Traveller Information Systems. By Kevin S. Hutchby
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Caltran's control room facilityThe control centre for TRAVINFO runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and takes information from many sources including the California Highway Patrol CAD systems. The information on highway incidents is supplied as soon as the Police have a record of it, but it is filtered information. For the requirements of Caltrans, however, the information received is more than adequate. The system is valuable and reliable, but the information has to be manually transferred from one system to the main travel information database due to the nature of the data connection (secure Police computers). Other information sources include local radio and live feeds from helicopter traffic radio, CCTV and highway monitoring computers for live flow information from on street detection.

Dave Frykland arranged a short tour of the Caltrans control room facility.

Four operators take responsibility for operations during peak periods with two staff monitoring traffic situations overnight. There is flexibility built into the rosters bearing in mind the weather can have a major influence on traffic conditions, San Francisco Bay being an area famous for fog.

The various information sources of the Caltrans operations centre, Oakland, California

Reports are quickly compiled and recorded on the computer system although the control room relies a lot on manual operations, as traffic information from elsewhere really has to be validated and / or filtered if necessary. CCTV evidence is used to backup the data from detectors before reports are generated because it is accepted that automated coverage of the road network is not really up to scratch.

Unix Sun computers provide the hardware that runs the core information system and some computing resource is necessary to convert the loop data from flow counts and occupancy percentages into actual journey times. Algorithms, generated by a third party, do exist to perform this task. Although there is still a question mark over some of the detector loops they are said to be "improving".

My sincere thanks to Dave Frykland and the staff of the Caltrans facility.

MTC Pubilc Relations

Brenda Kahn, Public Relations officer with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission had kindly agreed to an interview as part of the San Francisco leg of the project. Initial discussions began with the problems related to travelling around the bay area. It was revealed that the huge commute that takes place between Oakland, Berkeley and other East Bay areas, to downtown San Francisco and its surrounds, causes the largest of the problems.

Geographical constraints of San Francisco Bay

The topography of the bay area means that traffic is severely constrained when crossing the bay. Despite the existence of the BART cross bay transit service, and the dozens of other transit companies, there still exists a reluctance to leave the car at home and utilise the existing limited road resources instead.

One of the problems caused by the myriad transit providers, and the coverage that they provide, means that many journeys are fragmented. This doesn't help in terms of encouraging modal change. To try and combat some of these problems it is proposed to introduce a "Translink" smart card to allow for easier commutes involving more than one transit provider including bus, rail and ferry operators. Development is well underway with the key 6 or 7 operators on board to trial and further the product. A demonstration phase is planned for spring 2001. The idea is that a single transit pass would be purchased and valid for all journeys around the Bay Area (all nine counties). The ultimate aim would be to include all 48 or so transit providers. Evaluation has yet to happen but there are very high hopes of full deployment in the near future. This kind of initiative was always a popular suggestion from the public focus groups held. As such, it has been taken very seriously by MTC and the various transit partners. This is evidence that improvements in using public transport sit alongside commuter information provision to provide the best solutions to solving congestion and improving air quality.

Hoping for success and an increase in Transit use with the new convenient smart card

Already in operation is an online transit information system that incorporates all of the transit providers in the area. Due to the existence of another data sharing backbone it is relatively simple to access information from all of the transit providers. To this end a couple of enterprising students at the University of California in Berkeley have created this on line transit system by tapping into to the already existing information from the 48 transit companies. Transit maps can be vital for planning journeys across the nine counties although too many companies make this difficult to understand - click for a larger version

This project was eventually grant funded by MTC who had recognised the potential of such information collation. MTC further developed the system to provide the Internet pages available today. The students are still an active part of the project and currently manage the onerous task of keeping the data up to date. Enhancements now include a free e:mail service enabling subscribers to find out about changes to their own particular routes etc. Future plans for the web include an interactive trip planning system to help cut out the confusion of the multitude of transit providers This is currently planned for a full launch next month (September 2000) after two years of development. Little or no consultation was done as to the user requirements for an interactive trip planner; it was simply deemed a common sense idea, a natural progression if you like, of existing on line services. The service would include all schedule and fare information for the nine counties.

"Transit maps can be vital for planning journeys across the nine counties although too many companies make this difficult to understand. Click for a larger version"

Transit maps can be vital for planning journeys across the nine counties although too many companies make this difficult to understand.

As well as the Internet information resources, free maps and leaflets are distributed, although the current thinking is that these are too complicated because of the number of transit companies that they include These will be reviewed and hopefully improved.

Obstacles to modal change also exist with the fact that buses are not considered the "hippest" way to travel. MTC is endeavouring to tackle this, and, to begin to try and improve the image of transit vehicles, some will soon be equipped with computer information terminals. It is still accepted that it is a struggle to precipitate modal change despite good public transport coverage and HOV/Bus lanes on highways and in the city centre, plus the fact that these vehicles now bypass the toll booths on the bay crossing plaza.

All the tools required for ride sharing and other time saving initiatives can be found at www.rides.org

All the tools required for ride sharing and other time saving initiatives can be found at www.rides.org

Although these have encouraged the development of "casual car pooling" where commuters gather at one of twenty or so identified areas across the Bay Area and are provided with lifts. This allows the drivers to then take advantage of HOV etc., car pooling is officially supported and encouraged by MTC with services such as Commute Calculators designed to help commuters discover how much it actually costs them to drive alone to work. Ancar sharing Internet resource had been developed for Bay Area commuters including match-lists of people with similar journeys and ride sharing incentives.

The two major web services, provided by MTC, exist at www.transitinfo.org and www.travinfo.org with Transitinfo.org providing the details for all of the Bay Area's transit companies as mentioned above. Trip planning on this is quite straight forward as I discovered when utilising the service to commute from Berkeley, across the bay, to the San Francisco International Airport. The popularity of the site has grown massively since its creation. Available figures show that 1997s impressive 773,499 user sessions was eclipsed a year later with user sessions reaching a staggering 1.3 million. The number of pages accessed is also a good measure of the popularity of a site, and with 5.4 million in 1997, increasing to 9.8 million in 1998, a very healthy trend is identified.

The existence of the two web sites with similar addresses is a known cause for confusion. So much so that plans are afoot to merge all the information and just have one key web presence for traveller information in the Bay Area. The web hits for the key information services are curving upwards; another indication of the growth / acceptance of the Internet as a source of traveller information.

Another initiative, away from the Internet, involves KCBS, one of the Bay Area TV companies. They have distributed mobile phones to commuters to get more information about real time conditions. The incoming calls are free of charge with obvious benefits for the participants in the shape of a free mobile phone. The system is known as "Phone Force". Current U.K. laws would indicate that this kind of information gathering would be scorned upon, despite the fact that this information can be so vital and worked so well in Boston also. Additionally, the fleet of breakdown vehicles that are travelling all over the bay area are also instructed to pass traffic conditions to the TRAVINFO base centre.

The MTC does value the opinion of the commuters and regularly holds focus groups with small samples (c. 12) of the public gathered together via a consultant company. They are rewarded with a nominal fee for their time, opinions, feedback and ideas. MTC uses these focus groups before major policy decisions are made.

There is a culture of achieving a "know before you go" service for the Bay Area travellers by ensuring good coverage and distribution of real time information. The policies and services aim to encourage modal change from cars to public transport. That's why MTC and other local transport related organisations have information accessible in Internet form, leaflets, television and radio. In addition to this the MTC also has an impressive on line library of transportation related issues accessible at www.mtc.ca.gov/publications/library.htm aimed to be of use to government agencies, researchers, students, media and anyone interested in regional or transportation planning.

My sincere thanks to Brenda Kahn, MTC

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