Monday’s Sacramento Bee had an article on Regional Transit‘s recent problems with light rail operations. The most frustrating thing about the system running behind schedule (to me) is lack of notification. I usually don’t care if my bus is running 10 minutes late — I just don’t want to stand at the bus stop for an extra 10 minutes, especially when I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait. Near the end of the article, a passenger-notification system is mentioned:
In Washington, D.C., rail officials now send electronic alerts directly to commuters’ computers, cell phones and personal digital assistants.
Joseph and I discussed a similar system for the Sac State shuttle service, which routinely runs behind schedule at the beginning of every semester. Joseph’s idea was to set up an email list server with a separate list for each of Sac State’s three different routes. Transit riders would subscribe to the alert service for the route(s) they take, using their cell phone’s text messaging address, an alphanumeric pager address, or any other device capable of receiving email. Thus if the driver on route #2 is running behind schedule, s/he would alert the dispatcher, who would in turn send a single email to route #2’s subscribers. The email list server would then notify all the subscribers’ pagers, cell phones, PDA’s, etc. This same information could, with a bit more effort, also be posted on a web page or put into an RSS feed. Email list servers are very mature technology, and they don’t require much infrastructure. Such a system could be implemented on a commodity PC in a matter of hours. The only other requirement would be a decent internet connection.
According to the Bee article, RT’s future projects list includes a public information system for light-rail stations, costing $2,000,000. ?!? That’s crazy! RT should follow Washington DC’s example (or just hire Joseph for a few days) and send alerts directly to patrons’ alphanumeric pagers and cell phones. How much could such a system possibly cost? Granted that they have many more routes and riders than Sac State, but the basic idea should scale up very well by investing a bit more money in the hardware. Spending $2 million just on kiosks at light rail stations doesn’t make any sense to me.