Well-thought-out passenger information systems communicate and explain. They give passengers the information they need when they need it.
This information changes as the passenger moves through their journey and includes details on routes, stops, times, connecting services, ticket prices, and service disruptions that impact their specific trip.
At its simplest, passenger information can be a chalkboard timetable at a stop. However, passenger information systems have developed significantly, drawing on best practices from around the world. Advanced variable message signs can now show timetables and route information with real-time arrivals and can be combined with voice announcements.
Automatic Vehicle Location and Control (AVLC) systems with GPS technology deliver real-time passenger information, and typically, next services are displayed to passengers at the stop and on mobile devices. Arrival certainty reduces passenger perceptions of waiting time and improves the travel experience.
In-station kiosks provide supplementary information, including journey planning, route options, tickets, and surrounding attractions.
Social media has made information transfer easier and quicker. The use of messaging systems like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, and others, have influenced transport authorities and operators to create systems where timetables and disruption notifications can be sent directly to a passenger’s phone.
Effective passenger information means:
Reduced uncertainty. Accurate real-time information reduces a passenger’s perception of waiting times and increases confidence in public transport delivery.
Improved usability. Convenience and usability go together for passengers. Better passenger information and journey planning improve system usability, particularly for those passengers with disabilities.
Increased ridership. The more reliable and convenient a service is, the more likely passengers are to use it. Reliability requires that passengers first know the routes served and how services are tracking against these times. Headway services don’t publish anything more than a frequency and encourage passengers to turn up and simply catch the next bus.
Better communication when things go wrong. Service disruptions do occur – they are a reality of public transport operations. When an accident or a breakdown happens, early communication of the disruption and expected resolutions or mitigation allows passengers to plan their day better, reducing frustration and disruptions to work and home life.
Evaluating passenger information systems is best done by breaking requirements into different areas. Once you know what you need for each area, an appropriate system can be assessed.
1. What passenger information do you require at stops and stations?
Passenger information can be a combination of printed timetables, variable message signs, and voice announcements. Successful implementations have occurred with only printed timetables; however, many cities implement a mixture of printed timetables, variable message signs, voice announcements, and a mobile app that updates passengers on service locations.
The biggest consideration here is budget. Printed timetables are the easiest and cheapest to implement. A good scheduling system will allow you to export stop timetables to PDF format, so your only expense here is printing and distributions costs at each station or stop. However, this can be a time-consuming task and often means that printed timetables are out of date.
Variable message signs solve this problem, but they require power and communications. Some solar-powered displays are available, though their applicability to specific locations and climates requires verification. Voice announcements also require electricity, communications infrastructure (internet via fibre, cable, or mobile network), amplifiers, and speakers.
Mobile information ranges from a basic SMS request and response service to mobile-friendly websites and apps. Increasingly, dedicated, fully functional apps are developed, with a live information feed from the control centre. These apps require a high level of smartphone penetration in the target market to succeed and benefit from regular marketing to encourage high usage levels.
The accessibility and useability of any website or application should be verified together with compliance to standards, for example, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These help to ensure maximum useability across the population.
2. What passenger information do you need on the vehicle?
Front and side displays are typical external vehicle displays. Inside the vehicle, you have a choice between LED displays, which are typically used to display next stops and fully graphical infotainment screens, which can be used to display the current route, advertisements, weather, and local information.
Voice announcements onboard the vehicle, like “The next stop is Central Station”, are typically automatically triggered. More advanced passenger information systems support additional information, for example, “alight here for…” and activate ad hoc announcements that are either pre-recorded or can be made directly by the driver or control centre operator.
3. Can your planned passenger information be centrally managed and automatically triggered?
When running a public transport system, the sheer volume of information means it is essential your passenger information is automated and centrally managed. Planned passenger information, including next stop text and voice announcements, should be customisable and triggered automatically depending on distance or time until the next stop.
4. Can your planned passenger information be centrally managed and automatically triggered?
Delays and disruptions are a fact of life when running public transport systems. Expected arrival and departure times should be automatically updated at stops and station displays to reflect these disruptions. Check that your ITS provider has a prediction engine where the vehicle’s AVLC system and passenger information systems share information and update displays based on current operating conditions.
5. Do you want to integrate with third-party mapping services like Google Maps?
If you intend to send data to third-party journey planning engines or mapping systems, check what data format is required to ensure the scheduling system can export data in the correct format. You will also need to check that your planning and real-time passenger information (RTPI) systems can receive data in that format. General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) has become increasingly popular for this kind of data sharing and is used by Google Transit to display transport data in Google Maps.
6. Do you require facilities for visually impaired persons?
Text-to-speech and voice announcements on vehicles is one way to significantly improve the experience for visually impaired persons. Text-to-speech buttons can be installed at stations and stops, and when activated, announce the passenger information displayed verbally. Text-to-speech systems can offer significantly more functionality than pre-recorded announcements, as there is no need to match voice tones and levels when stops change. They can also announce free text sent to the sign. To really lift the bar on information delivery to the visually impaired there are systems like INTROS that use Bluetooth 5 and an app, initially developed by the Swiss Blind Society, to link directly to the next bus, hailing the bus, advising the driver of the pickup and indicating to the passenger that his is their bus. The technology can also be used to indicate the next stop to the passenger.
7. Do you need to provide information for special events, such as sports matches, concerts, and festivals?
Large events can be hugely disruptive for regular commuters while also bringing in large numbers of new passengers who may be unfamiliar with your public transport system. It is important to communicate clearly and succinctly to regular passengers, so they know disruptions are happening, and for new passengers, how to use the system effectively.
Special event notices on passenger information displays and voice announcements can all be used to ensure transport runs smoothly for large events. Ensure your system has the functionality to display messages and play recorded voice announcements that can be automatically triggered before, during, and after your event to notify commuters. These messages should also automatically synchronise your various passenger information systems like websites, apps, and social media.
8. Can you place messages on your passenger information displays and make announcements during operations?
Public transport systems are subject to accidents and unplanned occurrences. Whether they are emergencies or minor inconveniences, details must be communicated quickly and effectively to passengers to ensure that they are informed and aware – especially regarding safety-related aspects of the incident.
Make sure that your passenger information system is integrated with your real-time service control and allows you to place messages on displays as the service disruption is managed. You should also be able to make announcements to a group of vehicles or stations on a particular route or the entire network if needed.
The best-of-breed AVLC systems will have integrated service control and passenger information modules. This makes it easy for controllers to set up diversions and communicate changes to drivers and passengers.
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Public Transport Authorities, Bus, Trams/Light Rail, Ferry
Intelligent Transport Systems
Industry Solutions Manager, ITS