Technology in Transit

A closer up view of the charging station. Electric buses need a "fast" charge at least every 30 miles, which means every time the bus arrives here it sits and charges up for four minutes. Christopher MacKechnie

Technology In Transit

Although public transit tends to be later adopters of technology than other industries, perhaps because government agencies lack the necessary funding, modern transit systems utilize a wide variety of technology in their daily operations.

Technology In Vehicles

Increasingly restrictive air quality standards have caused the stereotypical diesel bus to vanish completely in some cities (especially in the Los Angeles area) while causing them to become increasingly rare in others.

Important advances in technology have allowed for the widespread dispersion of natural gas and hybrid-electric vehicles in the fleet of North America, while electric buses , although not yet in common use, threaten to break into the mainstream.

Important vehicle technological advances allow transit agencies to keep an eye on where their vehicles are ( automatic vehicle location systems or AVL ) and how many people are getting on and off their vehicles ( automatic passenger counting systems or APC ). Most buses today are also equipped with sophisticated video monitoring systems that help to keep transit safe for both customers and employees.

Self-driving vehicles are also an area that has the potential to change how transit is delivered in the future. While self-driving cars probably will have no impact on transit for the foreseeable future, self-driving buses could have the ability to provide transit in areas where it is not currently feasible due to costs that would be greatly reduced without the need to pay a human driver.

Of course, I would expect labor unions to fight any attempt to implement such automation.

Self-driving rapid transit lines are already present in a lot of areas, and with the increased emphasis on rail safety I expect automated train control to become even more prevalent in the next ten years. Whether the automation will leave subways with no on-board personnel (like Skytrain in Vancouver) or with highly-paid station name callers (like BART in the San Francisco area) remains to be seen.

Technology In the Office

While transit systems of course make heavy usage of Microsoft Office products, there are two key highly specialized software packages that are essential for their functioning.  Transportation scheduling software such as Hastus and Trapeze allow for the creation and assignment of vehicle and driver (crew) schedules at a rate of speed unimaginable even twenty years ago. Geographic information system (GIS) software such as ArcGIS allow for a comprehensive management of agency stops and routes, including demographic assessments of the network necessary for service development and government reporting.

Technology For the Consumer

For the consumer, one of the biggest technology impacts in the area of transit is the adoption of advanced trip-planning software such as Google Transit (and now Bing Transit). By obviating the need to consult a large number of paper printed maps and timetables, Google Transit has significantly reduced the complexity of taking the bus. In addition, real-time information signs are now present at many major bus stops in American and European cities, allowing waiting passengers to do something productive before the bus comes (like grabbing a beer at the adjacent bar).

Advances in fare technology also are assisting the consumer into integrating transit with the rest of their lives. Smart cards allow patrons to briefly "tap" a sensor to pay (some register if the card is within a certain distance of the sensor) and to have their fare media replenished automatically when it is running low on funds. Transit riders in other countries can use their card as a debit card to pay for a coffee they could drink on the train - although not in Washington, D.C. as the ban against eating or drinking on the Metro is strictly enforced.

Fanciful Technological Proposals

On certain websites you hear things such as "rail is a nineteenth century travel mode that has no place in future society". Usually the people who write such things advocate things like personal rapid transit (PRT).

Recently one of those people spoke of his desire to build an elevated PRT system over an attractive and well-used bike trail, an eyesore that would have no chance of being built. Since the "P" in PRT would suggest we would need as many PRT vehicles as cars, what would be the advantage in switching besides enriching the builders of the PRT system? In any case, self-driving vehicles will probably replace the need for PRT before it could even be built by avoiding the need to construct expensive and unsightly elevated travel-ways. Overall, while it is certainly possible that the next few years will produce a breakthrough in how to move large numbers of people from place to place, we need to focus on making what we currently have more efficient and cheaper.