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Capital Metro to modernize information delivery with onboard displays

Tuesday, February 4, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority will soon outfit 67 local service buses with 29-inch wide-screen digital displays, initiating a new era of dynamic passenger information delivery.

Last week, the agency’s board of directors unanimously approved a contract with Clever Devices, a transit technology company, to purchase 110 information screens.

The displays allow for multiple simultaneous data streams that can provide anything from real-time travel information, such as when a bus will arrive at an upcoming stop, to the local weather forecast and local news.

Clever Devices integrates the vehicle’s real-time GPS tracking data with the displays to give customers feedback on their trip time. This information can also signal upcoming transfers between routes, service alerts for detours and location-based public service announcements.

“The sky’s the limit in terms of the information we could put there,” said Dottie Watkins, the agency’s chief customer officer and chief operating officer.

According to the company’s website, integrated location tracking also allows transit agencies to run paid advertising campaigns based on the specific location of the transit vehicle and upcoming stops. Using the technology, agencies can generate additional advertising revenue by partnering with local businesses so that “highly-targeted” advertisements run just as the vehicle is approaching the stop nearest to the business.

The screens allow for easy uploading of video, graphics or text displays to run alongside other passenger information. Bus passenger counters can also facilitate detailed viewership numbers that can be used to set local advertising rates and provide proof of play to advertisers.

This potential for a variety of digital content is what Clever Devices and other transit technology professionals call infotainment, the intersection of passenger information and entertainment.

Watkins said the screens could also be used for safety and service alerts that may impact transit service. For example, the agency could create announcements ahead of major events like the Austin Marathon reminding customers of any service changes.

The base contract for the first year will cost about $850,000 with two additional 12-month options. The agency could add a total of 100 additional display screens for a total contract of over $1.3 million if the board opts for the two 12-month contract extensions.

Displays will be installed on 55 MetroRapid buses and each of the 12 purchased battery-electric buses. The 40-foot MetroRapid buses will each get one display while the articulated Rapid buses will each get two displays, one in front and one behind the pivoting joint. The 40-foot electric buses will each get two displays, while the 60-foot electric buses coming in late spring will be outfitted with three screens, as an attempt to see whether the third screen makes a considerable difference in customer satisfaction.

For now, Watkins said, the screens will be limited to the agency’s MetroRapid routes as the technology remains too cost-prohibitive to expand across the entire fleet. In the future, she said it may be possible to expand the technology across other service types.

“Assuming that we’re satisfied with the technology we would be, after this three-year period is up, looking to do a longer-term contract,” Watkins said.

Austin is not the first city to use the digital displays onboard its vehicles. The Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority in Dayton, Ohio, claims to have used the Clever Devices local advertisement features as a way to fund a high-frequency free transit service that otherwise may not have been viable.

The Chicago Transit Authority has also been testing onboard digital displays on select buses in an ongoing pilot program since December 2018. At this point, however, the agency said there is no advertising on screens in its transit vehicles.

At a recent talk hosted by local transit advocacy organizations, engineer and author Christof Spieler said efforts like this – reliable information and signage that helps people understand how to use a transit system – are the most overlooked components of a quality transit system. The presence of intuitive signage and useful information, he said, makes a considerable contribution to overall transit ridership.

“This is awesome,” said Board Member Eric Stratton. “I think this is an incredible leap forward and improvement for the bus system as a whole.”

Photo courtesy of Capital Metro.

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