Overcoming Transit Software Vendor Limitations During COVID-19

The TransitOPS founders and other MBTA consultants managed to pull raw messages from a vendor system to provide useful information about the immediate risk of each bus due to passenger crowding.

The Problem

The critical situation that we are going through because of the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed people’s lives. Deciding to ride a bus, with all its implications (impossibility to maintain a safe social distance, being exposed to the virus by going outside, etc.), has become a serious consideration for people that depend on public transit.

How does technology help?

There was an urgent need to find a solution to minimizing transmission risks by reducing the number of people waiting at stations and avoiding crowding inside buses.

Technology is required both to collect crowding information and to publish helpful safety metrics to riders.

How does it work?

The MBTA’s buses have passenger counters, roughly tracking the number of riders who enter and exit each vehicle. The MBTA uses an external vendor to collect this information. The vendor could not provide a real-time feed of that data, making crowding statistics inaccessible for riders and staff.

The TransitOPS founders and other MBTA consultants managed to pull the vendor system’s raw messages, bypassing the vendor’s software restrictions. Subsequently, the team developed new methods to process the raw data into meaningful metrics.

Ultimately, crowding data became a standard part of the transit data pipeline, making the information available to the public, apps, and operational tools. One such tool, [Skate](how-a-modern-transit-data-platform-can-improve-bus-service.html) helped provide operations staff with valuable insights to manage crowding better throughout the bus system.

The Big Picture

Existing transit software vendors cannot act fast enough to meet rider needs. By freeing data from a legacy system, the MBTA rapidly responded to rider needs: improving safety for bus riders.