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How GIS Assists Mass Transit

By Sara Helfrich, GIS Analyst III, MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) And Letitia King-Branch, GIS Analyst II, MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority)

How GIS Assists Mass TransitSara Helfrich, GIS Analyst III, MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority)

By its very nature, the mass transit industry provides an atmosphere for geographic information systems (GIS) to thrive. Transit agencies can utilize the critically needed tracking, management, and analysis tools that these GIS-based systems provide to manage, store, and manipulate spatial data. This data is then communicated to users, like the transit customer, giving them reliable information that enables them to make wise decisions, such as their trip on mass transit. Without these advanced, now foundational GIS-based systems, an agency like Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), Georgia’s largest mass transit provider, would find it difficult to compete and survive in the evolving mass transit industry.  

GIS has evolved from a desktop application targeted at GIS professionals to a suite of user-friendly GIS tools. This evolution has transformed the relationship between the geographical information system and the end-user. As a result, GIS users and consumers realize much greater ease of data gathering, monitoring, analysis, and data sharing than ever before. Facilitating this migration into an environment that can aggregate data from multiple systems into a single, real-time operational dashboard, allows users to perform analysis.

GIS transit data collected and organized by an agency such as MARTA can be transformed into informative maps and applications used to provide information to requesting parties. This information includes presentations and informational packages, as well as numerous kinds of analysis. They can be used to retrieve archival information related to previous incarnations of an agency’s transit routings, review aerial imagery of the area the bus or train accesses, or provide necessary information about the system layout. This data can be made available to users, businesses, and other agencies through an open data hub. This publicly accessible, centralized data sharing site is an easy way for an agency like MARTA to provide access to continuously updated, shareable geographic data that can then be consumed by patrons or other entities to do analysis, build applications, etc.

The management and analysis tools provided by these GIS technologies open doors of analysis, management, and service tracking that make transit agency management efficient and reliable

The departments that handle route and service planning require multiple GIS tools, such as network analysis tools, that assist in assessing current routing, schedules, and evaluate changes. There is also the need for planning and managing stop locations and tracking numerous field staff and their work. The emerging location-enabled field operations applications allow various service planners to be more efficient with asset data collection. For example, bus stop planners can take mobile devices into the field with them. The planners are enabled to collect GPS information, attribute information, and make data corrections out in the field.

Beyond these location-based management services, the information collected resulting from a full day of transit services will need to be reviewed and analyzed. GIS tools can be used to assess information such as ridership counts, and on-time performance data gathered from other systems. This aggregation of data from various sources can allow the user the opportunity to apply trend-analysis and make critical decisions that would otherwise be cumbersome and time consuming.

Transit real estate departments utilize GIS-based technologies to manage the agency’s physical real estate property. This management involves land purchase agreements, rental agreements, tax documentation, and parcel data. MARTA recently migrated its real estate staff from using a desktop application to a web application to allow them to utilize the latest GIS web-enabled tools to manage the agency’s real estate assets. This new web-based real estate management system still connects to the GIS desktop applications so that the user retains the use of available desktop tools while still providing them with the latest advancements.

Anagency’s customer service departments may utilize various types of GIS systems to inform patrons on the best route to take from their trip origin. For instance, MARTA has a mobile app that tracks bus locations to tell patrons how far their vehicle is from their pick-up location as well as providing necessary information such as schedule times and general service maps. 

Letitia King-Branch, GIS Analyst II, MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority)

MARTA also has a web-based itinerary planning application available via its website that allows the patron to plan their trip, providing them with a GIS-based platform that enables them to enter their origin and destination, receive several possible routes to their destination, and check on their next scheduled trip time. A more robust version of this itinerary planning technology is also employed internally by MARTA’s customer service staff to provide requesting patrons with itinerary information and they have access to a vehicle tracking system that allows them to monitor bus locations.

MARTA’s automated vehicle location system (AVL) allows its bus operations department to monitor the bus fleet closely. It enables the agency’s staff to track the physical location of each vehicle, confirm if they are on route, and evaluate their on-time performance while they are out on their trip. The data gathered from this GPS enabled AVL system is later used by numerous internal departments as well as outside agencies to gauge the value and effectiveness of the services MARTA provides. A real-time feed of MARTA’s bus location information is also provided to the public via its website, allowing outside entities to consume the service and see the vehicle tracking for themselves.

Current GIS technologies also allow agencies to provide interactive maps to their patrons via the web. Enabling a system like this allowed MARTA to present the public with information on its current routings, stop locations, and, soon, future updates to its service area.

Regardless of the size of the agency, the number of patrons or the area served, GIS systems have become an integral part of the everyday workings of a mass transit agency. The management and analysis tools provided by these GIS technologies open doors of analysis, management, and service tracking that make transit agency management efficient and reliable.

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