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Transit Discussion in real-time.

It’s time to bury your printed schedules six feet deep.

Display and mobile technologies have
rendered the printed schedule obsolete.

By Matt Schroeder
Director of Marketing, ETA Transit Systems

The printed schedule must die.

There, I said it and if feels amazing. And if you’re sitting there with your mouth agape wondering how I could blaspheme such a longtime staple of public transit; I don’t blame you. But hear me out.

When I was five years old, my father thought it would be a great idea to take the entire family on a vacation from Colorado Springs to visit his relatives in Indiana—using nothing but public transit—just buses and trains. In truth, I don’t remember much from the vacation—nothing about the visits with Grandma and Grandpa. Aunts, uncles, and cousins—nada. But what I do remember was the trip.

And it was miserable.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. As a five-year old, three-and-half-foot tall kid, travel was nowhere near the challenge that it is for my now 6’7” frame. Back then I could easily fit in any seat and still have plenty of wriggle room to move around, gaze out the windows, run up and down the aisles. You know, the very things that frustrate me as a parent now when my kids exhibit the same behavior.

I remember walking down our street to the nearest bus stop, loads of luggage in tow just waiting for the bus to arrive.

And waiting…

And waiting some more…

Now, understand that my father is an Electrical Engineer by trade. Intelligent. Detailed. Meticulous. Always with a well-thought-out plan. I know he charted every stop; every transfer for each bus line in every state; every train depot. We had a schedule.

Of course, this was the 1970s, so there was no Internet. No cell phones. All we had were printed schedules. My father spent weeks sending letters to various transit agencies to request their schedules so that he could chart the most efficient travel for our family. He had that itinerary dialed in like the invasion of Normandy.

So here we on day one, stop one; just waiting to embark on our first stop and the bus is late.

Now if you remember your childhood at all, you know that time literally takes forever. That first bus may have only been five minutes late, but unbeknownst to us at the time, it was the first trickle in a ripple effect that caused numerous missed connections along the way. Sometimes the schedules were missed by minutes. Some delays caused wait hours for the next train or bus.

To a five-year-old, this was an eternity.

I tell you this story for two reasons … number one, to lure you in with a nostalgic vision of childhood and vacations gone wrong, and two, to highlight the inherent problem with printed schedules. They’re set in stone; immutable and inflexible. Ultimately, they do riders a disservice by setting a one-sided expectation that’s nearly impossible to live up to. Oh, riders must do their part by showing up on time, but if the bus is early or late, they must wait. I can feel my five-year-old self cringing at the prospect.

According to ETA’s 2018 transit agency survey, 84 percent of transit agencies still list printed schedules as their primary means of communicating travel times and stops to their riders.

My question is why? Printed schedules are outdated the second they are produced.

Printed schedules cost money. Lots of money to design, edit, and produce. Not to mention that the need to repeat this cycle happens every time a route is changed (62 percent of agencies makes seasonal changes to routes). It’s also well-known just how tight operating budgets are for transit operators; so, the printing of schedules represents a significant expense.

A few more statistics to underscore the obsolescence of printed schedules…

  • 96 percent of Americans now own a cell phone.
  • 81 percent of Americans own a smartphone
  • 75 percent of Americans own a desktop or laptop computer
  • 71 percent of Americans earning under $30K per year own a smartphone (that number jumps to 95 percent for incomes over $75k)
  • 51.9 percent of Americans have a wearable smart device (such as a smart watch)

Source: https://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/

As of 2018, 88.8 percent of transit agencies have already invested in at least one technology to track their vehicles. It seems obvious to say that if riders want to know when the next bus will arrive the answer is already in their hands. Pull up an app. Visit a website. Schedule a SMS alert. Dial in to an IVR system. Boom! There’s your schedule.

Source: 2018 APTA Fact book

  • 70 percent of transit agencies currently offer a mobile app
  • 52 percent offer vehicle tracking websites
  • 43 percent offer SMS alerts

Source: ETA Transit 2018 transit agency survey

But I can hear your objection now. What about those four percent without a phone? Or the 25 percent without a computer?

For that I give you the powerful trio of GTFS, GTFS-R, and digital signage.

The General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) is a data formatting standard created back in 2006 for allowing other computers, transit agencies, and connected systems to display transit information. The GTFS-R standard is a variant that provides this information in real time. If your transit agency has a modern intelligent transit system (ITS) for tracking its vehicles, odds are it can export schedule information into the GTFS format.

Once you have your schedule in GTFS, you open a world of possibilities for your agency and your riders—including sharing and displaying this information at stations on digital signage.

Once upon a time, digital signage was an expensive proposition; available only to the largest, deep-pocketed operations. However, technology and economy of scale have drastically lowered the cost of digital signage in recent years. LED, LCD, and solar-powered e-paper displays have become incredibly more affordable—and connected.

Internet, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth technology have made it easier to push schedule information directly to any connected device. Paired with the GTFS-R specification, this information is updated in real time at every stop without the need for interaction on the part of a transit dispatcher. Riders can watch the progress of any bus on an interactive map, see updated arrival predictions, and make proactive adjustments to their travel schedule.

Modern technology has rendered the need for printed schedules obsolete. My 1970’s era father—with his bushy mustache, mutton chops, and paisley polyester shirt—would jump at the chance to have real-time access to transit schedules and vehicle status.

Technology has provided new and more reliable means of communicating schedules to transit riders, and with very few exceptions, the public already has the means to interface with these new connected transit systems. Ditch the time and expense of printed schedules and use the money saved to invest in traveler information solutions that deliver accurate, real-time results.

But hey, that’s just our take.

What’s your argument for keeping printed schedules? Have you ceased production of printed schedules, but then brought them back? If so, what were the reasons?