Traveller Information Systems. By Kevin S. Hutchby
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In embarking on this research project I set out to compare and contrast contributions to the global problem of traffic congestion, the increasing ownership of the automobile and decreasing levels of air quality. And there is no doubt that the myriad visits, interviews and experiences have introduced me to innovative ways of tackling these problems using the latest information technologies and distributed information systems. In many ways the project as a whole has been almost overwhelming, the sheer amount of systems in place, operational facilities, University collaboration and experts involved in research and development, I found astounding. To put this in perspective I visited just five cities internationally.

Flexible ticketing in San Francisco

Transportation and its effect on the environment is fast becoming one of the largest topics for debate of this age. The quantity of information thrown my way buried me in reading (not to mention nearly doubling the weight of my luggage as I trawled across the States). Reports gleaned on my travels were of equal value to the many interviews and chats that were kindly granted me but the latter allowed personal views to be exchanged as well as the common sense solutions and improvements in travelling, as we continue into the twenty first century.

One of the first conclusions to be made is that traffic and travel information systems, as a subset of the whole transportation issue, is a vast area and one that increases daily as newer technologies and communication methods develop, let alone the continued increase in car usage. A global increase in conferences, debates and workshops backs this up and indicates a fairly healthy ethos that solutions can be found and that experiences are shared across the globe.

The choice of both the United States and Sweden, as countries to visit, definitely provided a look at different approaches: from the formers dependence on the car, (where it can be considered almost subversive not to own, or want to own, an automobile) to the sheer scale of improvements to public transport systems found in Sweden. Improvements that are, importantly, embraced by the population culminating in a reduction in car use and increased patronage for the transit provider.

The idea was to visit areas and organisations with systems that were considered to be further developed than Nottingham's. This was certainly the case in every location visited in terms of real time information access, radio and television coverage of traffic information.

The itinerary generated did allow some time for processing the many reports and research documents that came my way , kindly supplied by my many hosts. Time also for note making and of course some time to experience travelling around the cities and sampling systems for myself. Some of this time was used up with unplanned but valuable additions to the itinerary. A feature of the research, that enhanced both the report and my experiences, was the fact that most of my hosts provided me with further relevant and interesting contacts in their particular city. A colleague, another department or another organisation, all kindly agreed to a visit or an interview usually at very short notice. Examples of such occurred in Boston with an impromptu detour to the SmartRoute systems and in Seattle with a visit to the University of Washington to check out their neural net project progress.

I'd like to think that the information flow wasn't all one way with some of my experiences in England creating interesting diversions in many interviews. Of course some of the locations were more useful than others, but this is largely irrelevant as the final assemblage of experience gained and the knowledge of systems as yet untried in the U.K. is enough to generate development projects and areas of research for several years. For example, the WAP technologies used on Emeryville's NEXTBUS system, also demonstrated in Seattle with airport arrival times, should be a good starting point with which to further develop the Nottingham Travelwise services. At the same time this could be bound with a text messaging service for non-WAP phones and devices. And that's just one example. There is no doubt that the ideas will be taken on board by U.K. authorities to improve and enhance the commute, and travelling in general, in this country.

Emeryville's NEXTBUS systems provided realtime transit information direct to a mobile phone
Another planned outcome of this project was to help U.K. car users to consider fundamental changes to their travel behaviour. In sympathy, particular with the commuters of Nottingham, of which I am a member, we simply do not have the co-ordinated public transport infrastructure that Gothenburg boasts. Bearing in mind the cities have comparable areas and populations though, is it inconceivable that Nottingham or Derby or Leicester could showcase a Gotic type project? Granted the costs of such a development would boast several noughts, but juxtapose the current situations in our cities, with declining air quality and a large amount of mental stress placed of the traveller, the benefits must surely outweigh this.

Travelling around Gothenburg was such a different experience to travelling around Nottingham. Timetables over here are rendered virtually irrelevant during peak hours of travel as congestion causes schedules to differ hugely from reality. Coupled with the inadequate facilities provided to wait for public transport which, in this country, often involves standing in the rain and having to queue as tickets are provided or processed and/or monetary change is sought. There is little comparison between the systems. The Swedish experience showed how it can be done and how it is possible to sell public transport to commuters. They have also been involved with bus and tram priority trials, at traffic signalled junctions, to try and enhance the system further. Whilst it may be deemed socially responsible for local authorities to verbally encourage commuters to find alternatives to the car in so many areas a valid riposte would be "what alternatives?"

Variable Message Sign under test at GOTIC, Sweden
Being rather more optimistic: we do live in a technological society. Our application of technology in the field of traffic and travel information can and should form a very large part of the solution. Five years ago when Nottinghamshire County Council embarked on a project to place travel information on the Internet a fair amount of raised eyebrows and some criticism was targeted at a technology still in its infancy in the U.K. One of the justifications for the critics was that the audience was so limited. Fair comment at the time but this was clearly (and has really subsequently been proved to be) a narrow minded way of thinking. The Internet was huge in America why wouldn't it be here? And of course we had already identified other mediums for our output anyway. The point here is that attitudes differed in the States, and, for that matter, in Sweden. Technology is used, embraced and, most importantly, developed in numerous fields including transportation. Authorities work openly and closely with academia to tap into essential resources for research and development, the results of which, as highlighted in the main body of the report, speak for themselves. The price of technology has fallen dramatically over the last twenty years and high performance hardware is affordable to authorities. This is a fact not lost on solution providers as well as consumers. The Internet is growing rapidly in the U.K. It's now available through cable television as well as a glut of low cost service providers via free, personal computer software. There is no doubt that Internet technologies will continue to form an important hub for traffic and travel information, along with mobile phones, electronic Filofaxes etc. The Internet user interfaces are generally simple to use but the largely invisible technology feeding this can process queries, access databases, produce maps, purchase tickets, check schedules, check locations of vehicles and so on and so on. This technology is not just a fad that will disappear over time, it will mature and evolve to provide better user interfaces, faster performance and greater functionality. We may even see the return of Seattle's message watch with web access.

One of the many Centre of Operations visited
The information projects underway in the States were usually targeted for some form of Internet output (among other media), and having worked with the Internet in the field of traffic and travel for five years I would encourage this ethic to be taken on board. Gothenburg's real time information is found at every stop and has also been developed for production onto the Internet. The difficult bits were already done and the same technology that produces the predictions now has another information outlet. Similarly for wireless access devices and text message phones, getting information to these devices is, relatively speaking, a small addition to an already proven system. The added value is, however, huge. When posing the question "What is the ultimate traveller information system?" part of the answer is surely "Information whenever I want it, wherever I am". Wireless technologies can and are providing this. Latest models of palm top style devices have full colour graphical displays capable of showing maps along with text. They have scrolling displays capable of handling timetables and route information. They are also capable of responding to alarm calls and urgent traffic information.

Accepted, the Internet is not available to all, and not everyone will be using a palm top device with a built in television and dvd recorder. This is where two other major mediums sit alongside the now accepted Internet solutions. Television and radio have been massive media tools for decades but in this country television is rarely used for traffic and travel information, save for short peak time news slots. Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Atlanta (and I've no doubt Chicago, Milwaukee, Dallas, Philadelphia etc etc.) all have traffic information pouring out of the television screen, usually to large audiences. Real time CCTV, roving reports, helicopter shots or basically whatever it takes to accurately portray the current road situations and either offer advice or at least enable choices to be made regarding the commute. In most cities several channels provided this service, not just one! There is certainly no such service in Nottingham nor any other U.K. city to my knowledge. This quite simply needs to change, and I'm sure will as multi-channel cable television spreads across the country.

The content of the information broadcasts were not sensationalised at all. I found the presentation excellent and felt that here was a genuine service being provided for an audience with genuine information needs. In addition to this, the dedicated traffic information channels, with live CCTV images and colour coded congestion maps, showed that even the televisual broadcasting of such information could be furthered and developed.

Radio broadcasts of traveller information do exist, probably in all cities and major towns in the U.K. Certainly in Nottingham. However, it is usually constrained and conforming to a timetable with little or no scope for either comprehensiveness or spontaneity. Solutions to this may exist with dedicated radio stations, as in Boston, or just a more serious approach to treating traffic and travel information broadcast over the airwaves. In Nottingham we have made some progress in this field by having BBC Radio Nottingham as a key partner of the Nottingham Travelwise Centre. Improvements can still be made here though by increasing the output allowed.

With any broadcast medium there is also the possibility of revenue via advertising.

Other technologies I would recommend, based on my research, would be telephone dial up systems bearing route specific information. Touch tone phone systems in Boston and San Francisco were hugely popular and a very valid addition to the array of data dissemination tools. The large advantage of such systems is that they are capable of providing information before or during a journey relevant to the traveller.

Considering content, it was clear that travellers want information relevant to themselves. Whilst an Internet site can publish hundreds of scheduled roadworks, train delays and incidents, research in Seattle shows that the commuter also wants A to B trip planning (sometimes via C). This takes on more than one form as well. There is the specific:

  • I'm driving from A to B, now show me any problems I may face en route?
  • I wish to travel from A to B, what are my options?
  • What time do I have to leave A to get to B for 10a.m?

You get the idea.

This type of interactive trip planning is key content for web sites although very few have it at present because it combines so many technologies and information sources. Travellers, at present, can build their own picture or partial picture and make various calculations, but there is no doubt that the preference is to let the computers do all the hard work and provide a simple solution. This is an acceptable point of view when considering what today's technology is capable of, as already covered. Traffic condition predictions are already underway as a research and development project at the University of Washington in Seattle.

There does then need to be some ethic of data sharing. The aim, after all, is to provide the commuter with easy to make choices not provide them with twenty different web pages to browse to assimilate their specific data. The principle of data sharing is simple: you give me yours and I'll give you mine. The problems occur, however because data is stored in different databases, in different formats, on different computers. Seattle's data network, however, features self describing shared data, which as a data stream contains the information required to make it meaningful - information about its format, type, length etc. Any receiving computer would then have the ability to decode it simply. Surely a step forward in providing the personal trip planner, encompassing bus information, train information, boats, planes and trams?

Another major requirement for such trip planning devices, again researched in Seattle, is the ability for such a system to cross borders. Especially with the small size of the U.K.'s Counties, an information source providing information pertinent to just one has obvious limitations. In Nottingham we already feature information across the borders of all our neighbouring Counties, but only just across the border. Travel is not bounded by State or County lines and information systems need to cater for this.

Further data sharing often involved police incident reports networked directly to traffic control centres. I am only aware of one such installation of this type in the U.K. but in the States it was considered such a necessary part of the information gathering process. Often, and I suppose obviously, the police authorities and highway patrols were the first to hear of road incidents and entered such data into their own database systems. The data reaching the traffic control centres was available almost immediately and filtered to remove any unnecessary data. I would certainly recommend this as an extension of Nottingham's system as vital time is currently lost in informing travellers of incidents and a large amount of incidents go unreported. Partnerships can be forged with the police authorities so that they benefit by having all traffic advisory calls diverted to dedicated travel information providers via hot-line, Internet or radio broadcasts.

Partnership was a key word that cropped up during several visits. Partnerships with Universities, partnerships with private industry. Product development and research is enhanced through good relationships. TRAC, in Seattle, provide proof of this with their congestion map, BusView and hopefully the developing traffic condition predictions being devised in partnership with the University of Washington. They also had several companies on board when researching various products which were designed to convey pertinent traffic information, including Microsoft, Boeing and Seiko Communications Systems. Usually all parties benefited from these collaborations and there is no reason why similar relationships can't be encouraged and forged in the U.K.

Another aim of the project was to forge lasting contacts with like minded experts in the field of traffic and travel. As already mentioned, all cities have a vested interest in solving congestion and related pollution problems. Fortunately the mentality is very much one of sharing information, experiences and research highlighted by the sheer amount of information available on the Internet. As well as gaining a large amount of valuable e-mail addresses I have already received several more evaluation reports, via e-mail and post since arriving back, including the enigmatic "An algorithm and implementation to predict the arrival of transit vehicles." gratefully received via a web site. Certainly e-mail has opened up communications globally and overcome problems with time differences. It is a perfect medium for seeking advice and information, as well as receiving documents, from like minded authorities across the country and around the world.

I'm sure there are elements of the Swedish research that some of my contacts in the States would find interesting and useful, and vice versa. To this end this report will be published on the Internet and my hosts contacted via e-mail to ensure they get the chance to read it and feedback as necessary.

In addition a subscription to Gotic News is certainly called for to keep up to date with the development and evolution of this great project.

Ticketing issues really fall outside the boundaries of this project, but nevertheless can be a stumbling block when trying to encourage modal change. One only has to look at the state of ticketing on Britain's railways to conclude that improvements are required. Buying a rail ticket in this country can be likened to solving some complex logic problem. Coupled with the sometimes bizarre pricing structures that go with this, ensuring that travelling by train is by no means straightforward. Surely this has to be rectified? I was therefore encouraged by the smart card project in San Francisco and the ease of travelling around Gothenburg. The San Francisco one in particular ambitiously merged several public transport operators onto one easy to use swipe card. The aim is to get all of them involved in the scheme which would mean the ability to travel on nearly fifty different transit operators seamlessly. I would hope the various rail companies in this country are targeting such systems. It doesn't have to stop there either. Reiterating the point about an ideal traveller system, surely this would involve ticketing so simple and flexible, that the same smart cards could be used on any rail operator, bus operator or ferry operator. This sounds like a massive overhaul and probably not a cheap one but the aims are so valid. It's easy to stick with known systems that do actually work but sometimes we settle for sub-standard systems too much.

In summary then: It's certainly fair to say that the research objectives were achieved. In fact they were more than achieved, in that knowledge was gained, even outside the sphere of technology and project implementations and centres of excellence. I witnessed long standing systems that had undergone thorough perception studies to prove their worth and shape them to a changing audience, as well as seeing systems in their infancy and then further ideas bounced around by like minded experts. My many hosts ensured that all of my visits were useful and enjoyable.

Throughout the entire trip I was totally reliant on public transport. Fortunately the transport systems I used were excellent in as much as they were easy to use, flexible, cheap (free throughout downtown Seattle). Timetables and routes were accessible on the Internet before I had arrived in my destinations. In Nottingham we have known for sometime that such information exists and have tried to use certain ideas as potential projects for ourselves. Bolstered with the findings in this report, and hopefully with some funding, I believe we can certainly move Nottingham's system forward with a series of recommendations, enhancements and new projects.

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