A Mapnificent Tool

There’s no shortage of creative geniuses out there looking for ways to take raw transit data and turn it into something useful (or at least fun to play with). Here’s one to try. It’s called Mapnificent. Using Google Maps, it’ll show you how far you can travel using transit, cycling and walking from any given address within the time parameter of your choice.

I tried it by asking it to show me how far I can go within 15 minutes from the lovely Capital Metro headquarters building at 5th/Pleasant Valley at around 6 a.m. on a weekday. Here’s what it came up with:

Looks like a ghost hovering next to a microphone; Hermann Rorschach may have had a different interpretation.

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What’s Up with the Train’s Wi-Fi?

So recently, there has been some buzz around issues with the Wi-Fi on the train. Specifically people have been complaining about how slow the connection has been and how it can cut out at certain points on the route and how the system overall was a piece of __insert your own expletive here___. Being a sensitive soul and one that doesn’t like to see a good thing turn sour I did a little digging to figure out what the extent of the problem is and what can be done about it.

Continue reading “What’s Up with the Train’s Wi-Fi?”

Drive-through bus

Here’s something to keep in mind next time you’re in a car and grumbling because you’re stuck behind a bus.  A company is building a gigantic bus that cars can drive through.  Sounds simple enough:  if you’re behind the bus when it stops to pick-up passengers, no sweat, just keep on going and drive right through.  Can’t quite envision that?  Check out these design images:

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The Scoop on Bus Arrival Times

Why wait for the bus out in the heat, rain or cold when you can hang out inside and get an ice cream cone, a cup of coffee and bus arrival times all in the same place? That’s what a Boston software engineer was thinking when he developed an LED bus arrival display sign and convinced the folks at his local hangout to put it up next to the ice cream counter. Continue reading “The Scoop on Bus Arrival Times”

Van Sutherland on GIS and Capital Metro

CenTexGIS 003Earlier this month, The Central Texas GIS Users Group presented its first GUS Award (GIS User Spotlight Award) to Capital Metro’s GIS Coordinator Van Sutherland. CenTex GIS Executive Committee Member Jack Avis presented Van the award for “valuable contributions, exceptional leadership, analytical skills, mentoring, and dedication to the field of GIS.” That’s Van there on the right.

Last November, the agency celebrated GIS Day, and you can relive the magic (and learn more about Van’s work) in this earlier post.  (GIS Day 2009 is November 18.)

For those of you asking, “What the heck is GIS, and what does it have to do with Capital Metro?” here’s the answer, from Van himself:

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Whatever Happened to That Web Update?

So if you remember a while back, we had plans to update our main website over at www.capmetro.org. The current page format and structure is a little mature in web-years and we had identified a number of new features (with your help) that would be a lot more useful than what we have now. If you are the type of person to wonder what happened to plans of yore, you may be interested in learning what became of the website update. If you aren’t, then feel free to read someplace else. I promise I won’t be offended. Continue reading “Whatever Happened to That Web Update?”

Where is My Ride?

Sorry for the long delay in reporting from the technology fronts. We have been extremely busy getting ready for the rail startup in just a few weeks (working on all of the technology at the stations and behind the scenes that you can’t see) and in pushing the Automatic Vehicle Location project forward to fruition (as I started to talk about here).

One of the exciting things we are working on is enhancing the trip planner and website to provide better information about where the vehicle you care about is and when it will arrive. The latter problem while not trivial is actually the easier of the two to report on. In fact we have recently enhanced our website to give predicted arrival times for the next 3 buses at any given stop (link). Please take a look at it and let us know what you think. Currently this information is based on scheduled arrival time, but as we turn on the Automatic Vehicle Location system we will start replacing scheduled time with estimated time (based on the present location of the vehicle and its latest speed).

The trickier bit is if we should, and how we should display the real-time location of our vehicles once the AVL system is installed. The advantage to displaying the latest location of all of our fixed route vehicles is that individual riders can figure out which vehicle will best meet their needs and it greatly improves the transparency of the system. The down side to displaying this information is that people will count on the data being precise and as everyone should be aware of by now, technology is not always as accurate as we would like (think airplane arrival times or medical billing :-)). What we don’t want to happen is to put information out there that a specific bus is 3 blocks away when it is really 1 block away. People will act on the information in front of them and may miss a bus they wanted. This is not what we want to accomplish with AVL.

I think the key is to display the information in a way that quickly indicates how precise and how reliable it really is. All AVL systems have to pick a frequency of vehicle location updates. For bandwidth and communication cost reasons it is impossible to query the bus and train vehicle every second to know where it is. Practically there is little value in querying a bus every second for its location when it is moving at 5 miles per hour. Conversely it is bad to query a train at 5 minute intervals when it is moving at 60 miles per hour (the stated location will be up to 5 miles away from the true location of the train). For this reason our system will attempt to balance the frequency with the velocity of the vehicles and find a happy medium. But as with all things used by many people, it will not be possible to please everyone with the compromise we reach.

Given this challenge of frequency and real-time accuracy we are left with the issue of how to display the information in a meaningful and non-misleading manner. I pose this challenge to the Austin community as I have yet to find any transit agencies with AVL systems that seem to have solved this conundrum perfectly. For your consideration, here are some of the agencies we have found with AVL that are attempting to visually display the most recent location of their bus fleets. You be the judge and let us know what you think works best.
King County Washington Note: Shows last time the vehicle was querried
Chicago Transit Authority Note: Nice display of Google base map and option to pick routes
Next Bus Note: This is a private company that integrates the approach for many agencies

There may be others, and we would love to hear about them, but we would really like to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Better Ways to Reach Out

I will be the first to admit that public transit is less than intuitive. Timetables and routes and zones and fare structures are less than intuitive. And the harder it is to use something (like public transit or your cell phone’s latest features) the less likely people are to use it. In our business of public transit we are aware of the many barriers to using our system on a daily basis (despite what it may seem like from the outside). Working in the technology group there are however only so many of those barriers that we can address directly (much as I would like to I cannot make the buses come more often). But what we can do is try to make the effort to get information about the system as easy as possible. The theory being that as we knock down barriers to using public transit, more people will want to use it. In that vein, I came across a fascinating article about a little town right here in our neighborhood that has gone off and done something useful in a very ingenious way. While the connection to public transit may not be obvious, let me explain…

Out friends to the south in San Antonio did something smart about 10 years back by putting a unique number on every bus stop in their town. With that number, when someone calls into their phone system or when they visit their website they are able to access information specific to their bus stop simply by referencing the unique number at their stop. This makes it way easier to ask for the next bus to arrive at stop #5413 than to have to describe the bus stop (the one just north of 5th and Congress on the um I think it is the west side of the street… hold on a minute and let me ask someone which side of the street we are on…). This type of short hand is very useful for lowing the barrier to bus and train information. 

Realizing the advantage of this type of shorthand to reference points of interest within the Capital Metro world we have begun the long process of putting unique bus stop numbers at each of our stops as we roll out new signs (the problem with getting this done quickly is that we have to modify 3100+ bus stops and transit centers with a precise piece of information that can’t be in error). As we start to get this numeric shorthand in place you will see us roll out the new ability to get stop specific information from our web and IVR systems in this way.

What is exciting about the Manor experiment is that they have taken this concept of a simple reference link to a much deeper source of information and they have proven it can be done for a small amount of money and they have shown that a lot more information can be compressed into a relatively small space. The new form of short hand (in their case a QR code) can be used to convey much more information than a simple 4 or 5 digit number. Of course the hurdle now becomes getting people familiar with a new way of accessing information, but as camera phones become more popular this problem may be solved by other people. (To understand what the city of Manor did and to understand this new way of compressing more information please read the associated article here.)

And for those of you that would like to try this out, I have included a QR code jump below to e-mail me your thoughts. (If you need help deciphering this strange beast, read the article above. If that doesn’t work then post a comment on this blog and I will show you how to take advantage of these hieroglyphics.) As always, I would love to hear what you think on this topic and where you think shortcuts like these could best be used in our system.

Griping for Google

Bloggers created a ruckus in Washington recently, demanding that the transit authority join Google Transit. Looks like they’ll get what they wanted and soon will be able to plan bus and rail trips in the familiar Google format.

That’s old news for us. Capital Metro hooked up with Google Transit almost two years ago. There are a number of other electronic options for planning trips. In addition to our regular trip planner on capmetro.org, you also can try out our newer beta version that includes maps. For text addicts, you can request and receive trip info on your cell phone via Dadnab.

There’s no such thing as a perfect online mapping program. But they’re getting better every day. I remember when we first started on Google Transit the walking portion of some rare trips led you right into Town Lake. I haven’t encountered anything like that recently.

At least those fun folks at Google have a sense of humor. Doesn’t seem to work anymore, but a while back on Google if you requested driving trips for a ridiculous commute like New York City to Paris, buried within the directions was something like, “Swim across the Atlantic Ocean – 3,462 miles.”

Wi-Fi Expansion on Capital MetroExpress and MetroRail

Capital Metro plans to upgrade and expand its onboard Wi-Fi service for customers. Capital Metro will replace the older Wi-Fi equipment currently onboard 10 Express route buses and install it on 28 more so that most Express routes will offer the amenity. Wi-Fi will also be added to the six MetroRail vehicles.

The upgrade also includes a toll-free customer support number for riders and the ability to monitor and troubleshoot the system remotely, resulting in hopefully trouble-free surfing for customers.

Capital Metro has also been providing Wi-Fi at the Lakeline, Leander, Pavilion and Tech Ridge Park & Ride facilities, but due to low usage at the Park & Rides, when the new equipment is completely installed, Internet connectivity will be discontinued at the facilities.

We expect the new, upgraded service to be in place in early 2009.