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Technology Improves Western Iowa Transit Operations

Date:
September 17, 2020
Topics:
ITS, Resources, Transit
Western Iowa Transit staff member John Shymanski checks the schedule on one of the agency's tablets. Image courtesy Region XII COG

Western Iowa Transit (WIT) is a program of the Region XII Council of Governments (COG), an RDO that serves six counties and 56 cities with a total regional population over 74,000.[i] WIT was formed in 1977 and has grown to 60 vehicles and a transit division staff of 39, who provided 158,000 rides and over 1.1 million revenue miles in 2018. WIT operates two commuter routes as well as demand response transportation scheduled by calling the main office or submitting an online rider form with contact information, origin, destination, and the time of the client appointment. Transportation to congregant meals is provided, as well as special services such as transportation from a senior center to a grocery store each week, general public transportation, and non-emergency medical transportation.[ii]  Historically, WIT had used a variety of methods to communicate between dispatching staff and drivers, from posts on bulletin boards to phone, fax, cell phone, and two-way UHF radio, even at times tracking down drivers by calling their favorite area restaurant to let them know of a change in their schedule. In 2017, WIT began to research options and initiate procurement for needed communications upgrades.[iii]

Project Purposes

The two-way radios that provided the backbone of communication with drivers were comfortable for staff. However, they only worked in about 60 percent of WIT’s rural service area. The analog radio system provider notified WIT that it would stop supporting that system, so a change needed to occur. WIT switched to a cellular-based system (shown in the image to the left), installing Samsung tablets in each vehicle to use for automated vehicle location (AVL), to share manifests, and to communicate with drivers.[iv] 

WIT had started using the software ParaPlan around 2016 for scheduling, which eliminated paper manifests. Along with the tablets, WIT adopted Team on the Run software for dispatching and geolocation. The two software companies worked with WIT to feed scheduling data from ParaPlan into Team on the Run for dispatching.  This software combination provides several features that improve transportation operations over using the old two-way radios.[v] In the Region XII COG office, the WIT director can track drivers’ location and speed, as well as whether clients have been picked up. Drivers can receive dispatch messages and enter data such as rider timing or whether the rider paid. Previously, drivers were sometimes unsure who needed to pay at the time of the ride, but now drivers can see whether a rider is self-pay or if the trip is funded through a contract or other mechanism. Drivers also have access to information such as scheduled pick-up time, a client’s appointment time, name, whether they use a wheelchair or are ambulatory, and where they will need to return each rider rather than relying on memory, relayed messages, or handwritten notes.[vi] 

Having the tablets and on-board software is helpful to map trips. WIT provides medical transportation and Job Corps transportation into neighboring regions and states, so drivers are not always familiar with the route and destination. AVL adds a measure of comfort, since the WIT director can check on a driver’s location on an out-of-state trip to see whether the driver is still in service, shown in the image below.  Drivers can use an emergency button to quickly indicate an urgent problem to staff in the office. The data also assist WIT with conducting driver safety evaluations, using trip information such as speed to support evaluations and training.[vii] 

Outcomes

A screenshot of the geolocation view available to staff in the WIT office.Image courtesy Region XII COG

The new cellular-based system provides 80 to 90 percent coverage of the six-county service area, much higher than the two-way radio coverage.[viii] A focus on ease of use has been key, to ensure that drivers are comfortable with the tablets and knowing how to access manifests and enter rider information. This transition has been successful, with the new software providing many benefits at a lower cost than upgrading the two-way radios would have been.[ix] 

Overall, communication and reporting have significantly improved with the technology upgrade. A remaining challenge is that software solutions examined by Region XII COG are set up to track trips by vehicle. In contrast, WIT develops its scheduling by driver, and the most efficient dispatching might include a driver providing a trip, returning to the office, and switching to a different vehicle (such as a wheelchair accessible van) based on the number of riders and their needs.[x]

Resources

The upfront cost for a ParaPlan license was $25,400, half of which was supported through a grant from Iowa DOT. After the fifth year of the license, WIT pays an annual maintenance fee of $1,400 and cloud fee of $2,500 keep the software up to date.

In addition, other associated costs total less than $1,000 in a typical month. This includes a shared monthly cellular data plan of $160, connection fees of $10 per line for up to 40 tablets, and $35 per line for four staff smart phones.  The tablets are provided for free by the cellular provider, U.S. Cellular. Team on the Run licenses are charged at $6 per driver per month. WIT acquired headsets for the drivers from another vendor at $20 – 30 per set.  The monthly cellular fees represent a significant cost savings over upgrading the two-way radio system, which would have cost $3,500 per month and provided less functionality and coverage.[xi]

The tablet used by WIT drivers displays manifest of clients and trip information. Image courtesy Region XII COG

The two software applications in use, ParaPlan and Team on the Run, are developed by different companies and did not automatically link up. However, the two companies were willing to work together to find a way for ParaPlan scheduling data to feed into Team on the Run dispatching.

With some time spent on orientation and training on the new procedures, staff are now using the tablets (shown in the image to the left) and new software comfortably.[xii] The acquisition of ParaPlan by a larger company, Passio, will lead to new software features.[xiii]  Support for Android and updates to billing and reporting may offer new functionality to WIT.[xiv] For more information on WIT, visit http://www.region12cog.org/public-transit/.


[i] Region XII Council of Governments (2019). http://www.region12cog.org

[ii] Chris Whitaker (2019). Regional Mobility & Intelligent Transportation Systems, presentation developed with Tom Feldman, Region XII COG, and presented at the 2019 National Regional Transportation Conference

[iii] Personal communication with Rick Hunsaker, March 2019

[iv] Whitaker (2019)

[v] Personal communication with Rick Hunsaker, June 2019

[vi] Whitaker (2019)

[vii] Whitaker (2019)

[viii] Whitaker (2019)

[ix] Whitaker (2019)

[x] Personal communication with Rick Hunsaker, June 2019

[xi] Whitaker (2019); personal communication with Tom Feldman, March 2020

[xii] Whitaker (2019)

[xiii] Personal communication with Kyle Archer, September 2019

[xiv] Personal communication with Rick Hunsaker, September 2019

This report was delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2020. It was primarily authored by NADO Program Manager Rachel Beyerle and NADO Associate Director Carrie Kissel. Many transportation agency staff and others assisted with this project in a variety of ways. We offer deep and heartfelt thanks to all the individuals who have provided information and images, consented to be interviewed, and offered editorial guidance in support of this research. This work is supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation under requisition number HOIT190194PR. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. DOT or the NADO Research Foundation.