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Dude, where's my ride? SEPTA invests in real-time data

This month SEPTA expects to begin making good on a promise to give riders more accurate information on where their transportation is located, and when it will show up.

Elizabeth Rosario waits on the El at 8th and Market streets.
Elizabeth Rosario waits on the El at 8th and Market streets.Read moreJason Laughlin / Staff

This month, SEPTA expects to begin making good on a promise to give riders more accurate information on where their ride is, and when it will show up.

The changes, which will continue through 2018, should make it easier for riders to plan their days, and will provide SEPTA with deep analytics that officials say will help planning, particularly for bus routes.

"It's an enormous amount of data that can give you day-in and day-out performance," said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager.

SEPTA has spent $5.6 million installing cellular modems in its almost 1,400 buses and 159 trolleys. Similar equipment was installed on Regional Rail trains during the installation of Positive Train Control, an automatic-braking system. The modems will provide SEPTA, and riders, with location data on the vehicles that refresh every 30 seconds, much faster than the three-to-seven-minute updates currently available at train stations and on SEPTA's app. That more accurate information should start showing up at stations and on the app's schedules by the end of July. By the end of summer, maps on SEPTA's website and app, TrainView and TransitView, will receive information from the modems.

Subways and underground trolley service will take longer. Tunnels block the modems' signals, so SEPTA will be installing a network of sensors in underground routes to extrapolate a vehicle's location from the time it takes to travel between each of these sensors. By mid-2018, SEPTA will be able to use the information to maintain countdown timers that are scheduled to be installed in all subway stops.

SEPTA travelers said more accurate information would be a great help, particularly as they make choices about what mode of transportation to use on a system that struggles to run on time. SEPTA's Regional Rail trains typically are on time less than 90 percent of the time. Buses are doing well if they're on time 80 percent of the time.

Jillian O'Hara, who travels from home in Fishtown to work at a Center City publishing company, said she uses either the Route 15 bus or the El to get to work. She's not a morning person, she said, and knowing exactly where her bus is would allow her to make time for other things.

"I try to get as much sleep in the morning as possible," she said.

Elizabeth Rosario takes the El to and from Center City to the Allegheny stop each day, but also uses buses to do social outreach in her job as a social worker. Bus travel, in particular, is a challenge, she said as she waited for her subway ride home at Eighth and Market Streets.

"It would be helpful to not wonder when it's actually coming," she said.

Knueppel said one of his priorities when he took the job in 2015 was bringing SEPTA up to par with the kind of real-time information available on other major metropolitan transportation networks.

"As the whole real-time world has sort of matured, we have fallen behind," he said.

He has set aside about $5 million more to upgrade the subway stations and trolley tunnels.

The ubiquity of smartphones has become a game-changer for transportation, Knueppel said. People are used to constant information, whether it's tracking an Amazon package or a pizza delivery, and expect the same from public transit, he said. It's pressure that transit agencies nationwide are facing, experts said.

"How many people do you know who don't have some type of smartphone device?" said Randy Clarke, vice president of operations and member services for the American Public Transportation Association, an advocacy group working to promote public transit. "Everyone is connected almost all the time."

However, SEPTA has admitted that there are only about 135,000 users of its smartphone app.

Dave Grooms, who runs a Twitter account often critical of SEPTA operations, @SEPTA_Riders, uses the app but has found the current system to be at times inaccurate. He travels from Lansdowne to Old City for his telecom job, and said the 109 bus can be late, early, or not show up at all. He welcomed the promise of more accurate data, particularly on mornings when he may have to leave earlier or later than usual.

"If your schedule's not going to be right, at least tell me where your bus is," he said.

SEPTA's real-time upgrades should put it on par with Boston's "T," which was one of the first metro transit systems to invest in real-time technology in 2010 and now offers 30-second updates for subways and train lines and 60-second updates for buses, according to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Clarke considers Boston to be one of the leading transit systems in the country.

One of the most valuable additions the modems will bring is location information for trains traveling on Amtrak-operated rails, Mitchell said. Amtrak controls dispatch on the tracks it owns, and SEPTA hasn't been able to observe its trains on those stretches. Three of SEPTA's 13 Regional Rail lines, the Trenton, Paoli/Thorndale, and Wilmington/Newark lines, share significant lengths of track with Amtrak trains.

SEPTA's system, which took almost a year to get online due to the challenges of making the modems interoperable with existing vehicle software, will also offer information about vehicles' speed, the number of cars on a train, what model of cars the train is using, and the origin and destination. More information allows riders to plan their travel better, and at the very least leaves them feeling less adrift while waiting for a ride.

"If you're sitting on a train that's stopped, you feel very much out of control," said Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. "Even if you can't do anything about it, if you know what the situation is, somebody understands what's going on, they feel a little less out of control of the circumstances."