Traveller Information Systems. By Kevin S. Hutchby
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SmartRoute Systems

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The visit to SmartRoute Systems was not part of the original itinerary but would obviously enhance the research carried out in Boston. Thanks to the connections with MBTA a visit to their headquarters, in nearby Cambridge, was arranged.

SmartRoute's Centre of Operations, Cambridge, Massachusetts
SmartRoute is a dedicated traffic and travel information centre set up from Federal funding. As already mentioned, around 40 different U.S. cities are served by SmartRoute's comprehensive traveller services which vary from Internet (SmartRoute or Smartraveler) to television and radio broadcasting and are designed to enable traveller information to be accessible from home, the office or in vehicle. The ethic is to "take the mystery and uncertainty out of everyday travel and gives people more control over their mobile lives."

A question and answer session, followed by a tour of the facilities, was kindly provided by Jeff Larson, Director of Operations, and Beth Bower, the Vice President for corporate development.

SmartRoute in Boston provides traffic and travel information related to highways, public transport and commuter parking. Their real time information on highway congestion and incidents around Boston is not gleaned automatically from detectors installed on street because no such infrastructure exists for them to take advantage of. Instead there is a reliance on volunteer mobile units (consisting, in the main, of commuters) backed up by 12 hours worth of flying time from two aircraft patrolling the Boston area. Public transport information, as we already know, is fed directly from the MBTA operations centre. In addition to this they have approved access to police highway emergency computer data for quick access to incident information. The police have specific channels for such information so there is no problem in receiving what would otherwise be sensitive and confidential information. I found that such direct computer access to police traffic related information was generally available to such organisations throughout my U.S. travels. A similar system would certainly be a useful addition to Nottingham's data sources where, currently, getting highway information from the police was difficult at best.

The mobile units currently number around 700 with about 600 of these made up of public volunteers - strategically selected by some geographical criteria to give as much coverage of Greater Boston as possible. A "matrix" database of information providers is maintained to ensure that this continues to be the case. The idea then is quite simply for current road conditions or incidents to be phoned in to the SmartRoute centre. It is important to note that seems that not all traveller information solutions have to feature the latest high tech gadgets or communications.

The information processing side does, however, get technical as the data is compiled and distributed to as many information outlets as possible.

A demonstration was provided of the central information database, which is managed in the SmartRoute centre of operations. This specialist piece of software was designed and written in house mainly because no such package can be purchased "off the shelf". Nottingham Travelwise currently use a similar system which was also designed and written in house, probably one of the first such systems in the U.K. SmartRoute's version is more sophisticated in functionality and with a menu based windows front end it was easier and quicker to build complex / verbose reports.

It was certainly easy to see where enhancements to Nottingham City Council's Incident Management System software could be made, but good to see similar systems working so effectively elsewhere.

Once the raw data is entered it allows traffic bulletins to be compiled quickly, and with consummate ease, from numerous drop down menus. These include all common elements of possible reports such as incident type, severity, expected clear times, revised journey times and road numbers as well as free text for any additional information. Essentially a complete bulletin can be scripted with a few mouse clicks with the emphasis placed on getting the information distributed as quickly and efficiently as possible. This data is stored directly on the organisation's main file server where it is then available office wide or accessible / purchasable by other information providers e.g. www.boston.com

Television broadcasting of traffic information takes place daily from a studio set up adjacent to the main data processing office. Included in the studio set-up is a blue screen wall to allow either computer generated images, live CCTV images or both to be superimposed behind the presenter.

SmartRoute CCTV Images Congestion mapping of the Boston and Cape Cod areas
SmartRoute television studio for travel informartion broadcasts SmartRoute television studio for travel informartion broadcasts
On site video editing facilities Computer generated congestion maps enhance the televisual output

Radio broadcasts are produced with an equally professional approach with a sound proof booth integrated into the office space to reduce background and external noise as much as possible whilst broadcasting takes place. This is an essential facility considering how dynamic the SmartRoute office is.

In terms of the broadcast media, SmartRoute demonstrate, more than proficiently, how to collect, manipulate and process travel information from a variety of sources to a variety of destinations. They already seem to operate an ideal system of travel information and demonstrate an excellent combined use of information technology and human resources.

In addition to the radio and television broadcasts other major outlets for the huge amount of information handled are the impressive Internet site and a dial up phone system giving access to pre-recorded but pertinent information. It stores messages regarding, among other items, expected journey times and can be accessed simply by keying in the relevant highway number via a touch tone phone. The recorded messages are constantly updated, by the operators at the control centre, to provide what is effectively real time highway information. To aid the generation of such a message bank there is some use made of computerised text to speech technologies. These, however, are not yet deemed 100% reliable and mean that the manual recording is the best method. Real time information just a few key presses away

A demonstration of the equipment was provided to show how simple and efficient the service was, as well as highlighting the type of information stored. This ranged greatly from MBTA service and diversion updates, local parking information for MBTA services in case of adverse congestion and incidents to Cape Cod Steamship Authority services. Airport specific information is also covered along with all the major arterial and freeway routes in the city. The system appears to be hugely popular, receiving in excess of 400,000 calls per month! This particular system has actually been running successfully since 1991 and has to date received over 220,000,000 calls! Statistics like these are not only impressive, but an important demonstration of the popularity of such traveller information systems. They provide an indication that any such system implemented in Nottingham, the East Midlands or even the entire U.K. would engender a relative level of interest. Local authorities like Nottingham City Council would certainly use the evidence as part of any cost benefit analysis before implementing such equipment.

On this basis it is encouraging to see such a high take up. Whilst on the subject of usage levels, the SmartRoute Internet site also receives a massive amount of hits with up to 350,000 per month being the current norm.

Not only are commuters able to dial in to receive their specific information, but the Operations Centre is capable of automatically informing commuters of known problems by forwarding information to mobile and WAP phones (Wireless Access Protocol - Internet over mobile phones). This service is provided at no cost to the user other than their initial outlay on their particular receiving device. With Internet access being far from comprehensive (albeit growing rapidly), coupled with the difficulty in accessing Internet information en route, these telephone based systems are a valid and useful addition to the various modes by which travel information can be quickly transferred from collection centres to users. From SmartRoute's experience and feedback, commuters are not likely to log on to a computer system and trawl through information on screens, even if they have the service, further highlighting the requirement for the multi-mode, multi-media output. SmartRoute have identified that effective traveller information should be available at home, in the office and during a journey. An ethos fully subscribed to by those engaged with traveller information within Nottingham City Council.

Real time information just a few key presses away Real time information just a few key presses away

Publicity for the SmartTraveler route specific information Sample it for yourself on 00 1 617 374 1234

Weather data is gleaned from a constant link to the TV weather channel, which like the MBTA control facility is channelled through the existing CCTV matrix to a monitored output. This confirmed the importance of weather information in conjunction with traveller information and having experienced the last few months of meteorological extremes whilst residing in the U.K. I can fully verify its usefulness to a traveller information service. Local weather information is already available via several Internet sources, not just in the United States but across the U.K. and mainland Europe. An important note as it means little or no extra investment is required to be kept abreast of current weather, satellite images and future forecasts.

To complete the picture, real time airline arrival and departure information is also part of their information hub. Of course this is also available via Internet, e:mail, pager and seemingly any communication device currently in use.

SmartRoute itself appears to represent an ideal model for traveller information but customer feedback is still valuable to determine the evolution of existing systems and the development of new ones. System usage statistics are obviously useful to gauge whether certain systems are worthwhile but direct customer feedback is encouraged via the Internet site. All comments are processed to fine tune the already impressive array of services.

Part of the reason for the heavy focus on customer opinions is due to the fact that the system was Federally funded and therefore subject to providing regular reports. One such report provides indicators that SmartRoute has the ability to influence traveller behaviour - a questionnaire generated for 2000 users to gain feedback on the potential impact on congestion and air pollution of the telephone advisory service in Metropolitan Boston. The highlights are as follows:

  • 48% of respondents reported the information they received, during the particular call about which they were being questioned, had a direct influence on their travel decision making
  • 28% reported making some kind of change in their travel behaviour
  • 14% reported changing the time of departure
  • 12% reported using a different route
  • 2% reported cancelling the trip
  • 1% reported changing both route and time
  • 20% indicated that they used the information to choose between two or more relatively equal alternative routes

Most of the remaining surveyed used the information in some way to verify that their preferred route would be viable

8% reported that they contacted others to indicate that they would be delayed, based on the information they received

When asked how the callers rated their satisfaction with the information they had received, on a scale of one to ten, the average overall rating was 8.8!

A lot of the information provision would not be possible without excellent co-operation with public transport providers. Such relationships have developed over a few years and are now based on sound two-way partnerships. Initially there existed the same barriers that authorities in the U.K. have encountered but these are now well and truly overcome in Boston.

With such a comprehensive mix of information sources and outlets SmartRoute utilise the following staff structure:

  • 4 key control staff per rush hour (06.00 - 10.00 & 15.00 - 19.00, the evening peak being extended to up to 22.00 on Fridays and 10.00 - 19.00 on Saturdays. These are comprised of 2 "gatherers" and 2 "announcers" who can process up to 1200 incoming messages per day! There are less key staff during the non-peak hours which is slightly different to Nottingham Travelwise Centre where the greatest concentration of staff is during the off peak period.

Revenue is an issue with SmartRoute as equipment, and staff, are ongoing costs, and not necessarily cheap ones. However, generating revenue income from the Internet site is not considered a serious option at the moment. Advertising agencies who liaise between advertisers and Internet site providers, in terms of generating income from the Internet site, effectively require about 18,000,000 monthly hits to make it worthwhile. The revenue that can be gained is realistically quoted as $3.00 - $4.00 per million monthly hits highlighting the fact that SmartRoute currently don't consider it worthwhile. Radio and television do however open up avenues towards recouping some costs with prime time broadcast slots.

Future plans include "information forwarding" to new in vehicle devices which also include a navigation facility. Pager services are also due for expansion and discussions are currently under way to begin a new radio service dedicated to traffic and travel reports. Although broadcasts are already made at the Control Centre they can tend to be scheduled depending on the current programming and news scheduled on the local radio station. This is very similar to Nottingham City Council's current relationship with BBC Radio Nottingham.

As well as all of this there are proposals for a subscriber service to custom route information that will include the geographical congestion maps mentioned earlier. Television wise, a new morning show strictly dedicated to traffic and travel information is in the offing. Having received first hand experience of such services I can vouch for their quality as well as their dedication to the traffic information cause. Such outlets are also said to be popular among Americans who are switched on to news and current affairs, whatever the flavour. For the record, SmartRoute's current TV outlets include WCVB - Boston, WPTV-1 Philadelphia, WXYZ - Detroit and WCPO - Cincinnati although this list will almost certainly have increased by the time this report is published.

For further information, contact:

SmartRoute Systems
141 Portland Street, Suite 7000
Cambridge, MA 02139
Phone: (617) 494-8100
Fax: (617) 494-8186
E-mail: admin@smartroute.com

My sincere thanks go to Beth Bower and Jeff Larsen at SmartRoute systems.

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