Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vehicles that drive themselves

The illustrious Road Warrior, (Dan Hartzell), of The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa, penned a news article that appeared Monday, July 24th, 2011 that spoke of 'gadgets' introduced over the years by the auto industry that had made driving easier and caused him to question whether drivers are as responsible today as in the past.

The Warrior's headline was "What's next, cars that drive themselves?"

It got us to thinking that, based on what we've seen in the transit and trucking and even the rail industry over the past several decades, the answer may well be "Yes." And it may not just be commercial vehicles that provide transportation independent of driver interaction.

We recall seeing decades ago, a Popular Mechanics magazine ‘vision issue’ illustrating how automated highways were in our future where drivers would queue up and enter ‘tracks’ where they and their passengers would travel comfortably, safety and efficiently, in caravans of automobiles – almost like passenger trains – along long stretches of highway. Well, these never materialized but are such visions impossible?

We've been attending the Transportation Research Board (TRB) conferences now for many years and one of the research tracks has been indeed auto-drive vehicles. The TRB works on research and demonstration projects year in and year out in colleges and universities not only in the U.S. but across the Globe and meets once a year in Washington D.C. to review the previous year's research. Hundreds of panels of speakers and presenters review literally thousands of research papers on every possible aspect of transportation including all surface modes from pedestrian and bike to high speed rail.

It is an inspiring week of academic excellence on a subject that touches every one of our lives: transportation.

Following the path of the 'driver less' vehicle studies, there are ongoing demonstrations by using automated vehicles that maneuver through a simulated streetscape safely. Many are city transit vehicle experiments where buses run along ‘tracks’ – pavement-level tracks or sensors, not raised rails - built into the street surface providing a path or course or travel. Sets of sensors or tracks at intersections arrange for vehicles to ‘dock’ automatically or, on demand, to pick up waiting passengers or allow people to disembark.
Closer to home - and far more realistic and practical - the Lindenwold High Speed line which brings folks to and from Philadelphia and central New Jersey was originally engineered and designed to operate automatically. It IS a light rail operation, on a fixed guideway, and the trains themselves travel along at predetermined speeds, slowing down and stopping at stations automatically without the need for human intervention. Built in the 1950’s it was an amazingly sophisticated advanced designed system – years ahead of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) on the West Coast which was designed to be fully automated as well but had some inherent flaws from the start.
The Lindenwold line operates flawlessly but from the start was "manned" as passengers reportedly were nervous and refused to board a train that had no operator on board. So it does have operators who sit ready to take control if things go awry and, as far as we know, they seldom have a need to as the system operates very well on its own - as designed. BTW, the last time we looked at their operation, they were the largest users of Susan B. Anthony coins in the US as their fare paying equipment – again unmanned at stations – were designed to accept these coins (and none otther) which you obtain at the stations through vending machines. The coins are cycled through the system over and over and eventually wear out and have to be replaced through the US Mint.
The reasons for this broad experimentation in driver less vehicles are several. One is safety. It is meant to take the human propensity for error and inconsistency (driver fatigue, substance abuse, and a more recent phenomena, cellular 'phone use, text messaging etc) out of the operating equation. Another is efficiency. If a vehicle is operated the same way consistently, at constant speeds without variation, energy use can be minimized and wear and tear on hardware reduced. Finally of course, is cost. In transit's case, 85% of the cost of operating is labor – basically drivers with some maintenance in there also. Having few operators in the systems saves a bundle.
We have used 'people movers’ at airports that seemingly operate independent of human interaction. However, while there may not be anyone on board these vehicles, which are basically light rail operations for the most part, there is a central control where people are monitoring the systems and making sure no one gets stuck in the closing doors. Still, these systems operate from point A to point B regularly, 24/7, without operators physically on board.
As far as automobiles go, there is a federal initiative to work with manufacturers to implement 'smart car' systems and 'smart highways' across the U.S. It was supposed to be completed by 2009 but we think the economy interrupted the plan's progress. All vehicle manufacturers from Ford, GM and Chrysler to Honda, Toyota and BMW are cooperating as eventually, only such 'smart' vehicles as stipulated by the federal government, will be allowed to be sold in the US as of a certain date. Basically, this is the notion of putting GPS and other ‘smart’ vehicle recognition features in cars that sensors along highways can ‘read’ and communicate with. The outcomes are many including way finding, speed control, and, Lord save us, mileage tolling for travel and insurance purposes.
There is also the 'big brother' concept of reading certain maintenance conditions of vehicles and alerting drivers if there is some safety problem or the vehicle needs service. The presentation we heard about this back in 2008 at a national meeting was pretty impressive. It was another way of approaching funding highway maintenance while injecting safety and efficiency controls into travel and commuting. Drivers would be alerted automatically if traffic ahead of them could be avoided with alternative driving routes. Toll booths would be eliminated also removing those untimely delays and drivers would be billed or have their accounts drawn down on like EZ Pass. How do you get back more yield from investment in the national highway system? You make it smarter and more automated.
The trucking industry has been involved in this effort for several years as well with major trucking firms working with government to help document vehicle weights, distance traveled and speed on highways fitted with sensors that read such data as the vehicles roll by. With such systems you can eliminate freight truck weigh station stops and reduce travel delays and monitoring of truck operations for safety and productivity purposes. If you can automate truck driver logs, it makes honest people out of a lot of operators at the same time.
Space age thinking? Too far distant in the future to be realistic? We are not sure. But given the technological advances in this information age we are living in, it does make a lot of sense to apply these new thoughts and ideas to old infrastructure.
How do you improve transit, trucking, rail and highways? Make 'em smart.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Think about sitting at your desk or workstation completing some reports and knowing you are going to have to work an extra half hour that day. You go to the LANta website to check on your bus schedule and find that there is indeed a bus that runs one hour later than the one you usually ride home. Later as you prepare to leave the office, you check in again only this time to LANta tech tools to see exactly what time the bus is departing based on GPS calculations in real-time. You see that the bus is running about 5 minutes late.

Then, at the bus stop, using your cellular phone and the four digit number on the bus stop sign, you ‘dial in’ to hear a voice provide information on exactly when the bus is scheduled to arrive at the stop and you find that you have enough time to duck into the coffee shop near the stop to pick up a latte.

That’s the kind of convenient access to schedule information that LANta has been building into its system over the past year and a half. Most of the infrastructure is in and has been operating for some time now. Bus stop signs with individual bus stop numbers are going to be installed starting this summer and the hope is, weather permitting, to finish that project by the end of the calendar year. The four digit bus stop number, when dialed at the end of a set telephone access number, will generate the GPS authenticated information about the bus operating to and from that bus stop.

Five years ago, this kind of information access was almost unimaginable. And, where it was being experimented with, it was incredibly costly. It still isn’t cheap. The new LANta system, supplied by Avail Technologies Inc of State College, PA, cost a tad under $2 million dollars. And this system, while on the Authority’s master capital plan, was not funded until the federal ‘Stimulus’ program came along. Opportunity knocked, and LANta answered and moved the project along swiftly to meet the federal requirements for a quick turnaround.

While expensive, the investment will pay back over time in time saved in monitoring the system, efficiencies that can be implemented in response to the extensive management information gathered and through insurance and other savings that accrue due to safety enhancements and accident control.

Those ultimately reaping the greatest benefit will be LANta passengers who gain the comfort of knowing exactly when buses operate at all times of the service day. Imagine how convenient such a system will be to use . . .

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Moving LANTA Forward: Real change, real soon!

Last year, the LANTA Board of Directors officially adopted the Moving LANTA Forward strategic plan to guide LANTA’s policy decisions over the next decade. Moving LANTA Forward included three main elements: a service plan for the fixed route system; a marketing plan; and a land use outreach toolkit.

The service plan element of Moving LANTA Forward called for a redesign of the current fixed route network to accomplish various goals including:

• Establish a tier system of corridors to guide service and capital enhancements;
• Improve user-friendliness of the system through streamlined routes and a new route classification system;
• Reduce complexity by reducing variations and eliminating the separate evening service structure;
• Create new direct connections for prominent travel patterns with new through-routing links;
• Address route segments with “tight” running times to improve reliability and reduce operator stress; and
• Use flexible service models to address sparsely developed areas.

On Monday, August 29, 2011, LANTA will implement the first phase of changes designed to address these improvement goals. LANTA has developed a proposed service plan which will be a significant redesign of the current system. The proposals for changes will be made available for public comment starting Tuesday April 5, 2011. Members of the public will be able to review the proposed changes and provide their input at four separate public input sessions as follows:

Tuesday, April 5th 1 - 3 pm and 6-8 pm
Baum School of Art - 510 W. Linden St

Wednesday, April 6 1 - 3 pm
Eastonian Hotel - 140 Northampton St

Wednesday, April 6 6 - 8 pm
Hyatt Hotel - 45 W. North St - opposite the Metro Mart

In addition, information will be available at www.lantabus.com and members of the public will be given the opportunity to submit questions or comments through various electronic venues.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Rising Gas Prices Result in Highest Transit Savings in Two Years

The American Public Transportation Association's (APTA's) latest Transit Savings Report (released monthly) examines how an individual in a two-person household can save money by taking public transportation and living with one less car. Gas prices increased 28 cents a gallon in the last 10 days and are expected to continue rising. As a result, people who ride public transportation save, on average, $9,904 annually, and $825 per month. These results, based on the March 4 average national gas price and the national unreserved monthly parking rate, show the highest savings for public transit riders in two years.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How Green is our Valley?

Ran across this article today:

London Bike Share Program not as "green" as had first been reported.

The article is interesting in that certain statistics and functional activities were ignored in trying to make this project appear to be contributing greatly to reducing emissions and providing alternative transit. China has similar projects that have been in place for less than a year and is struggling with maintaining them. It begs the question: is there a 'perfect green' project short of simply not traveling? We think not.

We had to chuckle the other day when we met an advocate for clean air for the first time and she remarked that it was 'unfortunate' that LANTA was 'part of the problem.' We were taken aback for a moment. Public transit prides itself as being part of the solution to air pollution in that by definition it eliminates so many trips that might otherwise be taken by single occupancy auto. Buses provide such a positive benefit compared to what is exhausted into the air as they operate that the scales are truly weighed in its favor. And technical improvements over the past decade have made 'clean diesel' a good deal more than an oxymoron.

As the advocate continued, it became clear that her focus was on the diesel fuel exhaust from the bus fleet and we have to concur, that is unfortunate. But given current technology and the economics of transit, there isn't really any pure, non-polluting energy alternative to transporting people.

The hybrid electric buses LANTA introduced to the Valley transit system last year go a long way towards minimizing pollutants but they still run somewhat on diesel fuel. And someday, the battery packs that help propel the vehilce will need to be replaced and there is the issue of disposing of batteries and the manufacture of new ones. Both processes have elements of pollution to them.

Obviously, what the world needs is a non-polluting energy alternative to power vehicles. The hydrogen fuel cell is the closest thing we've seen towards that end, but it remains a technology that is considered experimental and not entirely practical for general use.

In the meantime, taking the bus - walking when one can do so practically - is the best alternative for those who want to help the environment. And it's healthier too!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

BRT . . . Is that something to eat?

Government is infamous for throwing around acronyms. In transportation, BRT is shorthand for Bus Rapid Transit, a transportation service that is part of the long term vision for public transportation in the Lehigh Valley laid out in the Moving LANTA Forward. It’s a term applied to public transportation systems using buses to provide a service that is similar to light rail transit without the rails.

It is a form of transportation pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil! Curitiba, one of the fastest growing, most progressive cities in South America. More than 3 decades ago, Curitiba initiated municipal planning that merged transit friendly designed with land use. Starting with one line along a major corridor, the mode proved so effective that today, all of Curitiba’s main arteries have express bus lanes that are dedicated to ‘bus rapid transit’ service.

The features of this service: it is quick, has limited stops at boarding platforms and uses rubber-tired vehicles that function and provide amenities more akin to subway or light rail service.

See here (http://urbanhabitat.org/node/344) for an article with more detail about Curitiba.

See here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJR9uCSyGKM) for an excellent video on BRT in Curitiba.

Land use is critical for optimal transit use with higher modes of transportation. LANTA is partnering with Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC) to dedicate resources to educate the community and municipalities concerning land use and transit oriented design issues.

The Valley already has much of what is needed for an exceptional BRT in place already, but it is not consistent in key corridors.

The Moving LANTA Forward plan calls for service and capital improvements in the short and intermediate terms along “trunk” corridors which can act as a foundation for a future LANTA BRT network. Short and intermediate term service improvements along these trunks include enhancements to the frequency of service and the hours service is available. Potential capital improvements include passenger amenities, technology and ‘transit first’ improvements.

A couple of years ago, there was discussion about ‘rail’ and light rail alternatives in the Valley. When Congressman Dent responded and explored the concept with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in Washington, given the population density of the Valley, the FTA recommended exploring BRT as a first step. Congressmen Dent obtained a grant to provide LANTA with funds to examine BRT as an alternative and demonstrate its potential.

LANTA Planning staff is working now to begin this alternatives analysis as well as taking steps to define corridors for future BRT projects. Density remains an issue. The Lehigh Valley’s population is 625,000 within Lehigh and Northampton Counties. In urbanized Curitiba, the population is more than twice that: 1.75 million. With the mature BRT system in place today in Curitiba, 90% of this population is served. One of the questions that has to be answered is which comes first: the density or the higher mode of service?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Talk about Moving LANTA Forward ...

We've just installed the most amazing technology!

It's the trend in the transit industry to purchase and install systems that track city transit vehicles via geographic positioning technology (GPS) that sends information via sattelite to central servers which then display exact vehicle location along bus routes on a Google-type map. Such systems have been available over the past several years in majors cities like New York and Chicago. Well, now this technology is coming to a bus stop near you!

In addition to showing the exact vehicle location, all bus stops along the route are shown and the system interacts with the bus, estimates speed and distance, and defines the estimated time of arrival at each stop along the route. This 'real time' information adjusts according to traffic conditions, weather - whatever affects the speed of the bus - to constantly update the estimated arrival times.

Check it out here in its current test mode.

The system LANTA has installed was designed and developed by Avail Technologies, Inc., of State College, PA. It is a state-of-the-art system that has been deployed in several communities in Pennsylvania. LANTA went out for competitive proposals on this project in 2009 and Avail was the successful contrator and has been installing the software and hardware for the past year.

As one can imagine, a project like this is not only time-consuming but involves a tremendous amout of data collection, input and management. As we've noted in articles previously posted here, the first step of the process was for LANTA staff to physically visit each and every bus stop in the Metro system and 'geocode' the stop. This created a latitude and longitude for each stop so that the system could define it as the bus traveled along its route. We learned that there are 2695 bus stops in the LANTA Metro system (trust us, we counted!)

Other tasks included the creation of a database in a scheduling management software so that each bus route was digitally defined and each vehicle had a unique identity. Hardware was installed on vehicles so that not only would the system 'find' the bus, but the internal electronic data management systems would work together to provide fare, schedule, driver and passenger information along with everything else. This allows Dispatchers to know not only where the bus is located, but how many passengers are on board and if the vehicle is on time and whether or not people are looking to transfer along the route.

In additional to obtaining information online, passengers will be able to view signs at major transfer points that show the real time buses are arriving and departing. A telephone number will be available so that riders can check whether the bus is on schedule or not. And, since so much information is being collected hour after hour, day after day, LANTA planners will be able to modify routes and schedules to respond better to passenger patterns and demand.

The system is in final testing mode now and should be available to the public within a couple of months. Accuracy of the system is obviously crucial, so considerable time is being taken to verify all data.

This system, used in concert with Google Transit, will provide passengers and prospective passengers with volumes of information to make travel on LANTA buses more reliable than ever before. No longer do riders have to trudge to bus stops and 'guess' when the next bus is coming along. They will know.

The benefits of this system are far too numerous to list here but suffice to say, LANTA has moved forward into the 21st in a very robust, hi-tech way!

Update 1/29/2011: The Morning Call's Road Warrior 'discovered' LANTA's venture into cyberspace technology. Click here to read his inciteful and accurate report.