Traveller Information Systems. By Kevin S. Hutchby
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MARTA H.Q. Atlanta, Georgia MARTA's modern rapid transit system usually provides your first taste of Atlanta as you transfer from Hartsfield International Airport to downtown. Consisting principally of two major lines - North to South and East to West it no longer serves greater Atlanta which has expanded well beyond its limits although some expansion of the system is planned in line with the A.R.C. 25 year regional transportation plan.

The user friendly vehicles incorporate variable message displays, for location and destination information, backed up with automated vocal announcements as was found on parts of the MBTA system in Boston.

The enhancements on the MARTA system announcements included reference to all the points of interest in the vicinity of the current station, a nice feature especially for first time visitors to the area. The system was expanded as recently as December 16th 2000 when two New Rail Stations on the North Line at Sandy and North Springs. January 2001 saw the first fare increase since 1995 - to $1.75 per journey regardless of MARTA connections made.

A tour of the MARTA facility, followed by a question & answer session, was arranged with Gail Franklin and P. O. Johnson at the MARTA headquarters near the Lindbergh Centre in North Atlanta.

Among the major challenges faced by MARTA in recent years the biggest of all was undoubtedly the selection of Atlanta as the Olympic host city for 1996. Among other things it required transit to be provided 24 hours a day together with a massive upheaval of the bus services. No buses at all were going to be allowed in the city centre during the games resulting in a huge relocation of stops.

Federal money was available for the development of ITS projects to be completed before the games. Working with the Federal Government (utilising military I.T. expertise) and GDOT, systems were developed to help assist transit users as well as help MARTA themselves. A geographical information system (GIS) was developed to enable efficient and accurate transit stop management. This enabled more than 12,500 stops to be located in the MARTA computer model to help with vital route planning and schedule generation before and during the games.

MARTA Network - August 2000 TraveLink kiosks: Check congestion, find a hotel or get the latest weather information

Information provision was developed in both Internet form (www.itsmarta.com) and the information kiosks which permeate the MARTA stations. The TraveLink project was actually sponsored by the Georgia Department of Transportation and developed to be fully operational prior to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. GDOT had the assistance of the GeorgiaNet Authority to develop the kiosks as well as provide for future development and expansion. GeorgiaNet was formed in 1990 specifically to market and sell authorised public state information. It was they who procured the kiosks as well as providing the maintenance and inheriting responsibility for the operation of the system.

In all, 130 public access kiosks were installed to provide traveller information and improve mobility. MARTA schedules and maps form just a small part of the information provided which includes information on Amtrak, Greyhound, and Cobb County Community Transport, tourist information - including a hotel reservation service, weather information airport facility information together with airline schedule information and special events. The hardware originally consisted of personal computers running the Windows NT operating system but later converted to operate using Windows 95 as this would theoretically provide a cost saving of $300,000! However, the installation of Microsoft Windows 95 increased the amount of times attendance was required for on site maintenance. Many kiosks often locked up due to system memory errors caused by the seemingly less than perfect operating system. Eventually Windows NT was proved to be a more stable operating environment for this application. Additional problems were caused with the equipment being installed in areas prone to excessive heat and humidity as environmentally resistant hardware had not been used.

The communications were installed in the form of leased speed telephone lines operating at an acceptable transfer rate of 56 kilobytes per second (kbps). Effectively, the kiosks performed as per a dedicated high speed network, whether transferring text or graphical data or processing queries. The information received can also be printed out due to the presence of a standard personal computer printer in each kiosk. Including printers can increase the amount of service calls required to the kiosks, especially if they are not configured to send status information back to the central data management and control server. Unfortunately GeorgiaNet discovered such printer problems after installation.

Touch screen traveller information Offering an array of information subjects

Troubleshooting aside, the kiosks are very user friendly. The touch screen interfaces with icon based or large text menus emphasise this. Obviously, and despite various installation and maintenance concerns, Atlanta has a successful deployment of kiosk based traveller information on its hands. Travelling around the MARTA rail network the kiosks were readily available and in full working order.

Cheap or even free parking at many MARTA stations exists to encourage an ethic of parking and riding. Road conditions can be checked at the kiosks and are displayed in a graphical manner to give an overview of the entire freeway system.

Due to the existence of road, rail and bus information, as well as mapping systems, the kiosks can provide travelling itineraries and route planning for transit users as well as pedestrians.

A MARTA vehicle On the bus transportation side of MARTA's operations, technological advances have also taken place to help with scheduling. Atlanta's main transit provider boasts the only working automatic passenger counting system in the country. Developed to help fine tune the MARTA bus schedules and justify service enhancements.

Vehicles are all fully equipped with A.V.L. (Automatic Vehicle Location). This is also used to demonstrate scheduling errors and can be utilised to alter schedules on the fly as well as providing the base information for prospective NextBus type systems.

Other trip planning features can be found on the Internet site along with other extra information to encourage the use of the MARTA system, including excellent directions to stations, station parking information and comprehensive lists of bus services to and from all stations. One of the most unique features of the site, in my opinion, is the ability to access the information in seven different languages, certainly not something I had seen on other Internet sites even though I was aware of the planned introduction of multilingual features both in the U.S. and in the U.K. To put this into context, Atlanta's Spanish population has doubled in the last ten years, a fact that hasn't gone unrecognised with MARTA's public relations officers and information providers.

For the provision of excellent transportation services during the Olympic Games of 1996 MARTA has received commendations locally, nationally and internationally. With over 25 million sporting spectators to transport, safely and efficiently, over a period of 17 days, this is praise indeed. The recognition and provision of suitable information systems aided the operations of the transport company during the challenging but exciting period in its history. Prior planning and the recognition of users needs ensured that MARTA rightly received the commendations that it got.

MARTA's Internet content is provided in different languages

My sincere thanks go to Gail Franklin, David Goglia and P.O. Johnson

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