Palm Tran $5M tech not wasted but passengers slow getting on board

Palm Beach County’s public transit agency has spent $5 million in the past decade on technology to streamline its operations and improve the customer experience, aiding its struggle against app-based rivals Uber and Lyft.

Among the upgrades are a smart phone app, website and text messaging service that the public can use to get real-time information about buses on Palm Tran’s routes.

Although the technology has proven a boon behind the scenes of the $120 million-a-year operation, only a small number of bus riders use the new features, and fewer know it exists.

The smart phone app and website enable customers to find out where a bus is on a given route, how many passengers are on board and whether it is on time. Riders also can text a phone number that will reply with the time they should get to a particular stop to make the next bus.

Many passengers interviewed at random outside bus stops said they had never heard of the features, which were added in 2014.

Spokesman Joe Harrington said the app, web page and texting service are part of the transit agency’s larger effort to “modernize the system” and win back customers lost to Uber and Lyft.

The transit agency’s annual ridership has fallen steadily in the past five years. At its peak in 2013, Palm Tran was providing about 1 million rides per month. That number has since dropped by about 25 percent to 2005 levels.

The bulk of the $5 million investment went toward installing the technology, which includes GPS and infrared sensors in every bus to monitor their locations and automatically count how many riders get on and off at each stop. The app, website and texting service account for less than 2 percent of the total cost.

The technology automates much of what bus drivers and dispatchers used to do manually and collects enormous amounts of data Palm Tran can analyze to improve efficiency.

One of the few things the technology does not reliably measure, however, is whether the public is adopting the new features. The limited information it has shows only a small percentage of bus riders using the features.

The app, called myStop Mobile, has been downloaded nationally more than 120,000 times on iPhone and Android. But because dozens of transit agencies nationwide use the same app, Palm Tran does not know how many downloads come from its own customers.

The web page, which is essentially a desktop version of the app, had 15,000 hits in February, but Palm Tran does not know how many people, or “unique users,” visited the site. It only knows the number of times the site was visited.

The text messaging service does track how many people use it. It shows 1,700 people used the service 35,000 times in February. Half of them used the service nine times or more, while 17 percent used it only once.

For comparison, if every passenger rode the bus 10 times a week, then Palm Tran had roughly 75,000 riders in February, meaning about 2 percent of them used the texting service.

The Palm Beach Post asked 15 bus riders at random whether they had used these features. All of them said no, they had never heard of it.

Currently, Palm Tran markets the services on social media, as well as with signs on buses and an ad on the website.

“We’ll continue to look for ways to promote it,” said Charles Frazier, Palm Tran’s director of support services.

Frazier noted bus riders don’t necessarily need to download the app or visit the website. Posted at a handful of Palm Tran’s transit centers are electronic signs that display much of the same information.

Harrington called the new features a “success,” saying they’ve helped reduce the volume of calls to the county-run system’s customer service department.

Palm Tran’s call volume records date back only two years, but they show the calls have decreased over that time. In February, Palm Tran received roughly 7,000 calls, compared to about 15,000 in February 2016.

The public-facing features are just a small part of what the $5 million technology does.

Its biggest advantage, Frazier said, is it automatically collects data at every stop on how many riders get on and off the bus. Before, Palm Tran drivers would have to count these numbers by hand.

The agency has used the information to eliminate unnecessary stops and redesign routes. Its Route 4, for example, saw a 70 percent ridership increase after Palm Tran expanded it north to the VA Medical Center off of 45th Street, Frazier said.

“The automated passenger counters are critical for us to be able to know that information,” Frazier said.

Palm Tran didn’t use the automated counts for its reports to federal officials until it was certified in 2017. Until then, Palm Tran relied on the data collected at each fare box.

Palm Tran is discussing a smart card system, a move it also foresees will help woo Uber and Lyft riders.

With this system, riders can scan a reloadable card or a bar code on their phone at the fare box instead of paying cash. If other Florida transit agencies buy in, the card could be used on their buses, just as SunPass can pay for tolls throughout the state. The smart card also would enable Palm Tran to get data on individual riders.

Harrington said Palm Tran aims to seek proposals from vendors in the next year.

“We’ll evaluate those proposals for cost as well as what best meets our customers’ needs,” he said.

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