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Cities at a Glance: Smart infrastructure and connectivity in American urban mobility

For the second instalment of the Cities at a Glance roundtable, experts from Chicago, Honolulu and Austin discuss how smart infrastructure is revolutionising public transportation across the U.S.

Exploring American urban mobility through smart infrastructure

Public transportation is undergoing a transformation in cities across the globe. As public transport operators and authorities strive for greater efficiency, sustainability and a more positive passenger experience, the concept of smart infrastructure is taking centre stage. From Internet of Things solutions to intelligent traffic management systems and real-time data analytics, cities are harnessing the power of technology to create a more seamless and user-friendly public transportation network.

For the latest instalment of the Cities at a Glance series, we turn our focus to the U.S., as Intelligent Transport brings together industry leaders from Chicago, Honolulu and Austin to explore how smart infrastructure solutions are being embraced to revolutionise public transport systems nationwide.

Jon - CTA

CTA
HONOLULU
CapMetro - Dottie

Jon Czerwinski

Angela Ng

Jon Nouchi

Dottie Watkins

Director, Service Planning & Traffic Engineering, Chicago Transit Authority Senior Project Manager – Transportation Engineering, Chicago Transit Authority Deputy Director, City and County of Honolulu Department of Transportation Services CEO, CapMetro

How has your city embraced the concept of smart infrastructure to improve public transportation efficiency and sustainability?

Jon - CTACTAJon Czerwinski & Angela Ng: The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and its partners at the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) recognise the benefits a fast, reliable bus service provides to the city and are working together to implement Transit Signal Priority (TSP) along key corridors to help support bus performance goals. TSP is a form of smart infrastructure that allows buses to communicate with signal controllers through radio communication to adjust signal timing and move through signalised intersections more quickly.

To date, TSP has been installed along three heavily ridden bus corridors throughout the city with plans to expand to additional intersections in the near future. When TSP is installed, intersection technology is enhanced by upgrading the traffic signal controllers (if necessary) and adding smart cameras which can collect information at the intersection such as traffic counts. A cellular connection is also established to feed data back to the city’s Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS) with data collected from the traffic signal and traffic cameras helping both agencies better understand TSP functionality as well as general traffic trends. 

As the most isolated capital city in the nation, you might think Honolulu would be slow to innovate… However, we are a city who embraced innovation as far back as the 19th century, where our royal palace had electricity before the U.S.’ White House”

In addition to TSP, queue jump signals have been installed across the city under varying roadway conditions. Queue jump signals allow for a bus stopped at a traffic signal to get a head start over general traffic when the signal turns green, reducing delays caused from buses merging back into traffic and improving travel time and reliability for customers. Queue jump signals also improve safety by minimising conflicts with other vehicles. This option is especially useful in areas where the roadway narrows, or a lane drops after an intersection; queue jump signals can also be used together with short segments of priority bus lanes to move buses through congested intersections more quickly. Queue jump technology generally relies on camera detection technology, TSP requests described above have also been used for queue jump requests in the city. CTA and CDOT are also investigating tying machine learning components to existing smart camera technology to better target queue jump signals to CTA buses.

HONOLULUJon Nouchi: As the most isolated capital city in the nation, you might think Honolulu would be slow to innovate and would be behind our partners on the American continent. However, we are a city who embraced innovation as far back as the 19th century, where our royal palace had electricity before the U.S.’ White House.

Similarly, our public transportatio networks are influenced by innovative mobility technologies firstly for passenger information and comfort and paralleled with efficient operations and maintenance of our mobility services. We are early adopters and innovators of smart infrastructures and have contributed to the inception of, and ongoing development of, initiatives such as the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS, formerly Google Transit Feed Specification).

CapMetro - DottieDottie Watkins: The Austin Metro has consistently been one of the fastest growing areas in the country year after year, and surrounding areas once considered ‘suburban’ are now more urban and more connected to one another. CapMetro moves people in and between Austin and our five suburban member cities in the service area and provides almost two million trips per month across our network, primarily on local buses but also commuter buses and rail, on-demand service, paratransit service and bike-share. To meet the needs of growing communities, CapMetro, and the surrounding areas need to innovate and embrace holistic approaches to transportation and land-use planning.

In 2020, Austin voters overwhelmingly supported substantial investments in public transit through the passing of Project Connect, a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar transit investment to expand transit options throughout the Austin area. Project Connect includes new light rail, new rapid bus lines powered by a new zero-emission bus fleet, a new regional rail service, and investments into the planning and development near transit corridors to equitably support the overall quality of life for persons of all incomes and backgrounds.

Equitable Transit-Oriented Developments (ETODs), as it’s known, is a trailblazing initiative focused on equity. It prioritises underrepresented voices, aligns transit and housing strategies across multiple agencies, and is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to implement policies that advance major infrastructure construction.

Each of these projects are one tool in a toolbox that, when realised, would significantly change how our community works, lives, plays and moves.

Chicago Transit bus, public transportation

Credit: Chicago Transit Authority – CTA combines queue jump signals with short segments of priority bus lanes to move buses through congested intersections more quickly.

How does the implementation of smart infrastructure in your city’s public transportation system align with the unique urban challenges and infrastructure requirements commonly found in the U.S.?

Jon - CTACTACzerwinski & Ng: Operating a legacy system in an older U.S. city has led CTA to think creatively about bus priority treatments. There can be heavy competition for roadway space on the often-constricted city streets CTA operates along. CTA regularly works with CDOT to advance a number of bus priority measures, including bus priority lanes, but roadway space limitations require a full utilisation of the bus priority toolbox, which is where smart infrastructure comes in. 

Transit Signal Priority (TSP) and queue jump technology allow CTA buses to gain priority on city streets by moving buses through congested intersections more quickly, but not always requiring dedicated roadway space. CTA recognises the need for a full complement of bus priority treatments, but the ability to more intelligently manage traffic signal timings based on the presence of high-occupancy vehicles can improve bus operations in an area where other priority tools may not be feasible. Pairing TSP or a queue jump signal with a short segment of bus lane can also augment bus speeds in an area where delays are especially acute, but may have heavier demand for parking.

However, in the dense urban environment in which CTA operates, even gaining signal time for buses can be challenging. Pedestrians and heavy cross traffic require signal time of their own and other beneficial programmes, such as the introduction of lading pedestrian intervals, while improving safety for pedestrians, can deduct from available signal time. All of these competing needs require careful co-ordination with the local DOT and creative thinking to ensure that signal time is allocated as efficiently as possible, in a way that reflects Chicago’s priorities.

The City of Austin has adopted a 2039 modal shift goal that aims to only have 50% of residents reliant on a single-occupancy vehicle”

In addition, older existing signal infrastructure have made expanding TSP a challenge. The logic required for TSP often requires updating to modern signal controllers, and these modern controllers are not compatible with existing signal cabinet equipment. Further, data connections to a central server – necessary to track the functionality and effectiveness of TSP – are often non-existent. CTA, along with CDOT and other local agencies, understand the benefits of TSP and have invested in improving this infrastructure, but the upgrades necessary to expand TSP have created a longer timeframe to implementation in some cases.   

HONOLULUNouchi: Transit operations are comparatively not well-funded in the U.S. compared to other countries; this results in more basic and minimal service which do not operate frequently and reliably. Ridership has declined in most places since the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to attract, and more importantly, retain riders, transit agencies need to innovate and rethink services and provide real-time information on all of their services. In Honolulu, we recently opened our Skyline rail system, which is a fully grade-separated, fully automated and autonomous rail service. We also restructured legacy bus services to connect passengers to the new Skyline. As we continue the buildout of Skyline, we will continue to reinvent our bus services to adapt to new ridership patterns as we grow new equitable communities around Skyline stations. Uniquely, we aim to use the nearly 20-mile Skyline rail viaduct as an alternative data corridor to house high-speed fibre broadband for network resiliency.

CapMetro - DottieWatkins: Texas is primarily a car-centric state, and mode-shift is a huge challenge. Amidst the region’s economic and population growth, the intersection of mobility, housing density, and land use planning is key. The City of Austin for example, adopted a 2039 modal shift goal that aims to only have 50% of residents reliant on a single-occupancy vehicle. CapMetro, along with the City of Austin and the Austin Transit Partnership, is advancing multimodal transportation. Future public transport network improvements, such as light rail and an accessible bus system brought on by Project Connect, will better connect neighbourhoods in and outside our city. Additionally, policy shifts at the city level will support future multimodal mobility. Amendments such as the removal of parking minimums and building higher density near transit corridors are critical to the future success of a growing region.

The City of Austin is also supporting a new Smart Mobility division that seeks to foster creative, mutually beneficial partnerships to support the safe development, testing and integration of emerging mobility solutions. The city is calling on private sector organisations wishing to propose mobility solutions of the future to test new technology that may soon arrive on Austin streets.

City and County of Honolulu , public transportation

Credit: City and County of Honolulu – Honolulu’s recently opened Skyline rail system is a fully grade-separated and fully autonomous rail service.

Can you discuss specific examples of how Internet of Thing (IoT) devices and sensors have been integrated into your public transportation network to enhance operations and passenger experiences?

HONOLULUNouchi: The technological requirements of our transit vehicles continue to boom and require large upgrades and network capabilities. Our vehicle location platform integrates component level devices such as destination sign controllers, automatic passenger counters, fare systems, infotainment and on-board security cameras. As early adopters of AVL from the early 2000s, we were forced to increase data resolution and granularity to seek location information from transit vehicles. Where we used to get a location report every 90 seconds, we are now aiming at receiving each vehicle’s location every three seconds or less. This will aid us in the implementation of cloud-based transit signal priority for our busiest transit corridors and expedited travel for our passengers.

CapMetro - DottieWatkins: The internet, social media and hand-held smart devices have fundamentally changed the way people live. Being always connected has the advantage of connecting riders with information quickly and conveniently. If a route is delayed or detoured, connected customers can be notified immediately.

With technology, CapMetro is able to bridge a gap between the long-standing challenges of service delivery for paratransit riders and the available services and contemporary needs of our riders”

Recently, CapMetro embraced technological advancements through the implementation of one of the world’s largest automated paratransit systems. Through a partnership with SpareLabs, CapMetro replaced its paratransit management system with a modern ADA platform. With technology, we’re able to bridge a gap between the long-standing challenges of service delivery for paratransit riders and the available services and contemporary needs of our riders. The result allows customers to enjoy hands-free boarding, auto-pay fares and real-time notifications about their journey through communication of their choice. Accurate arrival and departure times allow riders to plan their journeys effectively and stay informed.

Operationally, we’re able to manage reservations, scheduling and dispatch more efficiently. The digitisation of these processes means routes are planned efficiently and sustainably. This example of embracing technology is redefining the future paratransit service delivery for all transit providers and ensures that CapMetro remains at the forefront of inclusive innovation in transit. 

CapMetro Access, public transportation

Credit: CapMetro – CapMetro embraced technological advancements through the implementation of one of the world’s largest automated paratransit systems, replacing its paratransit management system with a modern ADA platform.

What challenges did your city face during the implementation of smart infrastructure solutions, and how were these challenges addressed?

Jon - CTACTACzerwinski & Ng: The current TSP architecture requires hardware on-board buses to communicate with wayside devices, creating maintenance issues needing field support from various agencies. With multiple pieces of equipment, failures can occur at many points in the communication process, which can complicate troubleshooting the system. In addition to equipment failure or spotty communication service, the retrieval of TSP data has been a challenge, with fibre connections, configuration issues and delayed server processing all creating problems. CTA works regularly with partner agencies to address these issues with interventions such as replacing aging equipment or adjusting device configurations in the field but recognises the challenges of maintaining the current TSP system.

The next generation of TSP architecture will lean heavily into Centre-To-Centre (C2C) communication thereby eliminating additional equipment on buses and at signalised intersections. Buses will communicate using existing on-board cellular communication devices to connect to the city traffic management centre, with signal timing adjustments made at this centre and fed directly to the appropriate intersections. This switch eliminates the field maintenance of TSP equipment and allows any configuration changes to be done remotely and in real time, leading to quicker and easier troubleshooting. CTA expects C2C will significantly help to address the current challenges as described above.

HONOLULUNouchi: We’ve transitioned from having a single point of integration with many proprietary devices to the greater simplicity of IoT networking on-board vehicles. This sharing of common data as well as common transportation APIs has revolutionised the ease of data sharing between platforms in mobility.

How do intelligent traffic management systems contribute to optimising traffic flow and reducing congestion in your city’s public transportation corridors?

HONOLULUNouchi: The City and County of Honolulu opened Hōkūpaʻa, our Joint Traffic Management Centre (JTMC) in 2020, which integrated traffic management by housing federal, state and local partners under the same roof. Within this centre, transportation officials who manage our island-wide traffic signal system work side by side with police, fire, ocean safety and 911 dispatchers to integrate incident management on our 600-square mile island. The centre boasted at the time of construction 19 miles of electrical conduit, five miles of fibre-optic data cabling, and over 100 miles of network cables. When incidents occur which affect flow and congestion on island, all first responders and transportation officials sit shoulder-to-shoulder on one operations floor, where they can affect outcomes for travellers on our limited road space.

Honolulu, public transportation

Credit: City and County of Honolulu – Honolulu’s Joint Traffic Management Center is a multi-agency collaboration to improve traffic management and public safety co-ordination on O‘ahu.

How has the integration of smart infrastructure in your city’s public transportation system contributed to advancing sustainability goals, such as reducing carbon emissions, promoting energy efficiency and encouraging the use of alternative modes of transportation?

Jon - CTACTACzerwinski & Ng: CTA’s approach with smart infrastructure has focused primarily on transit signal priority (TSP) as well as bus queue jump signals. TSP helps prioritise signal time based on vehicle capacity, with additional time given to move high-capacity buses through intersections more quickly leading to a more efficient use of existing road space. 

Priority treatments, including TSP and queue jump signals, make bus service a more attractive option for city residents, improving service reliability and allowing customers to reach their destinations more quickly. While Chicago’s ‘L’ network of train lines provides fast, convenient service, it is primarily oriented on trips to the downtown area and directly serves only a portion of the city. Because CTA’s bus network spans nearly the entire city, investments in bus infrastructure, including smart infrastructure solutions like TSP and queue jump signals, have the ability to impact many more people. CTA understands that any effort to achieve significant mode shift from inefficient single-occupancy vehicles to more sustainable transportation must be focused city-wide and for a variety of trip types and will need to continue to include these types of smart infrastructure investments that improve bus service.

HONOLULUNouchi: Smart infrastructure includes smart charging infrastructure, and we have embarked on an ambitious zero-emission fleet plan for electric buses featuring both depot and on-route charging technologies.

 

CapMetro - DottieWatkins: There are several ways to look at how infrastructure can be ‘smart’. For example, smart (or digitally connected) infrastructure is a game-changer in three primary ways:

Firstly, smart infrastructure is more accessible. Digital interfaces and apps provide connections to a larger mobile ecosystem that allows users to choose transportation options that best meet their needs. One example is lessening their dependence on single-occupant vehicles. We can connect bike-share, rail and bus services much more seamlessly, and we can get to the places we need to, all by being connected. At the same time, users can track fuel usage per route or method of transport and opt for routes and mobility options that avoid or reduce carbon emissions.

Priority treatments make bus service a more attractive option for Chicago’s residents, improving service reliability and allowing customers to reach their destinations more quickly”

Secondly, smart infrastructure allows us access to data that tracks and reports our carbon impact. Advanced metering and monitoring systems collect data and produce models to better understand where we need to improve. When set up properly, these smart data interfaces allow us to compare and benchmark our efficiency and conservation efforts. EPAs Energy Star, one of the systems that we use for reporting, is a pioneer in using data of this kind for comparative reporting and benchmarking.

And finally, smart infrastructure also allows access to real-time information so we can adjust our systems more quickly and efficiently to reduce our impact. For example, we can access energy use, water use, waste generation and fuel use in near real-time. The sustainability and efficiency applications of this type of tech are still being explored. The possibilities for real change and impact reduction are promising.

Some of the ‘smart’ in smart infrastructure is about following the best path forward through our infrastructure implementation. For example, we use peer-reviewed and developed sustainability frameworks, such as Envision for Sustainable Infrastructure and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), to help provide a foundation and pathway to help us design and build the right projects in the right way.

Lastly, the Yard Autonomous Research Demonstration (YARD) project is an FTA-funded co-operative research project that leverages innovative tech. In the first phase, a single 40’ CapMetro electric bus will be modified with autonomous driving technology and operate within the bus maintenance yard. The bus will autonomously perform basic manoeuvres, including starting, braking and avoiding hazards. These demonstrations also include charging at the pantograph charger, running through the bus wash, and parking /relocation for the end and beginning of shifts. The research for this project will collect data on workforce development opportunities (where service workers could now be trained to perform higher-level maintenance tasks), mapping for future control software applications (where the bus could be operated from our control centre), operated remotely (such as parking vehicles closer together to save real estate), moved to and from maintenance garage, and meeting the operator at the staging area (saving lab costs), and many more applications. An autonomous yard promotes a safer work environment as there would be less foot traffic around the yard, particularly during the early morning or late evening.

CTA, public transportation

Credit: Chicago Transit Authority

In what ways have data analytics and real-time monitoring been utilised to make informed decisions regarding public transportation routes, schedules and service adjustments?

Jon - CTACTACzerwinski & Ng: Data analytics is a major part of CTA’s service planning and scheduling process. Ridership information collected from the farebox, automated passenger counters (APC) and geolocation information collected from buses all contribute to a decision-making process that ultimately leads to the service customers see on the street. APC technology allows planners to understand where demand is occurring along a bus route, ensuring that service can be allocated to the highest-use areas. Loading information collected by APC’s is utilised to address crowding issues, with additional trips added to the schedule at times when crowding occurs; loading data also guides decisions about the vehicle size assigned to different routes. Schedulers utilise automatically collected runtime data to make accurate schedules, which is a must in a dense city such as Chicago where there is a high variability of traffic congestion throughout the day.

Bus location information also helps support decisions on infrastructure investment. Planners will use this data to identify areas of congestion and will work with CDOT to identify what types of infrastructure could help move buses through the congested area more quickly. Dwell time data and wheelchair ramp usage data can also help direct resources to make improvements to individual bus stops. Travel time information is reviewed after infrastructure is added to understand the benefits realised from the investment, helping to fine-tune the treatments and guiding future decisions on infrastructure.

CTA’s bus operations group uses real-time data to ensure service on the street is consistent and reliable. Maps displaying bus location information help identify gaps in service resulting from on-street delays. Controllers can communicate directly with operators to provide instructions or can direct the problem to field personnel if a bigger intervention is needed. Service delivery metrics are also reviewed on a regular basis to ensure proper attention is focused on any longer-term issues. 

HONOLULUNouchi: We utilise two software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms to plan and evaluate transit services. Remix allows us to re-envision and better apportion our planned service as we face budget constraints, even as we expand our Skyline rail and TheBus system networks. The Swiftly platform lets us monitor our system performance in real-time and determine the efficiencies and performance of our transit services. Every foot and minute used most productively for our passengers count cumulatively towards our own system sustainability. We owe it to our passengers to ensure every bit of service we place on the roads is well-spent for taxpayers.

Looking towards the future, what emerging technologies or advancements in smart infrastructure do you believe will have the most significant impact on enhancing the efficiency and sustainability of public transportation systems across the U.S.?

Jon - CTA, mobilityCTA, mobilityCzerwinski & Ng: As more cameras are placed on streets for traffic and safety needs, these can be leveraged to better understand changing traffic patterns and customer needs. There is a wealth of data already being collected from these cameras: traffic counts and vehicle speeds are currently being utilised to identify problem areas and better understand the impact of changes to the roadway and bus priority treatments.

Combining this smart camera technology with machine learning to properly identify CTA buses will allow for better targeting existing treatments such as queue jump signals, ensuring time is only taken from the cycle when a CTA bus is present. It is CTA’s hope that other data collected from these cameras, such as pedestrian activity and vehicle queue lengths, can be utilised to better understand needs of all users at the intersection in order to make more informed real-time decisions about signal time allocation, with an eye toward improving overall intersection operations and bus service specifically.

HONOLULUNouchi: AI could have a huge impact on future mobility services. Broadly, AI has already shown benefits in system transit asset management and other visual applications. However, I believe AI has yet to conquer human gaps in analysing route and schedule efficiencies to maximise route coverage, frequency, scheduling and productivity.