February 29, 2024

5 ways to improve your agency’s on-time performance

Nick Smith
Morgan Greene
Graphic that illustrates 5 adjustments an agency can make to increase service reliability
February 29, 2024

5 ways to improve your agency’s on-time performance

February 29, 2024

5 ways to improve your agency’s on-time performance

This article is co-written by Nick Smith, a Solutions Engineer who works with transit professionals to help them fix some of their most pressing problems, and Morgan Greene, Director of Marketing, who brings stories and best practices to transit agencies. We both believe on-time performance is one of the most important ways to build trust with passengers, so we want to share our playbook with you.

On-time performance (OTP), or reliability, is one of the most important drivers of transit ridership. It has a direct effect on overall customer satisfaction and can often determine whether passengers opt for public transportation or seek alternative modes. With other modes becoming less reliable and operator shortages leveling out, this might just be transit’s moment.

Before we dive in, let’s align on a quick definition of OTP. Swiftly looks at OTP in the same way as most transit agencies and researchers, by comparing the actual times a bus departed from stops and/or timepoints compared to the scheduled departure times. The differences between these actual and scheduled departure times are then classified as on-time, early, or late based on where the difference falls in the ‘on-time window.’ This on-time window is defined differently across agencies, typically 1 minute early and 5 minutes late, meaning vehicles would be considered on-time when departing a timepoint no more than 1 minute prior to and no more than 5 minutes later than the scheduled time.

Let’s walk through why transit agencies should measure on-time performance, how to measure it, and the levers agencies can pull to drive improvements in OTP.

Why every agency should have an OTP goal

The most reliable agencies make this metric one of their top agency-wide goals to achieve OTP that keeps riders coming back. We often hear these agencies say, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” In other words, the best way to improve OTP is to set a goal and hold everyone at the agency accountable for it.

Setting agency-wide OTP goals acts as a ‘North Star,’ aligning all departments towards a common objective to guide strategic decisions and enhance overall performance. If there are different OTP goals across departments, it can result in silos, misalignments, and a lack of trust. While every agency should strive for 100% OTP, that’s unrealistic in a world with traffic and other unexpected variables, so many agencies set aspirational yet realistic goals. Here are a few examples:

  • MDOT MTA has an OTP goal of 80% on-time, tracked on this website.
  • IndyGo has an OTP goal of 85% on-time, tracked on this website.
  • CapMetro has an OTP goal of 85% on-time, tracked on this website.

*Due to different definitions of on-time, these definitions can’t be compared apples to apples.

The agencies we work with that run the most reliable service use common OTP goals to align operations, scheduling, planning, customer service, and other departments to drive collaboration. They have a deep and nuanced understanding of their agencies' OTP, down to the route and stop level and by different times of the day. They convene weekly cross-departmental meetings where they review OTP, look at the worst-performing routes and identify areas of improvement, celebrate the wins, and double down on what’s working.

These agencies hold themselves accountable. They share their ‘North Star’ OTP goals publicly, as the above agencies have. This shows riders they’re committed to providing a reliable experience that is always improving, building trust.

Best practices for measuring on-time performance

Once agencies have an OTP goal, it’s crucial to have a way to quickly measure work towards that North Star. Yet, many of the agencies we speak with face the following challenges:

1. Some agencies don't measure OTP at all.

These agencies use anecdotal evidence to gauge reliability. This creates a “squeaky wheel” effect that makes it difficult to pinpoint where issues actually lie, often creating confusion and misalignments across the agency.

The most reliable agencies take a data-driven approach that puts objective observations above anecdotes.

We hear from many of our customers that Swiftly’s data and reporting tools enable them to make informed decisions that improves overall service quality.

2. Many agencies have several OTP metrics.

We hear of many agencies with three or even four different ways of measuring OTP across various tools and data sources. In Nick’s experience, this creates silos and a lack of trust when operations is looking at one data set and scheduling is looking at another.

The most reliable agencies have one OTP goal and system of measurement that gives everyone in the agency a common data language.

Many of our customers talk about finding more cross-functional alignment once everyone is looking at the same easily accessible data.

3. Many agencies have inaccurate OTP metrics.

Even with so many OTP tools, we often learn they’re inaccurate due to poor data quality. Our colleague recently wrote a blog about Swiftly’s approach to data quality that focuses on moving to high-fidelity data, moving beyond geofences, and filling in data gaps from login issues.

The most reliable agencies have OTP data that is provably accurate.

Scott Germann, Vice President of Operations, Transdev North America (Central Region), describes the Swiftly accuracy difference: “We were experiencing some significant discrepancies in our OTP. Swiftly’s system, which doesn’t require geofencing, showed us numerous areas that needed to be addressed with our current system. Switching to Swiftly was our ultimate goal, but wow, what a difference using their technology made in understanding and measuring our OTP. I definitely recommend this over traditional geofencing. It’s like driving a 2023 car with loaded tech versus an early model 2000. What a difference!”

4. Many agencies struggle to access OTP data quickly.

To be useful as a North Star, data needs to be just a click away. We found that only 29% of agencies can access OTP data in less than 10 minutes.

The most reliable agencies access OTP data in seconds.

Not only should top-line metrics be accessible, but agencies need to be able to dig deeper and slice & dice the data to see trends over time at the system, route, timepoint, and stop-level and by time of day. Swiftly’s On-Time Performance product is a dashboard, not a report like most CAD/AVLs generate. This enables agencies to dig in deeper, slice & dice their data, and aggregate it to fit their use case (of course, the underlying data is always accessible via direct download 😉).

5. Many agencies’ OTP data doesn’t take service adjustments/disruptions into account.

As a result, data is either inaccurate or takes hours to clean up. Agencies often end up throwing out a lot of data. For instance, one of the agencies we spoke with had a route that was running late 80% of the time. When we dug into this with them, we found they had put a detour into their CAD/AVL that was outdated, and as a result, their OTP data was wildly inaccurate.

The most reliable agencies have OTP data that takes service adjustments into account.

Swiftly’s On-Time Performance takes service adjustments into account so agencies can explain more of their service without any cleanup.

Levers to pull for improving OTP

We’ve discussed the importance of measuring OTP and how to do that, now let’s talk about how agencies are managing OTP and improving it over time with the most powerful levers at their disposal. Managing OTP is a cross-functional effort that requires a strategic investment from nearly every department. According to Michael Helta, Chief Customer Officer at MDOT MTA, you need to “manage what you can manage.” In other words, focus where you can have an impact, such as early timepoint departures because those are within an operator's control. He shares—

“Improving OTP is an all-hands-on-deck moment—you need to have supervisors, schedulers, the whole team aligned around the goal.”

With these strategies, you'll be able to better manage the variances of day-to-day operations, and riders will notice the impact on reliability.

Lever 1: Adjust service plans and schedules using historical performance data 

One of the most powerful levers an agency can pull to improve OTP is informing schedules with robust and accurate historical data. When schedules are set to reflect up-to-date operating conditions, operators can manage the schedule, and riders get a smooth, on-time experience.  According to Helta, the MDOT MTA has been struggling to improve OTP ever since the pandemic. Due to ever-changing conditions, finding a historical proxy to build schedules was very difficult. This past winter, the MDOT MTA began utilizing Swiftly data from before the pandemic to look at bus speeds and running times to inform their next pick, which included updated running times for 28 routes. After being frustrated with stagnant OTP for months, they were thrilled to see a 4% improvement in OTP overnight. OTP often decreases in the days after a schedule change, so this is quite the feat. According to Helta—

“It’s crucial to have good data and a scheduling team that knows how to use it.”

When Nick works with agencies to improve and optimize their schedules, he finds a wide mix of challenges—too little (or sometimes too much) time in schedules and, often, a schedule only optimized to timepoints, hurting the rider experience at all other stops. Swiftly’s Run-Times make it easy to quickly view observed running time data and make changes to schedules by leveraging Swiftly’s suggested schedules.

Many of the scheduling teams Nick talks to are stretched thin, and with manual processes or CAD/AVL data, adjusting schedules informed by data can take months of pulling together disparate data sources, manual ride checks, data cleanup, and validation. With Swiftly, agencies can access this data right away and focus on the art of creating a new schedule instead of spending all their time on the science. Plesko recently told Morgan that he was able to turn a 6-month project into a 1-month project thanks to Swiftly data.

"A lot of agencies want to implement CAD/AVL systems, but CAD/AVLs are not quick analysis tools. They’re really just data export tools. If an agency is looking to invest millions in a CAD/AVL system, they also need Swiftly to make their CAD/AVL data useable and get value from the data they’re collecting.

"Swiftly allows operations, scheduling, and planning to work together when usually they’re at odds. It gets all these teams on the same wavelength. The learning curve is huge for working with a CAD/AVL. Swiftly makes it easy for non-computer super wizards to find value and improve performance.”

—Todd Plesko, Senior Transit Advisor, AECOM

We’ve seen agencies using Swiftly Run-Times improve OTP by more than 20% like Oulu in Finland or by 5% like CTtransit in Connecticut.

Lever 2: Empower operators to confidently deliver reliable service informed by real-time schedule adherence guidance

Operators are on the front line of service reliability, so one of the biggest levers an agency can pull to improve OTP is improving operators' ability to adhere to the schedule during their run. Operators have a lot on their plate—they are driving a 40-foot bus, navigating the route, interacting with passengers, managing incidents, and more. Expecting operators to also manage a schedule using a paper paddle and a clock is a tall ask, to say the least.

Operators can benefit from data-based insights just like the rest of the operations team. There's a growing ecosystem of operator-facing data solutions—for example, Swiftly’s Onboard App tackles this challenge by giving operators simple and immediate feedback about how they’re driving their route via a screen with timing adherence (early/late/on time), empowering them to manage their own OTP and headway adherence in real time. It’s like a personal assistant for your operators, developed wholly with your operators in mind and based on operator feedback.

The results? Big improvements in OTP. Citibus in Lubbock, Texas recently saw a 40% decrease in early departures and a 23% increase in on time departures after using Onboard App.

Lever 3: Make informed operational interventions in real time

The most operationally reliable agencies Nick talks to give their operations teams accurate, accessible data about real-time OTP. Agencies rely on tools that surface the most important operational issues so they can quickly address the earliest vehicles, vehicles that have gone off route, and instances of overcrowding. This enables road supervisors and dispatch to identify and communicate with operators who need the most urgent interventions and get everything running back on track. Learn more about how Swiftly Live Operations does just that.

Lever 4: Coach operators to improve over time and reward top performers

Using historical performance data to help coach operators can also have a big impact on OTP. Most of the agencies we talk with tell us they use anecdotal feedback, often informed by customer complaints, to manage operator performance. This approach can be biased, focus on squeaky wheels, and hurt operator morale.

At Swiftly, we work with agencies to coach operators with historical data about their schedule adherence so they can know what good looks like and how to achieve it. This helps operators to improve over time and reduces OTP silos between scheduling and operations. With operator-level data, you can concentrate your efforts where the impacts will be felt most. Michael Helta shares, “We focus on the operators that are having challenges with specific routes frequently because this will have an outsized impact on OTP.” Addressing these issues head-on leads to noticeable improvements in OTP, benefiting both the operators and the overall service quality.

A testament to the effectiveness of this strategy is the success story of Culver City. By utilizing OTP and Operator Reports, the city witnessed a remarkable reduction in early arrivals at a specific terminal—dropping from 10% to 3%. This highlights the practical benefits of data-driven coaching and is an example for other agencies aiming to enhance their service reliability and efficiency.

Bonus: Infrastructure investments 

Now, let’s say your agency is already doing all of this—Congratulations! You are bringing your riders some of the best reliability in the country. Now it’s time to see what you can do on the infrastructure side. It’s time to go talk to the DOT.

A study at UC Berkeley found that delays caused by back-ups, congestion, and construction were the number one reason riders cited for reducing their bus trips. Solutions to these kinds of delays, like Bus Rapid Transit, take years of planning and millions of dollars to implement, so what’s an agency to do in the meantime?

At Swiftly, our recommendation is to consider taking on small-scale, targeted projects,  which aim to increase transit reliability at high-impact intersections in a fraction of the time and on a fraction of the scale of more conventional approaches.

In one example of this process in action, Nick recently worked with a large transit agency to evaluate the effectiveness of a recent transit signal priority (TSP) project along a major bus corridor. Their staff used Swiftly’s Speed Map to look at speed variability at TSP intersections and ultimately found that the benefits of TSP were not being fully realized, with approximately 12 hours of delays still present along the corridor. These findings led planners and engineers to further evaluate the business rules governing the TSP intersections to look for ways to better utilize the system. Through this process, they are now able to focus their scarce time and resources on the most problematic intersections, potentially leading to further running time savings and opening up the option to increase service with their current resources. This type of analysis will continue to provide this team value as traffic patterns shift and subsequent transit-priority projects are planned and implemented.

With data, a more reliable journey for riders

In the quest for enhanced OTP, the journey from data to action embodies both the art and science of managing reliability. As we've explored, leveraging historical data, empowering operators with real-time insights, making informed operational interventions, and coaching for continuous improvement are not just strategies but fundamental shifts in how agencies operate. They are about embracing technology to not only navigate the challenges of today but also to anticipate the needs of tomorrow. With Swiftly, agencies can transform raw data into actionable intelligence, ensuring that every decision made is a step towards more reliable, efficient, and passenger-centric service. As we look to the future, let's continue to pull these powerful levers, drive improvement, and redefine the transit experience, one data point at a time.

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Nick Smith

Nick Smith

Morgan Greene

Morgan Greene

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