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VIA Metropolitan Transit: Innovating to serve

Kammy Horne, Senior Vice President of Development and Planning for VIA Metropolitan Transit, explains how the transit operator is offering more information and mobility options to the residents who need them the most.

VIA Metropolitan Transit: Innovating to serve

It goes without saying that any reliable public transportation system must have the ability to effectively communicate with its customers in real time and in multiple formats. Communication must be two-way and easily seen, understood and usable for everyone. 

Communication must be two-way and easily seen, understood and usable for everyone”

VIA Metropolitan Transit (VIA) provides public transportation to the Greater San Antonio Region and is unique among its Texas peers in that it covers a large service area, serving a population that is socioeconomically disadvantaged, reporting low incomes and high reliance on public transit. It’s also the least-funded major metro that is operating in the state. Communication to our passengers must take many things into account and continue to innovate while managing to a limited budget. This article will cover the background of the system and customers; VIA’s customer communication tools; and other modes of travel and communication that are provided.

Who does VIA serve?

VIA connects the San Antonio Region with service to an area that is over 1,208 square miles and includes the City of San Antonio, Bexar County and 13 member cities. Our mission is to provide multimodal transportation options that connect our community to opportunity, support economic vitality and enhance quality of life throughout our region. Passenger information is VIA’s key link to our customers and is critical to delivering reliable service to our existing and growing population and ridership. To fully understand how and why we communicate in the ways that we do, it is helpful to first understand the population that we serve.

San Antonio is the seventh-largest city in the United States with one of the fastest-growing populations, which is expected to continue to increase well into the future. San Antonio is in the top five cities in the nation for population growth, and there are projections by the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s demographic analysis showing over 1,000,000 new residents calling our region home by 2040.

VIA’s service area is one of the largest in Texas, similar to Houston METRO and double that of DART in Dallas and Capital Metro in Austin. Since 1978, VIA has received less sales tax revenue than its peer agencies in Texas, who all historically have received a full one cent of sales tax to VIA’s half-cent. Only recently has VIA increased its share of the one cent designated by the Texas Legislature for transit use.

VIA By The Numbers infographic

Credit: VIA Metropolitan Transit – A VIA Metropolitan Transit key data infographic.

Innovating passenger information is a priority

San Antonio has a high poverty rate, at 18 per cent compared to a 14 per cent average in Texas and 11 per cent for the United States1. Our most recent ‘Who is the Rider?’ survey (2019) provides insightful information about our customers, including information on the need for public transit services. Fifty-two per cent of VIA riders are employed, and 81 per cent are persons of colour.

According to the survey, VIA also serves a high percentage of the low-income population, with 54 per cent of riders being below the poverty threshold compared to the Bexar County population (age 16 and above) being only 16 per cent.

Our customers depend on VIA to get them to where they need to go, so accurate and real-time information is essential”

Our customers depend on VIA to get them to where they need to go, so accurate and real-time information is essential. Whether it is getting to school, work or another destination, knowing when you will leave, how long you will ride, the timing of a potential transfer and when you will arrive are all critical pieces of information. VIA strives to provide information that is clear, accurate and understandable to everyone using our system.

Service communication tools

Because of the population that we serve and understanding the need to communicate in an equitable way, VIA continues to innovate the tools we use to communicate with the public while maintaining the traditional information sources”

Because of the population that we serve and understanding the need to communicate in an equitable way, VIA continues to innovate the tools we use to communicate with the public while maintaining the traditional information sources, such as pocket schedules and other printed pieces. VIA also strives to make all information available in both English and Spanish.

In-person and telephone communication

VIA provides in-person customer communication at its transit centres and park and ride service locations. In addition, VIA operates its call centre for bus routing and scheduling questions Monday through Friday from 06:00 to 22:00; Saturday from 07:00 to 19:00; and Sunday from 08:00 to 17:00.

Rider tools on the VIA website

VIA has recently updated our website to provide basic guidance for a range of individuals, from current riders to those who have never tried the bus before. The Rider Tools and Quick Start guide have been summarised into five easy steps2.

The new and improved VIA goMobile+ App

In August 2021, VIA announced the launch of our VIA goMobile+ fare payment mobile app3. Riders can now purchase mobile fares anytime, anywhere, using either the new goMobile+ app or Transit app, which combines real-time trip planning with payment in the app for thousands of VIA riders use every day.

The app features an improved user-friendly design in English and Spanish, and stronger security features. Riders can visit any VIA Transit Center and use cash or card to buy mobile tickets or add funds to their account to be used in the goMobile+ or Transit apps.

Wi-Fi on buses

In 2015, VIA Metropolitan Transit was the first large transit authority to install free, high-speed Wi-Fi on all of its vehicles and at all of its facilities. The innovative passenger amenity served to improve the customer experience and opened opportunities for collaborations that helped to close the digital divide that exists in San Antonio. With the Wi-Fi system in place, VIA also piloted the nation’s first partnership with the only digital library in the country, Bexar BiblioTech, offering free access to the entire library collection to all VIA customers.

Trip planning and bus arrival information

Trip planning is integrated into the VIA goMobile+ app through the Trip Planner feature that automatically connects to the Transit app, allowing customers to plan their trip, track their bus and be alerted to their next stop after boarding the bus, which is a feature that is useful for new riders, as well as those who may be unfamiliar with the city.

Next-Bus Arrival

Several years ago, VIA introduced Next-Bus Arrival information4, which works through texting the bus stop number to 52020, which then provides information on the time of the next bus by route to arrive at the stop. The system tracks buses on their routes at least every 10 seconds.

The next-bus arrival system is a tool that has been highly used by VIA’s passengers. VIA recently partnered with Swiftly to provide more accurate predictions based on artificial intelligence (AI) and historical information. Additionally, detour information has been incorporated into the Next-Bus Arrival texting system.

Detour information through VIA Alerts

In 2021, VIA launched VIA Alerts – a website where riders can register and set alerts for their frequently made trips. Since riders choose when and where they travel, alerts are limited to those that the riders need particular to their journey, preventing the sending of unnecessary detour notices to riders.

NaviLens

VIA is now working with NaviLens and the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind to provide an app to provide visually impaired travellers with assistance when using public transit. People from Lighthouse will test the system, and VIA will gather data from the test runs, interviewing the users about their experience.

The NaviLens app uses a smartphone to read codes on signage – such as those found at train platforms, ticket kiosks and on sidewalks – to provide information such as real-time bus schedules. The codes are detectable from 20 to 150 feet (approximately six to 46 meters) away, depending on the size of the code and, unlike the traditional QR codes that require users to focus their phone cameras squarely on the code, users do not need to know exactly where the code is placed to read it. The NaviLens technology has the capability of reading encoded information in 33 different languages and providing translation. Besides transit schedules, the codes can be programmed to deliver a range of information, such as the location of an elevator, public health messaging and detour updates.

Social media

In addition to the website, VIA utilises social media – including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn – to inform customers on a regular basis of important events, service changes, employment opportunities and other announcements.

Scheduling, service planning and on-route communication

VIA’s scheduling and service planning team monitor service daily. Online tools are only as good as the data provided – whether directly through automated passenger counts or by other means, this information creates the foundation for accurate, reliable and frequent service. Routes are designed to primarily start and stop at transit centres and park and ride facilities, where customers can transfer and have access to VIA information and, in many cases, customer service representatives.

The nomenclature of the stop names has been taken into consideration as part of the planning process, using the street names or major landmarks to make it easy to understand the location. Stops are announced to give people, especially those with vision impairments, an indication of where they are along the route. When the doors open, there is an announcement about exiting the bus to the rear and in the front for passengers that require this due to a disability or other needs.

Passenger information provided for other VIA services

VIAtrans paratransit service

VIA’s Will-Call Service for paratransit customers allows flexibility when scheduling a reservation by not requiring an exact time for a return trip from a medical appointment or jury duty. Customers who are ready for a trip simply call the VIAtrans reservations number to activate the return trip, and then VIA dispatches a VIAtrans vehicle or zTrip taxi as soon as possible.

VIAtrans Online Services (VOS) allows customers to manage their VIAtrans trips 24 hours a day, online or on their mobile device. It offers more choices and freedom to access transit information by making information available to passengers anywhere, anytime. This allows accurate planning with real-time updates. VOS gives caregivers easy control and access to the paratransit services of loved ones to help them to book, monitor and reschedule trips remotely and as needed for riders who require assistance. VIAtrans customers can monitor when the vehicle is coming to pick them up in VOS within one hour of their pick-up.

VIA Link Mobility-on-Demand service

VIA’s first Mobility-on-Demand (MOD) service, VIA Link5, launched in 2019 in a 17-square-mile zone in Northeast San Antonio. In this zone, traditional bus service was replaced by an on-demand transit service, like Uber or Lyft, but it operates on the same fare structure and prices as VIA services.

VIA Link on-demand

Credit: VIA Metropolitan Transit – VIA’s first Mobility-on-Demand service, VIA Link, launched in 2019 in a 17-square-mile zone in Northeast San Antonio.

However, unlike Uber and Lyft, this is a rideshare service, and customers may need to walk a couple of blocks to access the service. The vehicles also have bike racks. Residents can request a trip by either calling in, going on to the VIA website and accessing VIA Link to book a trip online or by using the VIA Link app, available free for Apple and Android phones.

VIA Link continues to expand, with a 14.4-square‑mile zone now operating in Northwest San Antonio and a VIA Link Express service connecting the area’s suburban areas and a suburban city to VIA’s larger transit network. Passenger information is key to the success of this new and innovative mobility option. The ease of use of VIA Link is facilitated by the rider interactivity tools that make this service successful.

Moving forward

Communicating with our customers through the best means by mode and service will always to be a key daily priority for VIA”

Growth in the San Antonio Region will continue, as will the need to get around quickly and reliably using public transportation, especially as roadways continue to become more congested. VIA is looking toward a continued path of innovation in travel, including plans for the region’s first Advanced Rapid Transit system. This improved infrastructure is combined with additional on-demand transit options and other improvements, and is included in VIA’s Keep San Antonio Moving Plan. Communicating with our customers through the best means by mode and service will always to be a key daily priority for VIA.

References

  1. Source: 2019 American Community Survey (ACS), per cent-year estimates
  2. https://www.viainfo.net/how-to-ride/
  3. https://www.viainfo.net/gomobileplus/
  4. https://www.viainfo.net/next-bus/
  5. https://www.viainfo.net/link/

As Senior Vice President of Development and Planning for VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, Texas, Kammy Horne is responsible for service planning and scheduling, capital planning and engineering, passenger amenities and real estate acquisition and management. Horne is currently leading many of the VIA efforts to implement new developments for the agency under ‘Keep San Antonio Moving’ – the voter-approved plan designed to improve the transit system by expanding trip options, investing in capital projects, exploring new technology and putting resources where they are needed.

Horne serves as Vice Chair of the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Policy, Planning and Program Development Committee, and was appointed to represent VIA on the City of San Antonio’s Climate Ready Technical Advisory Committee. Horne is also currently chairing WTS San Antonio Region’s Leadership Development Program.

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