Fantastic SF Chronicle article about our project:
Muni’s frustrating service problems can be blamed on many factors, among them a chronic shortage of operators, an unreliable fleet of aging streetcars, and buses and schedules that don’t always mesh with the realities of San Francisco’s congested streets.
Another? Paper and pens.
The Bay Area’s busiest transit agency, with 700,000 boardings a day, has relied on an inefficient mixture of radios, phones, a GPS tracking system and old-fashioned handwritten reports to manage the fleet.
The cumbersome system can result in delayed responses to problems, such as several buses showing up all at once or none showing up at all, that can leave passengers fuming.
But now city transit officials are placing a lot of hope in new fleet-management technology created in 2011 specifically for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency during a civic-oriented “hackathon.” After more than a year in development, abbreviated field testing began last week. Additional tweaks will be made, with the launch of a more ambitious pilot project probably still a few weeks away.
Smart Muni is an iPad app that allows the myriad players running Muni operations to have real-time information on what’s happening with the fleet. During peak commute periods, 800 or so buses, streetcars and cable cars can be on the street at one time.
Replacing antiquated system
The software uses as its foundation the NextBus GPS data system that’s already available to pinpoint the location, speed and direction of every vehicle, and the distance, or headway, between them. That information is overlaid with the schedule for each line.
When a problem is identified, it’s entered into the system via text messages, giving staff up-to-the-minute information and the ability to communicate a plan of action and make adjustments on the fly – an ability that had been lacking.
Muni’s long-standing process for identifying problems relies on placing street inspectors at specific locations with printed schedules in hand to check whether runs are on time. Both they and staff at central control fill out forms by hand to report and track problems.
Radios and phones are used to notify various people – from agency administrators to the control center, to the maintenance shop to the operators – of the trouble, and then more rounds of calls and dispatches go out to discuss what to do.
“Now it can take 10 minutes just to get everyone involved, and that’s time wasted in getting the problem fixed,” said Davide Puglisi, Muni’s senior operations manager for transit services.
With Smart Muni, if a bus or streetcar is running behind schedule, a visual alert will blink on the screen to kick people into action. For example, if a bus breaks down, the driver will radio central control to report the problem, and then central control can shoot a text message over the iPad that will be seen immediately by supervisors on the street and mechanics to get them to the scene as quickly as possible.
If a protest blocks traffic on Market Street and holds up the buses and the F-line historic streetcars, fleet managers can start making adjustments, such as rerouting coaches and trains.
“With this kind of technology, you know exactly where (the Muni vehicles) are and what’s happening; it gives you a complete picture of the system, so when you make an adjustment on one end of the line, you can see how it affects the other. It makes operations much more efficient,” said John Haley, the agency’s director of transit.
Saving on expenses
A more efficient system, he said, will save in operating and maintenance costs – something desperately needed for San Francisco’s transit agency, which has been plagued by recurrent deficits, resulting in both planned and de facto service cuts in recent years, in part because of insufficient resources.
Among the potential benefits that riders could experience: less bunching, more service and better on-time performance.
The Smart Muni prototype emerged from a 48-hour public policy hackathon in July 2011 sponsored by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts to see how technology could help improve local government.
To move from idea to implementation, San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, an organization known as Sf.citi that was founded by tech mogul Ron Conway, stepped in and awarded a $100,000 grant to conduct a pilot project. AT&T agreed to lend Muni 25 iPads for the experiment, which is scheduled to run at least through the end of the year.
Eclectic team of planners
Working hand in hand with Muni employees is the hackathon team – the brains behind the interactive Smart Muni app. Members, most of them devoted Muni riders, are an eclectic bunch, among them a geographer, an architect, a transportation planner, a software developer and an urban planning student.
Rachel Gordon is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.