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Public Communications in Transit Circles: High-Tech Signage Meets Public Transportation

In modernizing passenger vehicle arrival and destination alert systems, public transit's bag of tools include LCD & LED displays, the Internet, GPS triangulation and predictive arrival software, all designed to put your commuting mind at ease.

By Louis M. Brill

It is 10 minutes past the hour, and you're wondering where your bus/train is? It's late, and you're thinking how much longer to wait for your bus before going to an alternate route.

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  • For passengers in the realm of bus, subway and Light Rail Vehicle (LRV) public transit, waiting longer than necessary for your bus or train is always an exercise in frustration and anticipation of when your delayed vehicle will arrive at your stop, a problem that soon may be a mute point. In the budding years of the 21st century public transit, much of that anticipation has been addressed by digital signage and sophisticated predictive software that deals with vehicle arrival times in passenger waiting areas, and with destination arrivals with onboard signage.

    In modernizing passenger vehicle arrival and destination alert systems, public transit's bag of tools include LCD & LED displays, the Internet, GPS triangulation and predictive arrival software, all designed to put your commuting mind at ease. With rising gas prices and other complexities (escalating car insurance rate, car pool lanes with weird regulations), of driving cars, public transit has become more and more of an urban necessity for people commuting to work, to recreation and to errands of the day.

    overhead LED displays which present transit information train route ID alerts
    The BART (Bay Area) transit system employs a complete electronic sign network on a per station basis of overhead LED displays which present transit information train route ID alerts, train arrival to platform estimates, and PSAs as they relate to the transit system.
    photo by Louis M. Brill

    Digital signage has fast become a major component on any modern public transit system, as it has evolved from a commuter luxury to a definitive necessity of a public transit operation. It is estimated that up to 95% of the United States Transit Agencies (of which there are approximately 1,200), now incorporate some kind of electronic sign system on their bus / rail fleets. Digital transit signage systems are now an important customer service feature to create assurance and confidence that the transit system operates as promised and just about "guarantees," (barring transit accidents or intense weather conditions), that the transit will arrive when it says it will. When it can't, it should be able to at least alert passengers to an alternate arrival schedule.

    The other value of digital signage to Transit Authorities is when their vehicles change route assignments. The route destination and passenger stop ID system can be changed with the flick of a button rather than changing out a printed vehicle route ID display.

    In any passenger public transit commute scenario, the big transit operations concern is ways of communicating with passengers to keep them informed of their transit vehicles real-time status and changes within that status as they come up. These messages include estimated arrival times of all trains stopping at that platform, arriving train alerts, date & time, PSAs, platform or train operation out of service alerts, or alternate service alerts, etc. Transit agencies are resolving these concerns with an elaborate system of electronic displays to be found in ticket booths, on and inside the buses, on passenger waiting areas within bus shelters, and overhead, and on train platforms.

    Public transit communications involves several layers of development starting with the digital transit display manufacturers who acquire the bare-bone LED and LCD screens from the representative screen manufacturers and incorporate these screens into their integrated passenger display networks, which in turn are sold to both domestic and international transit agencies.

    TRANSITVUE LCD ceiling display provided to Los Angeles County Metro Agency whose Passenger Information System presents time & date, a partial map of bus routes, and vehicle arrival information on buses approaching this LA bus stop.
    photo by TRANSITVUE

    In reviewing current public transit passenger communication systems, several companies involved in providing these display systems were interviewed in regard to their hardware / software product solutions and service integration with their client transit agencies.

    Once such company, one of the largest suppliers of transit digital signage is TwinVision (Durham, NC) who manufacturers what they refer to as "electronic destination display systems" for public / private transit agencies. "TwinVision provides digital signage," says Larry Hagermann, Chief Technology Officer, "on buses (most of client base) and trains (& LRVs), for both domestic and international transit agencies."

    The basic digital sign product for bus transit is small monochromatic or color text displays with alphanumerics that presents several types of LED signs including a front of bus vehicle ID route destination sign, a vehicle ID on the sides and back of the bus, and inside, a route stop alert sign.
    photo by TwinVision

    The basic digital sign product for bus transit is small monochromatic LED or color electronic text displays with alphanumerics to display appropriate route and destination information to its passengers. "A typical bus will usually require several types of LED signs," says Hagemann, "including a front of bus vehicle ID route destination sign, a vehicle ID on the sides and back of the bus, and inside, a route stop alert sign. When the opportunity presents itself, we also integrate passenger information signage within bus shelters as well."

    TwinVision, which was started in 1996, began its transit display program with a previous sign technology known as "flip dots." "As the company evolved over its first decade, it brought three major innovations," says Hagemann, "into transit display signage. In 1996, we introduced a hybrid bus display which was part flip dots and part LEDs. The LEDs (which replaced the on-board florescent tubes) were used to illuminate the flip dots during evening operation. In 2000, TwinVision introduced the all-LED sign display as a bus sign product. In 2003, we jumped from a monochromatic (amber) display to a full color display where color was used as vehicle route identifier."

    "As for being a digital bus sign supplier, we are faced with several ongoing challenges," says Hagemann, "particularly in areas of digital sign development and sustainability. Some of our concerns include creating cost effective controls when the sign's raw metal products increase in cost; lowering the weight and decreasing the power consumption of our sign products as they mature in technical development; adjusting the sign's illumination levels of which by day compete with the sun and in evenings, must have a lowered brightness level which is less glaring to oncoming traffic and approaching passengers."

    "Transit content options are as equally important to the digital sign platforms we offer our customers. We've served that expansion in several ways;" said Hagemann. "We introduced color to expand transit route identification; we have a graphics option to place simple themed icons (an animal on the zoo bus, a boat for the ferry bus stop, a four-leaf clover for St. Patrick's Day, etc.). We've also been able to increase the sign size to allow for a multi-line display on the front of the bus to give better and more specific information about the bus's destination. Ultimately it's about how much information we can practically give the passengers that helps make their travels easier and more efficient.

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    TransitVue communications systems
    In another effort to improve how transit passengers receive information, TransitVUE Communications Systems (Chino, CA), has developed technologically advanced communication systems for the mass transit and rail public transit systems. As a manufacturer and a systems integrator, the company is involved with several aspects of mass transit communication systems, both in terms of overall transit operations and in specific, with transit passenger communication systems. One of their products, the TransitVue Passenger Information System (TPIS) is utilized as both an overhead platform display and as a transit mezzanine level kiosk for passenger travel information. "This system has the ability, to display both rail and bus live transit vehicle scheduling information," says TransitVUE President Ken Rivera, "and integrate that data onto the TransitVUE displays within the transit client's bus/rail network."

    "Currently, the TPIS combines data, text and graphics and uses real-time GPS data to track (live) a train's location and be able to distribute that within the TPIS network and also show it on a goggle map," Rivera noted. This allows the TPIS system to inform passengers of their train's location within that subway or light rail system, and as well indicate how soon it will arrive at that platform."

    A TRANITVUE LCD ceiling display on a LA subway platform. The display divides between its large screen area which presents transit arrival updates or PSAs and on the side, estimated time arrivals for next train arrivals.
    photo by TRANSITVUE

    The main display workhorse for TPIS is a 'ruggedized' 46" LCD screen which has been placed within a protective aluminum cabinet with a transparent acrylic front that presents the LCD screen displaying the TransitVue transit info. To insure uncorrupted data transmissions, all TransitVue connections are coupled with fiber optic links both from display to display and from all separate platforms back to the main transit control center. In most cases, the TransitVue LCD unit is located overhead on a LRV or subway platform, mounted as a ceiling display presenting a continuous stream of passenger alerts and updates.

    The first TPIS network has been installed within the Los Angeles Metro Agency (LACMTA), in which 350 LCD ruggedized (with the 46" displays) indoor screens were placed throughout Metro Red Line subway system overhead on platforms. An additional 69 displays (with 40" screens) is scheduled for outdoor installation on the Gold Line of Metro's light rail transit network.

    Another TransitVue communications product is their Passenger Information Kiosk. The PIK is essentially a touch screen display attached next to a transit ticket vending machine and provides for passengers background information on transit ticket costs, how to purchase those tickets and vehicle transfer info (if related that destination). The kiosk also provides point of interest travel information and as well presents additional info about transfers and possible sight seeing destinations along that route. The kiosks are able to also recommend travel routes if a passenger types in both their start point and their end point. Finally the kiosk can offer hard copy information either as maps with their travel info printed on the map layout or text info relating to travel recommendations from that passenger's queries. The first PIK system is intended to be installed for beta testing in late 2009 at the LACMTA. Negotiations are also underway for several other TPIS networks to be installed at other urban transit systems.

    NextBus Incorporated is both a company (Alameda, CA) and the name of its major software product which is a real time. Passenger Information System that is offered to transit agencies. The product is a predictive analysis software package that presents via electronic signage when the next bus or train will arrive at a given passenger waiting spot. The system was explained by Russell Chun, a NextBus project manager, "it starts with a bus or LRV in motion which is physically tracked through its transit route. Each bus connected to our RTPIS network has a GPS transmitter whose signal is collected by a Next Bus GPS receiver which then merges the bus's real time location with its per stop vehicle arrival prediction. Then the RTPIS program compares the vehicle's location to its next intended stop and then estimates the vehicle's minutes to arrival at that stop."

    NextBus Chapel Hill Transit Bus departure display alerts passengers to which buses are 'in station,' and how soon they will depart to begin their routes.
    photo by NextBus

    "We know which transit vehicle is sending information, where it is on its route and what its next 'official' stop is. That becomes a triangulation that allows us to predict the vehicle's intended time of arrival to its next stop. As to how effective RTPIS is, Chun says, "it all depends on what's happening in the real world as there are some variables we can't account for such as traffic jams, accidents, bad weather, etc."

    "The result is a series of ongoing displays or mini-reports that passengers are able to view and are updated every minute or so. These reports appear on LED electronic message boards," says Chun, "which are installed on overhead displays on train and subway platforms or on bus shelters for passengers waiting for approaching buses. Transit data and vehicle location icons can also be presented on electronic maps, and as well, data can be acquired on home computers and even cell phones.

    San Francisco Muni
    One NextBus client, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (MUNI) employs over 800 NextBus digital signs that are deployed throughout the MUNI transit system. All of MUNI's buses, LRV platforms and many of their bus shelters have an LED display that transmits either route destination or (on the buses) passenger stop alerts. Also on the LRV platforms are ruggedized large LCD ceiling displays which show off a complete San Francisco LRV track map with real time indicators of where trains are in their approach to each platform stop.

    The NextBus RTPIS program is owned and operated by NextBus and leased to at least fifty different transit agencies around the United States including Ventura Intercity (VISTA) (CA), RTD/Boulder Transit (CO), and Chapel Hill Transit. (NC). Each NextBus agency version is dedicated to that transit agency's vehicle fleet and their passenger waiting areas with appropriate digital signage to display that city's RTPIS alerts.

    Journeys and destinations
    Transit Passenger Information Systems may be a specialized sign system, but they follow the same development rules of digital signage as much as any retail or way finding sign system. Ultimately transit digital signage (like retail) is all about content, whose transit messages (like retail) must be relevant, short and informative to the needs of its audience.

    The potential of transit information occupies two sides of a coin. On one side, brevity rules, dealing with the where and the when of a vehicle arrival, and when it's delayed, the why. On the flip side of the coin is scads of information on the how - the rules of transit and ticket purchase, when to use transfers, and even more, as a sophisticated transit system could evolve from just information and a transit route indicator to incorporating a greater depth of background on destinations along the route as discussed by TransitVue's forth coming Transit Kiosk Information System.

    Inevitably, Transit Agencies are developing transit signage as elaborate way-finding systems to help passengers move from point A to point B in the best way possible. Given the arrival of digital signage and its transit content on route and destination information services, one could say that the journey to the destination will be as interesting as the destination itself.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or

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