October 5, 2021
Regional Transportation Agency (RTA) of Central Maryland’s process for gathering ridership data was manual and time-intensive, and the end result was incomplete and hard to use. They lacked data about alighting, and ridership information wasn’t joined with the rest of their data, like their agency GTFS feed. But with Swiftly’s APC Connector, ridership data collection is a breeze. It saves the team weeks of work and allows them to analyze ridership data alongside the rest of the data in their system. Now the team can easily pinpoint how to allocate resources to help the greatest number of riders, as well as share crowding data with customers. They can also compile reports for the National Transit Database in a fraction of the time. And because APC Connector is entirely cloud-based, it can be used with whatever third-party hardware RTA of Central Maryland chooses to use, making deployment simpler, less expensive, and more future-proof.
Over the last couple of years, RTA of Central Maryland has achieved some pretty incredible goals with the agency’s data. The team began using Swiftly in late 2019, and since then the agency has upgraded several aspects of their data architecture.
“Getting accurate real-time trip update, vehicle position, and rider alert feeds alongside an accurate GTFS feed was a huge win,” says Cole McCarren, Planning and Special Projects Manager at RTA of Central Maryland. “Having that information out there for the public gave us a baseline, and we were able to reach a higher level of customer service. We’re offering a lot more for our riders, and a certain level of transparency now exists. It was a big milestone to accomplish.”
But McCarren and his team weren’t done. The team still lacked an efficient and accurate way to count passengers and incorporate that information into their feed. “Ridership data was the next big thing for us to tackle,” McCarren says.
In order to calculate ridership, the agency relied on a number of strategies that all added up to a manual, time-intensive process. “We had a cumbersome process where operators would enter tallies on tablets that were connected to a legacy system,” explains Cole. “If the tablets weren’t working for regular ridership counts, then we would supplement that data with information from paper tally sheets. The operators hate the paper, but I joke to them that I hate it more. The unluckiest operator might count passenger boardings on 20 paper tally sheets each month, but I count up about 700, because I have to count all of them.”
What’s more, these strategies didn’t capture alighting data, which meant that the agency was required to manually compile a sample of alighting information every three years for the National Transit Database (NTD). “We have to randomly sample 20 monthly round trips to put into a report for the NTD every three years. I would either ride buses or look at security cam footage and track who got on and off at every stop, as well as how many total people were on the bus between every single stop, segment by segment,” explains McCarren.
To compile reports, McCarren and his team needed to attribute boardings and alightings to routes, trips, and stops. They had already invested in making their static GTFS as accurate as possible, and wanted to use that same feed to calculate ridership data, too. “Our ridership data was essentially a completely separate dataset because it had to be maintained in a proprietary system. We were always duplicating our efforts and looking at two different feeds to get the information we needed,” says McCarren.
None of this fit into the open data future that the agency was building, and it was time to fix that. “We pursued this whole vision with our real time data, and we were asking ourselves how we could do something similar with our ridership data,” says McCarren. “And Swiftly was going to help us do that.”
APC Connector gives McCarren and his team the ability to collect complete ridership data using just the information in their agency GTFS feeds -- without requiring any additional hardware. Swiftly’s products are designed on the philosophy that transit tools should be part of an open ecosystem, making deployment simpler, less expensive, and more future-proof. There isn’t Swiftly hardware to install, and instead, agencies can use whatever APC hardware they want and integrate it with Swiftly using cloud-based APIs, and not wires or other less flexible set-ups.
Daily ridership data is available to use immediately, and staff can then use that data however they want. They can get a detailed analysis of ridership using Swiftly’s intuitive visualizations and dashboards, use APIs to connect the data with other tools, or download the data into a simple, lightly processed CSV or JSON format. Swiftly provides APIs and exports that enable agencies to put tools together and build the workflow they actually need.
The team at RTA of Central Maryland connects their existing third-party sensors to Swiftly, which then pairs ridership data with RTA of Central Maryland’s GTFS feed for analysis in Swiftly’s dashboard. “We wanted to streamline our entire architecture so we could just focus on having good GTFS data. We wanted to find a partner that was able to pair ridership boarding and alighting data directly against our regular GTFS data set, using the hardware that we already had, without our team having to change anything about how we operate or maintain our data,” says McCarren.
According to McCarren, there were two main benefits to doing this: Getting historical data and getting real-time data. “Historical data helps us make better planning decisions, and it gives us better data to put together NTD reports and provide information to the government and stakeholder partners,” says McCarren. “And real-time data goes beyond just giving us more information at our fingertips to better manage resources. Everyone has seen how powerful real-time data can be for riders and building back confidence in transit. Riders can still recall experiences where transit was much more crowded, so they’re still hesitant to get on board even though it’s safe. If we can show them information on crowding, it will go a long way.”
Cole and his team are now collecting a complete and accurate data set on ridership, which opens up a new world of possibilities.
“We are now receiving boarding data from the majority of our fleet which is really exciting. Already, we’re able to start seeing trends. We're seeing what we expect to see in our ridership data set, and now we have accurate proof to back up what was only a hunch before. The most popular stops, which routes are underperforming—all of that is now in our APC dataset, which is really, really great. And soon we’re going to transition to utilizing alighting data, too.”
Alighting data is important for three reasons: it allows agencies to get a deep understanding of how routes are being used, to analyze crowding both historically and in real-time, and to compute passenger miles traveled for the NTD.
Automatically collecting alighting data along with boarding data will relieve the team of having to do an exhaustive, additional sampling of passenger miles to the NTD every three years, which was only required of RTA of Central Maryland because they weren’t collecting alighting data day-to-day. “It is an enormous headache to put together those extra reports, and it takes weeks of our time to do it,” says McCarren. “This is going to save us a lot of time.”
With APC Connector, the team also has a greater ability to analyze data and dig deep to gather insights. “Prior to APC Connector, we didn’t have a great way of doing trip-by-trip analysis. But with Swiftly, we can see every single trip, and slice and dice the data to get a better understanding of how riders are actually using our transit system.”
With the new data pouring in, McCarren and the team can start a whole new chapter at RTA. “This is a powerful and flexible way to organize our ridership dataset. We can now see boardings, alightings, and occupancy data, all time-stamped against our GTFS feed. That information then can inform and back up the planning process. And by exposing the crowding data through our GTFS-RT feed, it can be delivered to developers and the public in a format that they already use. We did that with our other data with Swiftly, and now we’re doing that with our ridership data, too,” says McCarren.
McCarren believes that every agency should be taking a similar approach and working towards using data standards for every part of their system. Says McCarren, “You want to be flexible for the future, you want to be able to be nimble. And you have a reasonable degree of certainty about your level of flexibility if, from the get-go, you use well-documented data standards and try to rely on those standards as much as possible, so you don’t recreate anything that’s already done. For instance, everything that a standalone APC system needs can be found in standard, public-facing GTFS feeds. The same goes for annunciator systems or destination signs. Getting all of those systems to read a GTFS feed you already make is a slam dunk.”
“Not only does the open data approach save agencies a whole lot of time because they don’t have to worry about keeping a dozen different databases up to date, but it gives the agency the advantages of a centralized approach to data and a decentralized approach to deployment. Consistency is easier, since everything uses the same data and there isn’t a lot of duplication. But agencies retain the flexibility to choose hardware deployments in a modular way, and if vendors can build around common standards, you're going to be able to foster more marketplace competition, which will have better results for the industry as a whole. And I think big and small agencies all have a role to play in pushing the industry in that direction.”
McCarren believes that better ridership data will help them allocate resources and improve transit in the areas where they can help the greatest number of riders. “We’re going to be able to look at our data and say, ‘Oh hey, route 401 is getting crowded between 4pm and 6pm. It’s about time we added that second bus back.’ We’ll have an extra level of certainty about how many more people we'll be able to help with every decision we make,” says McCarren. “That will be particularly useful as things open up post-Covid.”
And speaking of Covid, McCarren is confident that ridership data will be crucial for bringing back riders by helping them navigate crowding. The agency plans to begin releasing crowding data publicly on rider-facing apps in the next few months. “We want to be able to show people who are planning a trip on transit that they can look up the bus they’re planning to board and see an indicator that it’s not crowded. That’s really, really powerful,” he says. “We’ll probably be shouting that information from the rooftops to illustrate to customers that there’s no chance that you’re going to be packed into a vehicle like a sardine like you might have been a couple of years ago.”
But that public-facing data goes beyond being useful in bringing riders back post-Covid. “Crowding data is going to be powerful for people with wheelchairs, strollers, or mobility devices,” says McCarren. “This sort of information is always going to be useful to riders.”
McCarren is particularly excited about the possibilities that Swiftly modularity opens up for him and the agency. “Our ultimate goal as an agency is to take an open data approach to everything we do. We’re accomplishing that by collecting ridership data, and we don’t need any proprietary hardware to do it. We have flexibility going forward as we evaluate other systems to connect. You don't have that freedom with a traditional CAD/AVL deployment.”
“A huge reason we're so excited about APC Connector is that it’s going to position us to do other cool things that we wouldn't be able to do if our sensors were connected to a proprietary CAD/AVL computer,” he adds. “What Swiftly is doing with the Open Transit Initiative falls directly in line with our vision of not falling into vendor lock-in and having a much more modular set up to our data reporting and our data recording. Swiftly allows us to achieve our vision of getting everything speaking the same language.”
Looking forward, McCarren and RTA of Central Maryland see Swiftly as a long-term partner that can help them propel public transit into the future. “It’s really refreshing. All of us at RTA feel this way about Swiftly. Not only do we have a vendor that is actively in our corner and rooting for us, but they’re also advocating on our behalf to other vendors, like they did with our onboard sensors,” he says. “We see eye to eye on where we want to go, and having that in a vendor is just unbelievable.”