Thursday, March 2, 2017

Small steps toward smarter transit

There is a lot of talk about the smart city. Even transit can have increased intelligence to make transit safer, faster and more convenient. Here are three local examples:
New "train coming" pedestrian warning signals at Howard Street
(photo: Philipsen)

Safety 

Baltimore pedestrians rarely care about the red hand at signalized crosswalks and they also tend to step blindly in front of the not exactly whisper quiet light rail trains. On the initiative of MTA City and MTA put their heads together and conceived of a remedy. The result are train activated audible and visual warning signs.Clanging sounds familiar from railroad crossings and bright lights in the shape of additional rectangular signal heads were added next to the traditional pedestrian signals showing the red hand and the Walk symbols

There is something new for drivers as well. For years I observed illegal turns from Howard Street into West Franklin Street, across the tracks, occasionally in front of trains which ended more than once in a crash.  Crashes between trains and cars usually do little to the train and much to the car and the drivers who are sitting in the soft spot for impact and still ignored to check the mirror before ignoring the no-left-turn signs.
1999-2008 data (Sabra Wang)
Early in the term of the new MTA Administrator I suggested to make these static signs train dependent, i.e. they would only be in effect when a train was actually present. I assumed that not "crying wolf" all the time but only on the occasion for which the prohibition was installed would make the signs more convincing and presumably  much more effective.  Paul Comfort liked the suggestion and about 18 months later I see new no left turn signs installed overhead that light up brightly only when a train is approaching from either side. Only problem: The static signs remain and so it is still illegal, even when no train is anywhere in sight and people will continue to ignore the signs.
Train activated no left turn sign plus an array of static
prohibitions at Howard and Franklin Streets
(Photo: Philipsen)

The idea of train activated audible and visual signs is not new, of course and represents a very low level of "intelligence. Any at grade railroad crossing with automatic gates and red flashers has operated like that for decades. On Baltimore's light rail special warnings were first realized in 2009 further south on Howard Street around Camden Yards. At that time 300 crashes between trains and cars or pedestrians had occurred between 1999 and 2008.

Speed

Wouldn't it be nice if a full bus or train wouldn't be hung up at a red signal, especially if cross traffic is light? Howard Street with its heavily traveled east-west arteries and a total of 16 signals between Conway Street and Mt Royal Avenue has brought the north-south trains to a crawl with downtown train travel speeds barely above walking and below bicycling and a trip time of over 15 minutes for a 1.7 mile trip (speed: 7.2 mph). During some trips in the afternoon rush hour a train even needed 16 and more minutes, Stations and signals halting trains incessantly along the route.

When Mayor and then Governor Schaefer had initially implemented the system in 1992, the problem had been recognized and train operators could call for the upcoming signal to turn in their favor. That much transit friendliness was unacceptable to the City traffic engineers, though and the push buttons were disabled.

Technology to allow transit to get priority over cars exists for a long time. It is called TSP (Traffic signal priority). TSP requires that signals "know" whether a transit vehicle is in the area. Communication between train and signal influences signal phases just enough to get the train or bus through without a wait or a much shorter wait. In 2007 a more modern Siemens system was installed that could be programmed for various degrees of transit priority. Most of the time the system didn't work either because it was poorly calibrated, timidly applied or because it was turned off altogether. The equipment is owned by MTA but supposed to be maintained by MTA. But even in the best case when TSP worked as intended, it never took more than 1 minute and 12 seconds off the downtown train travel time with an average of 3 minutes and 26 seconds still spent waiting for signals. (Sabra Wang 2014 study).
Sabra Wang graphic depicting the elements of TSP

Now with an ambition to speed up buses as part of the Baltimore Link project, TSP has become a hot issue again, in part because Administrator Paul Comfort has invested his fate in the success of Baltimore Link.  TSP and the necessary coordination with City DOT was scaled up beyond Howard Street: Consultant Sabra Wang was commissioned to devise cost effective solutions to once again speed up transit and install TSP at strategic intersections. The systemic issues remain, though, MTA paying for the equipment but is depending on the BCDOT to maintain and program it to the benefit of transit.
Experience across the country shows that the most beautiful hardware is no good if the software isn't properly programmed and maintained or if the local DOT is not willing to increase wait times for cars.

Convenience
The MTA times on the Transit App are
notoriously incorrect

The same is true for the by far most popular piece of smart technology, the count-down clocks at transit stops which show in real time when the next bus or train will arrive. Again, light rail is the forerunner and  MTA has installed those electronic signs along the entire line for some time now. An attempt of making the buses smart as well and let riders see on their smart phones when the bus would come failed spectacularly. The info isn't available half the time and the other times it is
frequently incorrect. Yes, buses have GPS and automatic vehicle locators (AVL) and it should be possible to know where they are at any given time. But even that fairly straight forward quest failed in Baltimore when it became clear that radio signals going to the phones or signs are doing a poor job compared to satellite signals. The radio signals easily get deflected and aren't reliable. So the MTA procured all new bus locator systems. They are supposed to be operational sometime this year. Once installed customers should be able to get actual arrival times at their various transit apps and where electronic signs are installed. Some systems, like Hillsborough Transit in the Tampa area also allows a map based app that shows the locations of all the buses similar to the Uber app.
The MTA smart card is supposed to become a much more
common form of payment 

These are modest beginnings of a high tech transit age which will eventually include self driving buses and trains, prepaid smart cards that are accepted on all modes and systems in the region and demand-based transit that routes and dispatches transit based on who wants to ride when and where.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA