Monday, January 2, 2012

TCRP Synthesis 91: Use and Deployment of Mobile Device Technology for Real-Time Transit Information

Customer information is often a critical element of public transit authorities’ strategy not only for providing transportation services but also for encouraging and facilitating the use of these services. The expectations of riders and nonriders help define the parameters within which agencies provide information. In meeting these expectations, agencies consider that customer information must be relevant, accurate, timely, and targeted to meet a diverse number of needs that reflect their communities, and it is important that it be available in different formats by means of a wide range of dissemination media/channels. In TCRP Synthesis 68: Methods of Ridership Communication, three of the factors governing effective communication are the stage of the travel chain in which the communication is needed, the demographic characteristics of the communications recipients, and their ownership of and ability to use technology. Mobile technology, specifically mobile phones and smartphones, is one way for agencies to address these factors.

The demographics of transit riders have changed significantly over the past 5 years, with many more riders and nonriders using cell phones or even smartphones, which provide Internet access and other capabilities such as mobile e-mail and application programs. This change has prompted transit agencies to look beyond providing information by means of traditional dissemination media such as dynamic message signs, which require more resources to implement (e.g., costs for installation, power, communication, and maintenance). At the same time, agencies’ capabilities to provide real-time information have
grown considerably, with many agencies deploying technologies that allow them to provide customers with real-time information, such as when the next vehicles will arrive at a particular stop or station.

Starting in the early 2000s, many transit agencies in the United States began to offer static information on mobile devices, including timetables, service alerts, and trip planning. At that time, there were a limited number of mobile devices on the market, meaning that some agencies could develop simple applications for these devices in-house without significant expenditures. For example, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco Bay area developed its own applications for the Palm operating system (OS). However, since that time, the explosion of mobile devices on the market has made it virtually impossible for agencies to keep current on the types of devices and their specific requirements and to develop, manage, and maintain mobile applications for these devices. These developments, coupled with the fact that agencies can now provide more types of customer information, caused agencies to look outside their organizations for third parties to assist them in providing information on mobile devices.

This synthesis examines and documents the state of the practice in the use and deployment of real-time transit information on mobile devices using the following five dimensions:

• The underlying technology required to generate the information that will be disseminated on mobile devices, including the underlying software, hardware, and communications;

• The mobile technology used for information dissemination, including handset capabilities, and the specific mobile delivery channels used, such as text messaging [also known as short message service (SMS)], mobile Internet, and smartphone applications;

• The characteristics of the information, including message types, content, format, accessibility, and method of dissemination (push/pull); the use of standards; and the reliability and accuracy of the information;

• The resources required to successfully deploy information on mobile devices, including capital and operations and maintenance costs, agency staff requirements, customer costs, and other resources (e.g., managing an external application development program); and

• The contribution of mobile messaging to an overall agency communications strategy, including “information equity.” Here, information equity is defined as providing realtime information by means of at least two dissemination media in both audio and visual formats.

This synthesis includes a review of the relevant literature, in addition to the results of a survey that was conducted as part of this project. This survey included items in the dimensions described earlier, as well as questions regarding lessons learned in deploying real-time information on mobile devices. This synthesis also contains the results of interviews with key personnel at agencies that have exemplary approaches to providing mobile information.

The literature review revealed a wealth of material on the subject of providing real-time information on mobile devices. The literature that focuses on the development of innovative mobile applications, use of mobile device technology to enhance real-time information (e.g., device location), and use of social networking is also plentiful and covers both U.S. and international studies. Four major conclusions resulted from the literature review. First, the
underlying technologies required to generate the real-time information provided on mobile devices are well understood. Several recent studies have documented the most innovative uses of the underlying technologies. For example, two European agencies describe combining real-time information with trip planning and providing this capability on mobile devices. 

Second, the literature confirms that it is important to consider certain characteristics of mobile technology when providing real-time information on mobile devices. Several papers discuss these factors, including mobile messaging reliability and usability, handset display dimensions, memory and processing speed, and access to communications networks. Third, although the deployment of real-time information on mobile devices is growing in the United States, there has been more deployment in Europe and Asia. However, the development of mobile applications based on “open data” is more prevalent in the United States. There is a distinct difference between the United States and Europe and Asia in embracing an opendata approach. Finally, using mobile phone location and social networking is revolutionizing the provision of real-time information on mobile devices. Even though the regulations governing mobile phone location tracking vary among the United States, Europe, and Japan (Linda Ackerman, James Kempf, and Toshio Miki, “Wireless Location Privacy: Law and Policy in the United States, EU and Japan,” Internet Society, Nov. 2003, http://www.isoc. org/briefings/015/), the use of mobile device location capability allows current location data to be combined with real-time information. And mobile devices can use real-time information provided by means of social networking sites, such as Twitter.