Quick: What’s the largest transit system in Pennsylvania? Right, SEPTA in Philadelphia. Next? That would have to be Pittsburgh’s; what is it they call it? PAT? Right again. How about the third-largest?
No, not, Erie’s E. Not the Lehigh Valley’s LANTA. Not Lancaster’s Red Rose.
It’s Centre Area Transportation Authority, which carries more than 7 million rides a year. Considering there’s barely 150,000 people in Centre County, that’s remarkable. What makes it even more remarkable is that the plurality of the residents is between 20 and 34 – not exactly the demographic associated with bus riders.
These young adults, however, are mainly concentrated in the borough of State College, Pa., and attend the main campus of Pennsylvania State University. And they are tech-savvy. Ninety-five percent of CATA’s ridership, in fact, is Penn State-affiliated – students, faculty or staff.
“So they’re the economic engine,” according to CATA information services director Eric Bernier. “They’re the big factory in the middle of town.”
CATA also runs vanpools that span almost a hundred miles from Lewistown in the northeast to Cresson in the southwest. Like similar agencies in Pennsylvania, CATA relies on Ecolane for paratransit scheduling.
Bernier has seen a lot of technological change in the decade he’s been in that job, and has seen how that change goes hand-in-hand with rider behavior. But underpinning it all is infrastructure. An open, bring-your-own-device architecture allows platform independence for both employees and riders, and enables automated vehicle location software – transit-specific satellite GPS apps – to function on any given browser.
“By putting these GPS units on each of the buses, we can track bus location, Bernier says. “And, pushing it out to the public, we can show actual bus positioning and project downstream arrivals.”
The benefits of new IT functionality are obvious and immediate. As the ridership moves from dead trees to live feeds, there’s less need for paper routes and schedules. Back-office record-keeping becomes ever more efficient. Dispatchers don’t have to spend as much time on the phone with irate customers. Rider counts, road speed, component wear-and-tear and other performance data that are collected as a matter of course can be parsed into reports that inform future scheduling, allow for on-the-fly rerouting and supplementary service, and ensuring that parts are replaced before they fail thus decreasing repair and towing expenses.
Perhaps the most critical infrastructure domain, though, is the network.
“When we first set this up we were using two-way radios to move data back and forth, so we had bandwidth limitations,” Bernier says. “Now we’re using wireless data. On the user end, because there’s so much wireless bandwidth available in this town and so many users are accessing it, we can push a lot more info out to the riders. They can see real-time where their bus is at.”
According to Bernier, the potential for greater enhancements to the rider experience are limited only by the human resources that can be dedicated to interpreting the data. So CATA employees have to be technologically inclined.
“Our workforce is a little bit ahead of the curve,” Bernier says. “We live in a university community. Our customers are more demanding of it.”
He quotes a hypothetical rider’s typical user requirement: “Don’t tell me when the bus is scheduled to be here. Tell me when it’s actually going to be here.”
So what’s next? That’s perhaps the most important question for the transit community’s IT leaders. Bernier believes that modes of transportation and traditional local or county-wide coverage maps will become increasingly irrelevant. One way of looking at that from an Ecolane-specific point of view is, someone going for a doctor’s appointment might not care if it’s a paratransit van or a plush motor coach that takes her there and back – and certainly couldn’t be less interested in if a county line gets crossed. So there’s bound to be some confluence in the transit systems that provide the vehicles and the IT infrastructure that coordinates them.
“Across Pennsylvania, you have 60 to 70 different transit systems, all operating independently,” Bernier estimates. “You’re going to see those agencies start to merge together. Some will become brokers and leave the delivery of service to the private sector. Technology is going to lead to more efficiencies in the delivery of service.”
So, just as the Cross-Country Local – an expedition to cross the United States using only local transit – would’ve been impossible ten years ago, it could well be a yawn ten years from now. By then, Bernier forecasts, the integration of transit and the technology behind it will be capable of handing riders off seamlessly as needed, regardless of point of origin or destination.
“It’ll be the expectation,” he says.