While services like OneBusAway might seam to be a nicety a 2006 study commissioned by the Federal Transit Administration shows that real-time arrival information systems produce significant and quantifiable benefits that exceed project costs. The paper, Real-time Bus Arrival Information Systems Return-on-Investment Study (I highlighted and added notes to the interesting parts), documents how a comprehensive Return on Investment (ROI) study should analyzes the costs and benefits of real-time information systems. For demonstration purposes part of the ROI study was applied to Portland’s Transit Tracker system. Not all benefits were quantified and extremely conservative user rates were assumed (ex. Transit Tracker usage for MAX trips were not included).
To summarize the results of the paper see the graph above. The white area show when the annualized cost of the system exceeds the annualized user benefits of the system. In contrast, all non-white areas indicate where the system pays off. The horizontal axis shows the average reduction in wait times and the vertical axis shows the annual number of trips that Transit Trackers is used for. The darker the shading the large the ROI. By finding the intersection point of reduced wait time and annual transit tracker usage you can see when it yields benefits. As you can see the report conservatively estimates that as long as users of the system on average save 30 seconds a trip this system pays off.
This ROI graph assumes that all riders that use Transit Tracker get their information before they leave for their bus stop. The paper next looked at what would happen if no one actually had a reduced wait time, but their perceived wait times were shorter. It has been well documented that one minute of waiting for a bus feels like the equivalent of riding on the bus for twice as long. It has also been shown that transit riders significantly overestimate their wait times but when real-time information is provided their estimates become closer to their actual wait times. To account for this effect the cost of time was discounted to varying degrees (5%, 15%, 25%, 50%).
Again the real-time information systems have a good ROI even with very conservative assumptions. The lightest gray shading assumes that 50% of the additional cost of time is created by arrival time uncertainty.
I point this out because Metro need to look at budget cuts from a users perspective. While quality of service is mostly related to headway and reliability, real-time information can help to negate the effects of reduced service quality. It reduces the user’s wait time because they don’t have to “pad” their arrival at the bus stop and reduces the perceived wait time once they are there. Also for those that use notoriously unreliable routes like the 48 this information is the difference between waiting 3 minute or 15+ minutes. So what should Metro do?
- Acknowledge that Metro’s Tracker is completely outmoded by OneBusAway. Stop promoting Tracker and focus on OneBusAway.
- Have a significant PR campaign to better inform the public of OneBusAway, with existing transit users specifically targeted.
- View real-time information as a cost effective and cheap way to mitigate the affects that service cuts will have on riders.
- Also view this as the only effective way of mitigating increased unreliability of buses as layover times are reduced.
- Use some of the extra money from the bus replacement fund to do this.
- Actually use the digital message boards in the transit tunnel and display both Link and bus arrival time.
This is the absolute least Metro can do to redress its historical underutilization of real-time information.