Public Transit Software Helps Increase Ridership and Service Revenue I Blacksburg

Data analysis is integrated into every decision we make. At many places data is separate. The most gratifying thing is that management comes to my team for data before they make decisions and I’m involved in the planning process.

Tim Witten

ITS and Special Projects Manager

An Award Winning Transit Agency

In 2019, Blacksburg Transit (BT) won the prestigious American Public Transportation Association’s Outstanding Transit System award for North America, in the small urban system category. Tim Witten, ITS and Special Projects Manager for BT shares how Big Data has helped improve their customer experience, planning and service.

An Early Fixed Route Software Adopter

BT was an early adopter of TripSpark’s public transit software, Streets, and Mobile Data Terminals. True innovators, BT developed their own passenger information app and GTFS tools in-house before they were readily available on the market.

Access to Data Unlocks Strategic Service Improvements

Witten and his team have gained complete access to their data with TripSpark’s solution, enabling them to develop their own reports. Some agencies are not able to get access to that level of data, let alone be able to process it. However, BT collects data at a granular level (11,000 data points a day) and pulls it back into their system to run more complex analysis.

Invaluable Insights from Big Data

BT’s ability to report ridership increases and analyze at the stop-level has been paramount to their success. Because of this, BT can analyze fare type, schedule adherence, first/last trips, passenger loads and trends, passenger revenue numbers, boarding/ alighting, and compare off-campus and on-campus trips. In the short term, this provides invaluable insight into when headways should be changed, what stops can be eliminated or consolidated, and where the bus is being delayed, thereby improving schedule adherence.

“Data analysis is integrated into every decision we make. At many places data is separate. The most gratifying thing is that management comes to my team for data before they make decisions and I’m involved in the planning process.” —Tim Witten, ITS and Special Projects Manager, BT

Big Data has Big Payoffs

  • Increased ridership by 22% and revenue service hours by 22% between 2016 to 2018
  • On-time performance rate of 90%
  • 43 passengers per revenue hour on fixed route over the past 3 years, almost three times the national average for systems with a population below 200,000

Answering Unanswerd questions

As a university-oriented transit system, BT’s riders are very dynamic, and their locations and destinations change frequently. BT must compare annual service levels on a week by week basis to get accurate assessments of their riders’ activities. For this reason, collecting as much data as possible is important for two reasons:

  1. To discover things they’re not yet aware of: The traditional transit database is built around tracking passengers but doesn’t provide the ability to see what happened at a specific place and time. Traditional databases are good for answering a specific set of questions.
  2. Data collection provides accurate predicted bus arrival times for passengers: Service varies day to day to accommodate daily changing class times, with mini rush hours between classes. Therefore, predicted arrival times for a particular stop on a particular day will be different from the following day or even week. Solid data, on a trip-by-trip basis, accomplishes this.

Keeping Customers Happy

Big data also helps BT improve customer service and successfully satisfy customer complaints. Without data, transit agencies are forced to rrespond with ‘I think,’ or ‘I heard’ explanations. Witten says that BT is in a great position to say with authority “This is really happening”. For example, customer service receives a complaint about a pass-by when a bus is full. Administrators check to see if there were recorded pass-bys at the reported stop. For BT, one question often leads to another. The administrator then digs deeper to see if there were more pass-bys reported in the last several weeks, then extends the query to the last few years, to see if there is a trend emerging. Witten said they once ran an on-time performance report and saw there were a lot of early departures because one driver was leaving his last post four minutes early. This became a coaching opportunity and resulted in a “quick fix” to the problem.

Digital-Savvy Riders Pave the Way

95% of BT users have mobile devices, according to their last ridership survey. A passenger information system allows BT to make changes to their schedule without reprinting. Riders can text their stop number and receive a text back with routes servicing that stop and times. So far this year, BT has received an average of 2,500 text inquiries a day verses just 30 to 40 voice calls a day. This success proves that transit is heading down a new path with data and digitization.