Flickr/John Bracken

In Chicago, the CTA Bus Tracker isn't just a great tool for existing riders — it's actually encouraged new ones.

Late last month Wade Roush of Xconomy took a long look at how Google is changing the way people interact with their public transportation systems. The search engine empire now publishes the operating schedules of more than 475 transit agencies around the world through its Google Maps and Google Transit platforms. And though it only displays live updates for four U.S. cities (plus two more in Europe), Google is pushing for more real-time status updates, Roush reports:

Google’s activism in public transit is having widespread ripple effects. Most importantly, the company’s services are making it easier for public-transit users to plan their bus or train trips to minimize waits and missed connections. In theory, better experiences for riders translate into higher ridership, greater revenues for transit agencies, and less congestion on streets and highways.

Roush is right to use the word "theory" here. The current research literature doesn't address the question of whether real-time data increases ridership in any definitive way. Some recent studies do suggest that ridership has increased on routes with live status updates, but that work has failed to account for other factors that influence ridership, from gas prices to employment levels. A 2003 survey of systems with real-time information, conducted by the Transportation Research Board [PDF], concluded as much:

Most agencies reported that there may have been an increase in ridership, but that they were not certain that it was a direct result of the system. At a minimum, real-time bus arrival information systems assist in the maintenance of ridership.

Regular riders of public transportation certainly love real-time updates — wondering when the next bus or train will actually arrive is, after all, the biggest headache of traveling by transit — but it's easy to think of them as a pleasant tool for existing users, as TRB suggests. Something that keeps riders riding, in other words. If the updates turned out to be effective points of attraction to new riders, that seems just like icing on the cake.

Well you can break out the Betty Crocker, at least in Chicago. New research set for publication in the June issue of Transportation Research Part C concludes that the Chicago Transit Authority's Bus Tracker has attracted a significant (if modest) amount of new riders to the city's bus system. The results suggest that real-time transit tools might serve not only to satisfy existing transit riders but also to entice new ones:

This finding suggests that marketing strategies for real-time information should be targeted not only to transit users but also to transit non-users in order to bring about larger increase in transit ridership. Furthermore, since one major purpose of providing real-time transit information is to increase transit mode share and attract transit non-users, greater effort is needed to promote this system among those transit non-users.

The CTA, which governs transit in Chicago and 40 surrounding suburbs, introduced its Bus Tracker system in August 2006 then rolled it out on certain routes between April 2008 and May 2009. The Bus Tracker uses GPS to locate city buses and present their current location and expected arrival time on various platforms. At first it was accessible only through its website, but over time riders gained the ability to subscribe to email or text message updates for preferred bus stops, and now third-party vendors have created a variety of Bus Tracker apps for smartphones and other mobile devices.

The authors of the new study compared changes in ridership on a particular CTA bus route before and after Bus Tracker was implemented, and also compared ridership levels to other routes in the CTA system that had yet to receive the technology. More importantly, they controlled for other influential ridership factors like unemployment levels, gas prices, weather, transit service attributes, socioeconomic characteristics, and typical monthly fluctuations.

All other factors considered, the Bus Tracker still increased bus ridership significantly, the researchers concluded. Chicago bus routes available through the CTA Bus Tracker had an average of 126 more weekday riders a month than those without the information. Since average weekday ridership before the service ranged from 5,761 to 6,876, Bus Tracker was responsible for an increase of 1.8 to 2.2 percent, depending on the particular route, the researchers report:

That's certainly a "modest" increase, as the researchers call it, but they also noticed a trend that suggests this attraction rate will rise with time. While they failed to find any obvious connections between the success of Bus Tracker and the geographical location of bus routes throughout the city, they did notice a clear link with the date of implementation. The routes with greater percentage gains in ridership received Bus Tracker technology more recently than those included in early phases of the roll-out program.

What this suggests is that the reach of Bus Tracker grew as the tool gained attention through news, blogs, and social media in the early phases of the roll-out. It's also likely that its success rose as the technology became accessible to a wider range of people through additional platforms like text message and smartphone apps. If that's the case, one can expect the impact of real-time transit updates to increase as both familiarity with the program and mobile technology itself becomes more pervasive. Either way, Google's on it.

Top image by Flickr user John Bracken, via Creative Commons.

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