, automated systems are helping commuters manage their time while lessening the stress associated with the unpredictability of travel.

“Real time bus arrival information systems have promoted improved customer service, increased customer satisfaction and convenience, and improved visibility of transit in the community,” says Carol Schweiger, an expert on real time public transport information systems with US transport consultancy TranSystems.

“These technologies are important for users because they take away the uncertainty,” says Maggie Lynch of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. San Francisco is gradually rolling out a system of 450 automated signs to service the city’s 1,000 buses, trams and cable cars in conjunction with automated travel solutions provider NextBus. “The service manages expectations so passengers can make informed decisions about whether to wait, get a cup of coffee, or take an alternative route if necessary.”

In London, meanwhile, Siemens recently won a £120m contract to install, track, and monitor London’s 8,000 buses using satellite navigation technology. “The system will provide better real time information to passengers so they can see a more accurate predicted arrival time at 2,000 bus shelters in the city,” says Brian Higbee, Siemens UK business unit manager for bus systems.

As oil prices hit highs and congestion on roads increases, the case for improving public transport has never been stronger. Local authorities are tackling transport problems according to two strategies. The first involves discouraging people from driving through high parking fees and bridge, tunnel and road tolls. The second focuses on leveraging technology to increase the efficiency of bus and train services and improve customer service.

Real time travel scheduling is a natural extension of transport agencies’ deployment of automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems to monitor and control operations for increased efficiency. Besides making sure that buses operate according to schedule with minimised “bunching” - the problem of several buses arriving at a stop simultaneously after a long delay - data generated by these systems has been used to perform route and schedule restructuring, conduct operations and financial planning, and develop new services.

“Real time scheduling is critical for our operations to help manage and improve on-time performance. It provides the agency with vital information for scheduling purposes,” said Ms Lynch.

In spite of the obvious benefits it will be a while before real time scheduling solutions become an omnipresent part of the commuter experience. Some issues are technical. GPS, the satellite-based global positioning system that can report the location of a bus to within 10 metres, does not work as accurately in urban areas where tall buildings obstruct the signal.

Back-up tracking such as heading sensors and odometers can be used to approximate a vehicle’s position from the last known GPS reading but predictions using these techniques are not as accurate as GPS.

Another challenge concerns the mode of delivery. Public transport agencies often provide real time schedules on overhead signs in bus shelters. Some are working towards enhancing usability by disseminating real time information via the internet, web-enabled PDAs and mobile phones. The web is a user-friendly outlet for real time travel information but real time scheduling websites are yet to be integrated with journey planner websites.

Meanwhile, telephone applications still have a long way to go. “The poor usability of the service is a barrier to all but the tech-savvy traveller,” says Andy Hood, creative development director for Akqa, an e-commerce and customer relationship management consultancy. “Usually you need to store the phone number and know the eight-digit reference for your bus stop. Then there are a number of different requests that can be made, involving exclamations marks, full stops, 24-hour clock times and more. Very clever but not very friendly.”

Cost is also inhibiting progress. According to Ms Schweiger, equipping a vehicle with AVL technology costs an average $7,400. Maintaining automated signage is also expensive. “Technology and finances are holding us back,” says John Drayton, manager for vehicle technology at LA Metro, Los Angeles County’s transport authority which recently entered a $98m deal with Motorola to develop a real time scheduling system. The LA project is more geared towards monitoring fleet performance than enhancing the passenger experience.

According to a recent study by TranSystems, there is little evidence to suggest that providing real time information leads directly to increased public transport usage. But as transport authorities shift their interests from operational efficiency to passenger satisfaction, beaming up-to-the-minute train arrival information to passengers’ PDAs will be one way of enticing commuters out of their cars.

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