Blog

March 2, 2021

CapMetro Weathers the Winter Storm of 2021 with Swiftly Service Adjustments

by Matt Fleck

Executive summary

In February 2021, Texas experienced one of its worst winter storms on record, and CapMetro found itself at the storm’s center. By using Swiftly’s Service Adjustments module, CapMetro was able to respond quickly during the weather emergency, implementing on-the-fly changes to service while seamlessly informing riders of cancelations in real time. In the end, the CapMetro team canceled more than 2,000 trips using Service Adjustments. Moving forward, the CapMetro team plans to use Service Adjustments to build back better as they learn from the lessons of the storm and the pandemic more broadly.

By the numbers

During the Winter Storm of 2021, CapMetro used Service Adjustments to:

  • Cancel 2,137 trips
  • Close 71 stops
  • Modify 16 departure times
“Service Adjustments was a lifesaver for us during the storm. We were able to cancel service easily, and folks at home could see the updated vehicle locations with just a simple internet connection. We’re so grateful for y’all.”  -- Dottie Watkins, Chief Operating Officer, CapMetro

Maintaining safety and reliability during the Storm of the Century

The top priority of Capital Metro in Austin, TX, is to provide safe, reliable transit service to their riders. During a pandemic it’s a hard enough task, but during an unprecedented winter storm and a pandemic, it’s nothing short of herculean. 

So when one of Texas’s worst winter storms on record hit Austin in February 2021, CapMetro’s ability to provide safe, reliable service was pushed to the limit. Record snowfall shut down roads across the agency’s service area, and a prolonged deep freeze crippled the area’s energy grid, causing blackouts that lasted for nearly a week. CapMetro was forced to cancel all of its scheduled service for more than three days, the first time in history that Austin experienced a total shutdown of transit service.

Canceling service is never easy, but thanks to CapMetro’s usage of Swiftly’s Service Adjustments module, agency staff were able to implement on-the-fly changes to service with agility and ease -- and from the safety of their homes -- seamlessly keeping riders informed of cancelations in real time. Service Adjustments allowed CapMetro to cancel service smoothly, bring it back just as smoothly, and maintain CapMetro’s pledge to provide safe, reliable transit to their riders.

“Service Adjustments was a lifesaver for us during the storm,” says Dottie Watkins, Chief Operating Officer at CapMetro. “We could cancel service easily, and folks at home could see the updated vehicle locations with just a simple internet connection. We’re so grateful for y’all.” 

Weathering the storm with Service Adjustments

During an ever-evolving weather emergency, the key to success is to adapt quickly and maintain solid communication with riders. Service Adjustments helped on both fronts as CapMetro made Service Adjustments their go-to tool for canceling trips and keeping riders informed of the changes.

Service Adjustments empowers operations staff to make quick adjustments to service -- including closing stops and canceling trips -- and once made, Swiftly automatically and seamlessly carries the updated service information to passenger-facing apps like Google Maps, Transit, and real-time bus stop signage. 

“Service Adjustments is drastically different from our previous methods,” says Daryl Weinberg, Transit Systems Architect at CapMetro. “Before Service Adjustments, our riders had no way of knowing that we’d made ad hoc service changes. Of course we were able to cancel service in our CAD/AVL system, but our riders would be in the dark about it. Inevitably, we’d have riders stranded at closed stops thinking the bus would come at any minute. With Service Adjustments, we can just hit a few buttons to cancel service, and everyone knows about the changes.” 

Fortunately for CapMetro, Service Adjustments was designed specifically to help transit agencies stay nimble in situations that demand quick service changes. This was a godsend during the storm, at a time when service cancelations were unavoidable and unpredictable. When the power started to come back on after three days of total blackouts, the CapMetro team used Service Adjustments to reinstate service in parts of the city where the electricity grid allowed it.

“It was so unpredictable where and when we could re-establish service,” says Olivia Jones, Manager of Bus Service Delivery at CapMetro. “The flexibility of Service Adjustments meant we could reinstate blocks as soon as it was possible. We were deciding based on need. Our tools weren't holding us back or determining when we could get back out there.”

In the end, the winter storm forced CapMetro to cancel more than 2,000 trips, and the team used Service Adjustments to enact every one of these cancelations. As a result, riders were able to follow along on real-time apps like CapMetro’s rider app, Google Maps, and Transit, and avoid unnecessary treks to closed bus stops in the snow. These updates all went out without any additional work on CapMetro’s part.

“Reliability goes beyond just sticking to the schedule. It’s about keeping your word with your riders,” Jones says. “I don’t think anyone expects you to completely stick to the printed schedule during a terrible weather emergency, but riders certainly expect real-time updates. And that’s what we gave them. Service Adjustments was the most efficient way to keep our customers informed.”

Easing the pain of driver shortages and pandemic-related issues

During the storm, it wasn’t only the weather itself that forced major disruptions across the CapMetro transit network; driver shortages, too, threatened further disruptions as vehicle operators struggled to get to work in the snowy conditions.

“Without enough operators, we have to cut service, plain and simple,” Weinberg says. “We’ve seen it throughout the pandemic too, when our operators are feeling sick and can’t come in. The Service Adjustments module alleviates the stress of these kinds of situations. If we need to cancel or modify service because of a driver shortage, we can just go into Swiftly and cancel a trip or two until we get someone else to come in, and our riders will see the changes in real time.”

This kind of fine-tuned control has had significant downstream benefits during the pandemic, albeit in times of milder weather.

“Bunched vehicles mean crowded vehicles, especially on our high-frequency routes,” Weinberg says. “That’s why consistent vehicle spacing is so instrumental in maintaining social distancing on vehicles.”

“When you pair Service Adjustments with Swiftly’s Onboard App, which we have on a portion of our vehicles, our dispatchers get a ton of control over vehicle spacing and therefore onboard crowding,” Weinberg says. “Our dispatchers can just change a departure time in Service Adjustments, and the update goes directly to the operator via Onboard App, in addition to any riders waiting for the bus along the route.”

Applying lessons from the storm and the pandemic 

As CapMetro takes stock of the lessons learned during the Winter Storm of 2021 and the pandemic more generally, the operations team expects Service Adjustments to be central to how they build back better.

“We see time and again that even if you’ve been doing something a certain way for a long time, you can still improve upon it,” Weinberg says. “For us, a major shift has been creating a culture of innovation and collaboration across the whole agency to break inertia. I like to think Service Adjustments is just the latest development in this cultural shift.”

“We’ve learned a lot in the last 12 months,” Weinberg continues. “At the top of the list is to always push for better. And that's what we're doing. With the pandemic hopefully coming to an end soon, I think it’s a momentous opportunity to build the future that our communities need. And thankfully, along the way, we’ve found partners like Swiftly who are there to innovate with us.”

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