CATS adding GPS system for riders to track buses

Soon, bus riders in East Baton Rouge Parish will be able to get real-time updates on smartphones and computers about the location of Capital Area Transit System buses.

CATS officials said they are putting the finishing touches on a series of technology upgrades they’re preparing to unveil at the end of the month — the most transformative change being the addition of GPS, or global positioning systems — on the agency’s 79 vehicles.

Brian Marshall, chief administrative officer for CATS, said the agency’s biggest problem has been long wait times and the uncertainty of when buses would arrive at stops.

“Now, that’s entirely taken away; now, there’s absolute certainty,” Marshall said. “We can let them know when a bus is coming up to a 15-second margin of error.”

CATS contracted with RouteMatch Software, an Atlanta-based company, about five months ago for $1.4 million.

The entirety of the contract, with the exception of operational costs, is covered by federal economic stimulus dollars.

Kiran Vemuri, planning manager for CATS, said the agency will pay about $15,000 a year in operational costs to run the system.

Vemuri said CATS has wanted to install the technology for more than three years, but has lacked the funds for operational costs and local matches. He said the passage of the 10.6-mill property tax in April in Baton Rouge and Baker ensures the agency is able to continue to support the service.

Customers waiting for buses will be able to pull up a live map that shows the destination of their bus, and an estimated time of arrival.

Each of the 59 buses and 20 paratransit vehicles, which are used for disabled riders, has been outfitted with a GPS; LED panels displaying approaching intersections and destinations; automated speakers that announce approaching destinations; and digital passenger counters.

The CATS terminal on Florida Boulevard is now outfitted with digital signs that will eventually tell waiting passengers how many minutes they have left to wait for the next bus. The terminal is also outfitted with two LCD monitors that mimic departure and arrival time screens in airports, with a complete list of route information.

Vemuri said eventually more monitors will be positioned when CATS establishes its new transfer centers in locations like Cortana Mall, the Mall of Louisiana and Southern University.

Vemuri acknowledged that a large segment of CATS’ ridership may not have access to a smartphone, but he said eventually CATS plans to expand the service to include text updates, so riders using a cellphones can text a number and receive an immediate response about how far away their bus is.

Marshall noted that the addition of GPS could encourage riders who have access to vehicles to try the bus instead.

The technology will also ensure that dispatchers at CATS know the location of each bus, allowing them to make adjustments if a bus is running late, Vemuri said.

Tim Quinn, executive vice president for RouteMatch, said his company’s software system is used in 48 states and more than 550 bus systems. He said that when the technology is added, systems typically see increases in ridership and overall rider satisfaction.

“There’s anxiety in not knowing, associated with public transportation,” he said. “Buses run late, airlines run late. The challenge is in not knowing, but this eliminates that.”

The technology also allows CATS to update many of its operational tasks, like scheduling and data collection. Where many of those tasks were done manually before, with Excel spreadsheets, now information is automated in their computer system.

“Everyone talks about GPS, but it’s really a small component as far as the technology,” Quinn said. “It’s creating the technology foundation so that CATS can scale up into all sorts of other things.”

GPS technology is something CATS promised it would add in its tax campaign last year. CATS officials said they would use the tax dollars generated for systemwide improvements and expansions that included more reliable service and eventually reducing wait times at peak hours from 75 minutes to 15 minutes.

Marshall said the GPS service will provide a major difference in service.

“You couple this innovation with the route changes we have planned, and we’re going to have a dynamic system,” Marshall said. “But take it as it is, and it already makes what we have 1,000 percent better.”