Edmonton Transit tests new technology through ambitious pilot project

As it stands currently, there are apps for most smartphone platforms, and for most major Canadian transit authorities, that let mobile users access bus schedules on the fly.

Unfortunately, bus schedules are somewhat useless. As someone who does take the bus a couple times per week, I can attest that consistency is not a bus’s strength. Of course, this isn’t the fault of the bus or the driver. You never know how many stops a bus will have to make on its route, or how the traffic will be, or how many red lights the bus is caught at – unlike rapid transit (such as the Canada Line), which boasts set stops and no traffic or red lights to contend with, its timing is almost Rolex-smooth.

But, as we know, rapid transit isn’t viable in every neighbourhood, and therefore buses are the logical, if not fully satisfying, solution.

Fortunately, Edmonton Transit and Edmonton’s city council are pushing to make this form of public transit a little more predictable. A $3.4-million pilot project, launching across 50 buses in 2012, will test leading edge GPS technology. This technology would allow a smartphone user with the downloaded app to actually track the bus they’re waiting for – so they can know if it’s running early, late, or right on time. 

Furthermore, the program will test other benefits, such as automated stop announcements and computer-aided service dispatch, as well as heightened vehicle monitoring to detect mechanical problems. It’s not the first such technology for a public transit bus, but it’s always encouraging to see real money invested into improving these modes of transportation. Quoth the Edmonton Journal:

Coun. Don Iveson strongly supports the scheme, saying automatic vehicle location has worked well when he used it in other cities. “It pays for itself because it makes the system more navigable for riders and attracts more riders.”

If the project is successful, transit officials will suggest expanding it to the rest of Edmonton’s 959 buses within the next five years, Stolte said. The price of equipping the whole fleet is an estimated $32.7 million. When savings in transit operations are taken into account, it would cost about $2 million a year to run, although the technology might also reduce the need for extra buses and other material.

However, not everyone is impressed. The city council vote was certainly not a unanimous, and one member of council was particularly at odds:

That price was too high for Coun. Kerry Diotte, who voted against the proposal. “I’m very skeptical, because this is a lot of money,” he said. “If we end up spending $32 million on this, I would say the money can be better spent.”

It’s always difficult to tell how such large investments will play out for the long term, but improving public transportation is seldom a bad idea. Hopefully a successful testing period sets a positive benchmark and inspires more Canadian cities to do the same.