February 14, 2024

Detour ahead: Supporting detours from beginning to end

Meredith Bordoni
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Graphic that shows detours end-to-end, from the Swiftly Dashboard (agency staff) to Swiftly Onboard App (agency operators) to mobile RTPI (passengers)
February 14, 2024

Detour ahead: Supporting detours from beginning to end

Meredith Bordoni
February 14, 2024

Detour ahead: Supporting detours from beginning to end

Meredith Bordoni

In my role as Swiftly’s Chief Product Officer, I have the responsibility and privilege of determining what problems we invest in solving and why.

The great news for everyone is that I don’t do this alone. The “why” is informed with a deep understanding of both transit agency and rider needs, workflows, challenges, goals, and motivations that our product development teams gather through direct and indirect research. As one wonderful transit staff member said to my team when I was on site recently, “Y’all ask a lot of questions. It’s not bad; it’s just different.” We do ask a lot of questions, and we also run broad-sweeping industry surveys, pore over data, and run extensive design and development sessions with our agency partners. I have even been known to swing into the nearest agency headquarters while on family road trips (someday my family will think this is charming). Needless to say, our product development approach is always rooted in finding and solving for the shared problems that are holding back public transit systemically and systematically.

If you’re in transit, you probably already know what the most persistent and global problem in the real-time transit data world has been: communicating detours with riders.

Over the last few years, Swiftly knew we could play a key role in making the experience better for riders. What we learned along the way was how much we could improve the experience for agency staff as well.

Recently, Swiftly revolutionized how transit agencies communicate detours with transit riders.

Swiftly has long been the engine that powers the industry’s most accurate transit real-time passenger information for public transportation riders across the globe. While there are many reasons our real-time information leads the transit industry, one of the newest is that riders now have better information about detours: riders can now see detour shapes and temporary stops alongside Swiftly’s detour-aware ETAs right in their favorite trip-planning app. Partnering with our friends at Transit, Swiftly is stewarding the evolution of the GTFS-rt data standard to make detours way less painful for riders.

But bringing detours to life for transit riders is a team effort—detecting, coordinating, analyzing, and communicating detours requires nearly every department at a transit agency.

A focus on the rider experience has always been at the heart of Swiftly’s approach, and it is the strategic anchor for the most successful transit agencies we partner with. However, as we embarked on making detours a reality for passengers in GTFS-rt, we learned a lot about the pains that most transit agency staff encounter while trying to identify, coordinate, and operationalize detours in the first place. That’s why as much as we’ve focused on communicating real-time detours with passengers, we’ve also worked with dozens of transit agencies and operators to make it simple to create and coordinate both planned and unplanned detours themselves. Of course, as a data engine, we also had a keen eye toward learning how detour management impacted historical data analysis as well.

Here’s what we learned about detours from transit agencies:
  • Transit agency staff often have some tooling that allows them to document service disruptions in real time. The sophistication of these tools varies, detour functionality is often limited to the most recent versions, and upgrading is no small feat.
  • Even modern dispatch tools don’t always allow agencies to manage the complex realities of real service—like accommodating recurring detours or adding temporary stops.
  • Unplanned detours typically get flagged by a bus operator who comes across an issue on the line. With busy request-to-talk queues, it can take a while for folks in operations control to become aware of a detour, requiring operators to do the best they can while keeping passengers safe and schedules on time.
  • Mobile ops staff play a big role in finding the best detour paths in an unplanned detour scenario, and across planned and unplanned, they also manage stop signage for vehicle operators and passengers to help everyone actually run the detour. Yet the current ops toolset is often cumbersome or limiting in the field, leaving these critical players to work magic to stay up to date.
  • Agencies rarely have the ability to share real-time adjustment information, like detours, modified departure times, or service cancelations, with vehicle operators. Operators may get a print-out of lefts & rights for planned detours at the start of their run, but ad hoc detours create lots of radio chatter and variability in how each trip runs the detour.
  • When a detour or other service change is live, visibility is often limited to staff in the control center, making it challenging for folks beyond, like customer service, to know about disruptions to service and how they might impact active trips.
  • Planning and scheduling may be involved in crafting known, long-term detours, but they’re regularly left to fend for themselves when it comes to understanding whether service was intentionally changed for any historical trips and whether that should alter future schedule change or capital investment planning.
So here’s how Swiftly really brings detour-aware, real-time information to passengers (hint: it starts by supporting agency staff directly)

As we set out to give riders highly accurate info about detours, we took our learnings from hundreds of hours on-site with transit agency staff and invested in the full detour story—well before the information makes its way to rider apps.

  • We developed robust APIs that allow integration with other systems where agencies may be entering detour information. This allows agencies to leverage an existing CAD/AVL system and push disruption information directly to Swiftly’s passenger information system and analytics. The folks at Vontas recently made this data flow completely automatic for agencies with OnRoute and Swiftly Service Adjustments.
  • We made it simple to draw detours within Swiftly for folks without modern CAD/AVL systems, making it possible to easily add temporary stops or set more complex rules for recurrence.
  • We enhanced Swiftly Live Operations to spotlight off-route vehicles in real time so that operations control, field supervision, customer service, and anyone else at an agency could proactively address potential detours.
  • We made Swiftly Service Adjustments easy to see for everyone at the agency, from any device, so that everyone at the transit agency has the same up-to-date info about service in real time.
  • We added a map view to Swiftly Onboard App that automatically incorporates detour and adjustment information so that operators can easily and safely get updates about their routes with less radio chatter and less paper shuffling.
  • We incorporated detour and adjustment information into our historical data and APIs to inform capital investments, service planning, and scheduling with hyper-accurate data.
  • We weaved all this detour information into our real-time ETAs seamlessly and made detour shapes available for riders in trip-planning apps, like Transit, as the first producers of Trip-Modifications, a revolutionary enhancement to the GTFS-rt spec.

And, of course, we continue to learn from our agency partners who are entering tens of thousands of detours into Swiftly’s data engine so that we can improve the experience.

As a transit rider and career technologist, I’m so proud to see Swiftly partnering with transit agencies to write the playbook for managing and communicating detours.

One of my favorite aspects of public transit is how many people across departments—from service planning to operations to customer service to IT and beyond—bring their talents together to realize accessible transportation service to their communities. Learning how interdisciplinary the detour creation, management, analysis, and communication process was at most agencies pushed us to consider a holistic approach that could support every part of the detour flow, with a keen focus on complementing—not duplicating—existing workflows.

If your agency has interesting operational challenges at any point in the detour journey, we would love to learn with you, too! Drop us a line, and let’s get through the detours ahead.

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