In-vehicle computers keep bus drivers and dispatch in sync
“We knew that somebody wasn’t going to come along and just drop several million dollars into our lap and say, ‘Here you go. Do whatever you want with it,’” PARTA Manager of Business Development Bryan Smith explained to GovPro.com. “So we knew that we would need to be able to increase the efficiency of our fleet.”
While the multimillion-dollar windfall never came, PARTA was able to obtain more than $500,000 in grant money from the Federal Transit Administration to help purchase Panasonic Toughbook computers for the majority of its buses. In February, PARTA installed the Toughbooks in 56 buses and has four more Toughbooks on hand for future installation.
The Toughbook – a “ruggedized” laptop computer that converts to a touch-screen tablet computer – enables real-time text-messaging communication between a driver and dispatch without tying up the radio. Meanwhile, the Toughbook uses GPS technology to allow the dispatch center to monitor the location of each PARTA bus.
“The Toughbooks and Trapeze software ensure we can get location information on our buses anytime and anywhere and update a driver’s route instantly so we can pick up more passengers in a shorter period of time,” Smith said.
Soon after PARTA began using the Panasonic computers in February, the Toughbooks were called into action when a major employment site in Portage County shut down for the day. Prior to installation of the Toughbooks, dispatchers would’ve had to contact each of the affected bus drivers separately via radio to explain the schedule and route changes, “which would’ve taken well over an hour to do over the radio,” according to Smith.
With the Toughbooks, “as the dispatcher was making changes on the computer screen in front of them, the server was automatically sending those updates out to those buses, and the drivers were able to get that information immediately as it was happening,” Smith explained. “So that kind of communication is probably one of the biggest benefits.”
Smith added that another advantage of the Toughbooks’ two-way texting capability is that the communication “can be asynchronous.”
“It’s not a matter of having to make sure that all three parts of the communication piece – the dispatcher, the driver and the radio – are available all at once,” Smith told GovPro.com.
More data, less effort
With a population base of 152,000 residents in Portage County, PARTA provides bus transportation via fixed routes, a dial-a-ride service and a student-run bus operation that serves Kent State University. For PARTA drivers, the Toughbooks have made it quicker and easier to collect rider data.
The Toughbook now serves as the driver’s electronic passenger manifest – the driver hits “arrive” and “depart” buttons when out on the road – eliminating the need to manually log transit times, mileage and fares on a piece of paper.
This is particularly helpful for the dial-a-ride service. In the past, after dial-a-ride drivers turned in their paper manifests, PARTA “actually paid somebody to type in the times and mileages into the Trapeze software that created the manifest in the first place,” Smith lamented.
“Now we’re able to take that information directly from the driver’s computer as they enter it,” Smith told GovPro.com.
Not only has the Toughbook eliminated the paper manifest from the equation, but it also has enabled PARTA to collect more specific rider data.
“We’re getting a lot more data with a lot less effort,” Smith said. “Instead of just knowing a general time, we now know that [the driver] arrived at 10:27 and left at 10:33, and that lets us know how much time they need to spend at each of those spots. Because some of our passengers, as I’m sure you can imagine, take a minute to get on the bus and some take five. And as we collect that information, we’ll be able to go back in and tweak our system so that it allows for that type of time in the future so the drivers don’t run behind on their routes.”
The Toughbook also has improved data collection on PARTA’s fixed-route buses.
“As people get on, [the Toughbook] stamps the location where they got on and the time that they got on, so we can see on our fixed-route buses where the main usage is and we’ll be able to use that as we go down the road for planning purposes,” Smith told GovPro.com. “Say we need more buses in one area, or one area really doesn’t see any passengers. Maybe we can think about rerouting that bus to a place where we would see passengers.”
While boosting driver efficiency was a primary goal of the installation, PARTA officials also appreciate the Toughbook’s emergency communications feature, which allows bus drivers to send an emergency message to PARTA dispatch simply by double-tapping the Toughbook screen. Likewise, dispatch can relay critical information back to the drivers via a text message.
“So the driver can actually hit the button on the screen and [the Toughbook] sends the driver’s location and an emergency message back to dispatch to let them know that there’s somebody who has a problem and needs help,” Smith said.
It didn’t take long for PARTA officials to realize the value of this feature. Earlier this winter, a snowplow sent a chunk of ice into the windshield of a PARTA bus traveling on Interstate 76. While the driver was not injured, the Toughbook’s emergency communication capability and GPS technology came in handy.
“We were able to tell EMS and everybody exactly where he was,” Smith told GovPro.com. “We knew that that situation would occur eventually, and we know that one of the reasons that we’d gotten this system was for increased safety. But we didn’t anticipate using it so quickly.”
Simplicity and flexibility
To help select a communications system that would meet its specific needs, PARTA enlisted the help of CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G), which advises government agencies on technology purchases.
“In choosing CDW-G, it was a company that we had a history with,” Smith told GovPro.com. “They also had the GSA contract to supply the Toughbooks and it was something that had worked well for us in the past. They were able to get us the model that we needed, and they’ve worked really well with us through this whole project in expediting the delivery of the Toughbooks, locating a supplier of the docks and getting all of those pieces-parts together so that we could get a system that worked in as quick a fashion as possible.”
CDW-G’s Joe Mangano, eastern territory field sales manager, state and local government, told GovPro.com that “ruggedized” laptops such as the Panasonic Toughbook are a good fit for public transportation, law enforcement and other government applications because they’re built to endure “all the jousting that these units take throughout the daily trips.”
“There are a variety of different types of rugged products out there, from laptops to handhelds and so forth, but in this particular case with the requirements that Brian set forth, it all fell into place with the Panasonic unit,” Mangano said.
PARTA officials also liked the fact that the Panasonic Toughbook “came in one single package,” Smith added.
“Some of the other solutions that we had seen and looked at were a CPU unit and a monitor that were separate along with a modem that was separate and a GPS unit that was either embedded in one of those products or somewhere else,” Smith told GovPro.com. “And one of the big problems in trying to do any kind of project like this … is trying to route the wires, and trying to route a monitor wire through a bus and not obstruct any views and not have any interference from any other piece of electronic equipment that’s on the bus.
“ … With a lot of the systems we saw, every time you keyed up the radio, the monitor went blank.”
That’s why PARTA officials appreciated the simplicity of Toughbook system, which helped reduce “the number of connections and the number of wires being routed to the absolute bare minimum,” Smith said.
“The advantage of the Panasonic Toughbook was that it had a touchscreen monitor that was a decent size that had embedded right behind it a Verizon modem, which is what we use to communicate wirelessly, and a GPS antenna – such that the only thing we needed to do was power up the dock that the Toughbook sits in and provide an antenna for it,” Smith said.
Because PARTA wanted the flexibility offered by Windows-based software, CDW-G recommended software from the Trapeze Group for the authority’s communications system.
“We wanted to be able to pick hardware at our pleasure instead of having to be stuck with something that was proprietary to a certain company,” Smith said. “So Trapeze filled that niche nicely. Their product runs on a Windows-based system, so we were able to pick the Toughbooks.”
Another challenge was making sure that the computers were mounted in a way that made them accessible to drivers and compliant with bus safety codes. With multiple vehicle makes and models in PARTA’s diverse bus fleet, CDW-G recognized that a one-size-fits-all mount would not meet the authority’s needs. The company recommended Plymouth Township, Mich.-based LEDCO to mount the computers, and LEDCO worked with PARTA on site to identify the optimal mounting solution for each bus.
‘I’m on to my next passenger’
Between CDW-G, Trapeze, LEDCO and Panasonic, the products and customer service provided to PARTA have been “top-notch,” Smith noted. But the ultimate testimonial comes from the people who use the new system every day: the drivers.
When PARTA installed the Toughbooks in February, the bus service trained drivers on the new system and allowed drivers to use both the Toughbooks as well as the paper-based manifests to log ridership information. In early March, the bus service sent a memo to the drivers giving them the option of using both methods or the Toughbook alone.
“We had two people who wanted paper that first day,” Smith said. “And by the end of the week, they were done taking the manifest with them. The drivers had adopted this whole cloth, and very quickly. They talked about how useful it is for them, how much time it saves them, how ‘I don’t have to write stuff down and I don’t have to make sure I get my paper and this and that and the other thing done. I arrive, I depart and I’m on to my next passenger.’”