Virginia university bus system wins grant to add technology

Blacksburg Transit, which mainly serves Virginia Tech, wants to streamline service and make its system smarter

December 07, 2011

Virginia’s Blacksburg Transit (BT) bus system recently won a major $1.85 million grant for technology to streamline the beleaguered bus system, reported.

The transit system shuttles mainly students, staff and faculty at Virginia Tech around the more than 400 stops seven days a week. Last year it recorded 3.2 million rides.

But the system is struggling with high variability in the demand for service. Because it is a non-traditional bus system that serves a university, the system’s rush hours are during class changes, said Tim Witten, special projects manager at Blacksburg Transit, a service of town government.

Classes change all day and evening and at different times on different days of the week. Exams and weather increase variation, contributing to spot seat shortages. The driver, equipped with a radio, calls headquarters, which can send another bus.

During the week of Sept. 5, drivers reported turning away passengers 76 times, Witten said.

For Witten, this is unacceptable. He does not want riders missing class, the start of the workday and other appointments. Putting more buses in service is the obvious answer. But having too many seats and not enough passengers is not ideal, either, especially in terms of the environment; it wastes resources such as fuel and belches more exhaust into the atmosphere. The bus fleet averages between 3.75 miles and 4.25 miles per gallon of fuel.

"You want buses working at their highest efficiency," Witten said.

The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced earlier this month that Blacksburg Transit will be one of 46 recipients nationally of intelligent transportation research dollars. BT, which has 43 buses running 10 routes, will partner with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI).

Federal officials are "tapping into American innovation and ingenuity to develop and build leading edge energy efficient transportation technologies," said Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA), in a prepared release.

The federal government will reimburse BT for project expenses of up to $1.85 million, a sum greater than twice all previous grants BT has received for intelligent transportation.

Seven or eight years ago, using a different grant, BT installed GPS technology to locate buses and automatic passenger counters on the vehicles, Witten said. In another earlier advance, the bus system established a website for finding a bus on short notice, which works on smart phones, too.

With VTTI's help, BT intends to explore new and existing technology capable of generating live, passenger-demand information that would enable administrators to better tailor the supply of bus service. One idea being considered is to point cameras at bus stops––cameras that don't take pictures but count people.

Another idea is the placement of kiosks at stops bearing a button for would-be riders to push. A smart phone application is another possibility being explored to generate a clearer picture of how many people need rides and where, in time for managers to respond by ramping up the supply of rides or throttling back, possibly even temporarily taking buses out of service to conserve energy.