National Academies Press: OpenBook

Mobile Data Terminals (2007)

Chapter: Chapter One - Problem and Approach

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter One - Problem and Approach." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2007. Mobile Data Terminals. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23176.
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter One - Problem and Approach." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2007. Mobile Data Terminals. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23176.
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter One - Problem and Approach." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2007. Mobile Data Terminals. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23176.
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3BACKGROUND Since the end of World War II, public transit has required more and more public investment. With the use of public assets in transit comes public accountability. In law and regulation, public managers have sought to receive assur- ances from operators of public transit that these services are being provided in an efficient and effective manner. Also, the public scrutiny has gone beyond measures of pro- ductivity to include social issues of equity, nondiscrimina- tion, environmental quality, and energy conservation. Increasingly, as national formulas were developed for the distribution of federal financial assistance to state and local governments, operational statistics were required from local transit properties in an accurate and timely manner. In addition to measures of service performance as an input to funding formulas, the U.S. Congress initiated a triennial review process for all recipients of federal transit assistance—a quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) approach to transit management. As a public enterprise with substantial on-board data collection requirements, use of technology to facilitate the efficient, effective, and accurate collection of operational statistics has become an increasing priority for local transit operators and their state and federal government partners. Of late, transit profes- sionals have focused on a mechanism for collecting and transmitting operational data—the mobile data terminal (MDT). TCRP addresses this development in this synthe- sis, Mobile Data Terminals. SCOPE OF SYNTHESIS In recent years, the number of transit agencies using MDTs on buses and paratransit vehicles has increased. The MDT is the underlying data processing and transporting facility. Applications such as automatic vehicle location (AVL), sen- sors, data communications, and security use the MDTs for communication. MDTs communicate pertinent information between vehicles in the same region and with dispatchers or central information systems. In paratransit, this greatly facil- itates the communication of driving directions, schedule changes, and other information. Fixed-route systems are using MDTs to communicate detour information, available overtime work, and urgent messages. The purpose of this synthesis is to survey selected tran- sit agencies throughout the United States that use MDTs, document their successes and failures, and summarize other information about the following: • Types and brand of equipment used. • What applications and built-in functionalities are sup- ported by MDTs. • How these applications are integrated. • Types of information communicated to MDTs versus other means. • Costs to install and maintain MDTs. • Staffing requirements to maintain the equipment and utilize the data. • Staffing acceptance. • Operational and technical problems encountered and solutions. • MDT uses desired beyond the capabilities of the exist- ing equipment. • Future applications and technologies. • Information technology and communications infra- structure supporting MDT. • Types of communication [e.g., WiFi, cellular, multi-hop, or RF (radio frequency)]. • Security and resilience of communications (after disruption). The synthesis will cover the use of MDTs in both urban and rural and small urban areas, will include both fixed-route and paratransit applications, and will identify reasons for their successes and failures, as well as lessons learned. A review of the relevant literature in the field is combined with surveys of selected U.S. transit agencies and suppliers to report on the current state of the practice. Based on survey results, several case studies were developed to profile innova- tive and successful practices, as well as lessons learned and gaps in information. DEFINITION OF TERMS North Carolina’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE), in its landmark study of the application of technology in rural and small urban transit, provided the most useful discussion of MDTs found in the literature review. Mobile Data Terminals display short written dispatch messages. They replace voice radio communication between the CHAPTER ONE PROBLEM AND APPROACH

driver and the dispatcher except in emergencies or other excep- tional cases. MDTs serve as the communication hub between the vehicle and computers at the control center. They automatically send vehicle location, passenger counts, engine performance, mileage, and other information. Some information like passenger boardings and deboardings may be sent when the passengers’ “swipe” their smart cards as they enter or depart the vehicle or when the driver pushes function keys on the MDT. The driver can use other function keys to send pre-recorded digital mes- sages regarding vehicle and passenger status or in response to questions or prompts displayed on the MDT screen. Thus, the MDT can virtually replace note taking and written mani- fests. It becomes the entry point for data to perform system- wide passenger accounting and vehicle performance analysis (Stone et al. 1999). The TCRP synthesis topic panel was mindful that implicit in the study of MDTs as data collection instruments was the means used to communicate these data back to the operations center and other entities, including consumers. The changes in computer technology and communications technology are seen as dramatic and on-going. Therefore, the panel directed that a methodology be designed that could be useful for longitudinal studies measuring changes well beyond the shelf-life of a typical synthesis of current practice. To the extent possible, the survey includes emerging technology and approaches to on-board data collection that might not be currently in practice but are likely to be evident in the near future. Lastly, the topic panel wanted to include European and Asian MDT manufacturers and intelligent transportation system (ITS) suppliers in recognition of the global market for these goods and services. For the purpose of this study, “mobile data terminal” is defined as a multifunctional data collection device on board transit vehicles that performs two-way data communication and, increasingly, has the ability to locate itself in real time. This definition excludes single-purpose electronic fareboxes, automatic passenger counters, stop enunciators, and personal data assistants from the scope of the study. It also permits a focus on products integrating locational technology that is crucial to the evaluation of transit performance and the provision of real-time customer information. Lastly, it recog- nizes that with the rapid evolution of wireless communication driven by business and consumer markets, real-time data communication between transit vehicles and operations is evolving as well. ISSUES DELINEATED This synthesis study takes place in an era of rapid interna- tional technology deployment. This deployment is raising issues that are being addressed in the deployment of MDT technologies. • Location technology diffusion. Global positioning systems (GPS) have evolved from a military technology to a mass market product found in luxury cars and, 4 increasingly, in cell phones. Today, few transit profes- sionals remember that AVL was accomplished in transit by dead reckoning (Dublin, Ireland) and by “signpost” location (Norfolk, Virginia). Whereas Europe and others are launching new GPS systems, cell phone manufactur- ers are devising their own versions of location technol- ogy in response to regulators, consumers, and businesses seeking new ways of finding customers. This wave of innovation, with its capability to provide instant feed- back from transit operations in very precise measures of space and time, is a boon to those interested in providing timely and reliable information to transit customers. • Communication technology change. Transit operators, particularly large urban fixed-route transit operators covering large geographic areas, were slow to adopt voice radio systems until significant capital assistance became available in the mid-1970s. Outside of those with railroad signal systems, the only option of large transit operators was to build expensive private radio networks that had to compete for radio frequencies with other public safety and private businesses. For rural transit operations covering very large multicounty areas, it precluded any technology deployment requir- ing communication. The design and deployment of ITS in both urban and rural areas in the mid-1990s brought the issue of communication in transit to center stage. For most transit systems the answer was and still is building a separate private radio system (for voice and/or data) to communicate information to and from transit vehicles. Concerns on making more of the radio spectrum available for public purposes (a process called re-farming) continues to be a significant societal issue. However, dramatic changes are occurring in wireless networks for public use, called public data networks. Cellular carriers have evolved rapidly in response to market demand for services that include web access and video streaming. Competing cellular companies are responding with massive investment in communica- tions infrastructure to provide broadband access to cell phone users, now popularly called wide area networks. Coincident with this development, WLAN or WiFi (for wireless fidelity standards), with their extraordinary throughput, are developing antennas and powerful radios integrated into computers that have evolved from ranges measured in feet to miles. Indeed, outdoor WiFi has attracted political leaders concerned with “the dig- ital divide” occurring in their low income and minority communities to call for open WiFi cities (e.g., Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle). As transit runs significant service in these communities, WiFi is being considered as a transit communication system in a few federal demonstrations (Bridgewater, Massachusetts; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Seattle, Washington). At least one computer hardware manufacturer promotes transit out- door WiFi systems in its marketing materials. Although it is not known how wide area networks, WiFi, (or the emerging WiMAX) developments will turn out, the

5immediate impact, in those communities that have these services, is inexpensive (in some cases free), two-way data communications for MDTs. • Manufacturer/supplier volatility. In reviewing the liter- ature and reflecting on the consultant’s personal expe- rience in deploying transit technology in the past decade, what stands out is the short life span of transit technology providers. The ITRE study of rural and small urban providers of MDTs and associated computer- assisted dispatching software is revealing; only one firm manufacturing MDTs in the 1999 study exists today. Also, only one ITS supplier in the ITRE survey remains in business today. The consultant’s experience in large urban ITS applications is similar. When look- ing at the 1997 list of national ITS suppliers serving the U.S. metropolitan market developed for a request for proposal for the Cape Cod Transit ITS technology deployment, only one is still in the transit ITS business. Although it is not within the scope of this synthesis study to review the underlying business reasons for this volatility, it became important to create a very accurate baseline of MDT manufacturers and ITS suppliers if this study is to be useful to researchers who may want to build on this synthesis effort. • Technology deployment in the transit environment. Issues arising out of the deployment of technology in transit have been receiving some notice in studies relating to the rural and small urban environment. Recently, similar concerns were raised by general managers of large urban transit systems at a technol- ogy summit of the 2005 APTA General Manager’s Conference and the 2006 TransITech Conference. TCRP’s Project J-09 Task 12 researchers are address- ing these problems and issues in their work in progress, “New and Emerging Information Technolo- gies for Public Transportation.” This synthesis project has also revealed that there are significant differences in transit technology deployment in Europe when compared with North America. An interesting finding of this MDT report was that ITS suppliers from Europe and other overseas regions are entering the U.S. transit technology market with very sophisticated and proven products. ORGANIZATION OF SYNTHESIS This synthesis will discuss the database development for this study and future MDT research in the transit industry in chapter two. Chapter three presents the results from the on- line survey, including both the short- and long-form ques- tionnaires; chapter four presents the case studies of MDT deployments; and chapter five provides the conclusions on the state of the practice of MDT deployment in the transit industry at this point in time. METHODOLOGY The scope of work provided clear direction on the questions that needed to be asked of the industry. Initial efforts focused on developing an up-to-date database on the universe of MDT products available to the transit industry from a global perspective. The aforementioned issue of industry volatility became apparent. It also became clear that MDT manufac- turers may be “hidden” behind the branding of third-party ITS service vendors. It was very possible that the respon- dents to the survey in the transit industry would not know the manufacturer and model specification details. Fortunately for this study, four major industry conferences were being held during the term of this contract: the ITS World Congress (San Francisco, California); the International Taxi, Livery, and Paratransit Conference (Boston, Massachusetts); the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board (Washington, D.C.); and the TransITech Conference (Las Vegas, Nevada). All of these conferences drew an inter- national audience and had excellent vendor expositions. A timely, comprehensive, and detailed database of MDT manufacturers and MDT models, as well as ITS suppliers, products, and services was created. Subsequently, these data were incorporated into the survey instrument as drop down menus where transit industry respondents could chose an MDT manufacturer and model number and ITS supplier. In addition, a picture of each model in the database was made available to the survey taker for positive confirmation of the MDT make and model. Particular efforts were taken to create a survey universe that would have some standardization for replication over time. After some experimentation, the National Transit Data- base (NTD)—composed entirely of transit operators receiv- ing federal operating assistance—was the best database to establish the survey universe. An added benefit of the coordi- nation of the MDT study with the NTD database is the oppor- tunity to analyze the benefits of technology deployment using the statistically validated NTD financial and performance data. This provides the transit industry with an opportunity to readily calculate technology return on investment over time Two survey instruments were developed for this synthe- sis. A short-form survey was developed to acquire essential MDT deployment data from the largest group of industry respondents. A long-form survey was developed for those transit properties that wanted to fully share their experience with industry colleagues and transit researchers and wanted to be considered for case study treatment. The survey instru- ments were installed on a web server. The on-line survey instructions were sent to the chief executive officer (CEO) and NTD contact person with instructions to forward them to the appropriate technology person. Response to the survey was immediate and exceeded expectations based on recent technology surveys of the transit industry.

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TRB's Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Synthesis 70: Mobile Data Terminals explores the state-of-the-practice of mobile data terminals in transit and examines the capability of mobile data computers offered by technology vendors to the industry. The report also reviews wireless communications infrastructure that supports mobile data terminal (MDT) deployment in transit.

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