Using Real-Time Data to Improve Your Commute

As we get our region moving again, transit riders are looking for the best options to plan their daily commute, while remaining safe. This leads to the question, “How is RTD improving its methods of delivering real-time information to better serve its riders?” 

RTD’s proprietary web applications, available on RTD’s website, consume data directly from our agency. This data is also available through the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) and is consumed by third-party companies, such as Transit or Google, to support their transit apps. Through the GTFS and GTFS-RT feeds, RTD provides schedule and geographic data, along with a real-time component that contains arrival predictions, vehicle positions and service advisories for our buses and light rail trains. Currently, commuter rail information is not yet provided.  

“Providing real-time information has always been helpful, but it is especially important now when customers might be changing their commuting habits to allow for social distancing due to COVID-19,” said RTD Chief Executive Officer and General Manager Paul J. Ballard. “Many people are trying to ride at less popular times or are waiting for a less full vehicle, and the data will allow them to plan for those variations.”

We are working to include real-time ridership numbers in this data feed, but certain technological limitations inhibit us from doing so at this time. RTD ridership is tracked on buses using infrared counters, and it is not available until 12 to 36 hours after trips have occurred. Automatic Passenger Counters (APC) are installed on roughly 70 percent of our light rail fleet, but these do not offer ridership information in real time. 

A new project is currently underway to upgrade the tracking mechanisms throughout our system, allowing for accurate, real-time ridership data. Until this data is available, third-party companies use a combination of self-reporting and app usage statistics to predict how full a particular bus or train is. While this is better than a “best guess” estimate, real-time information is much more accurate, and RTD cannot attest to the reliability of these ridership predictions.

Three of the best apps available that are using GTFS and GTFS-RT data are RTD’s Next Ride, Transit and Google Maps.

RTD’s Next Ride is technically a web app, meaning it must be accessed through a web browser and cannot be downloaded and run natively on the user’s device. Next Ride provides real-time route information on all bus and light rail lines. Riders can set filters and sort results by route, next arrival and closest stop. Up to six available times are offered if you can’t make the most recent scheduled stop. 

The most impactful features include:

  • Real-time trip planning. Information on each route and rail line is coming directly from the source. Trip data is updated to provide riders with the most accurate predictions to determine when their bus or light rail train will arrive, so if there’s a delay, you’ll know about it. 
  • Mobile friendliness. Next Ride is optimized for mobile devices, providing responsive behavior and ease of use.
  • Advanced and upcoming features. If you want to track a specific vehicle number as it moves along its route, you can do so by clicking the “Advanced” box. Rider alerts will be coming to Next Ride very soon. 

The Transit app allows users to easily navigate public transit with accurate real-time predictions on bus and light rail, simple trip planning, step-by-step navigation and quick, easy payments. This app also integrates additional transport modes such as bike-sharing, scooters, car-sharing, and ride-hailing, so users can mix and match their options with transit to determine the best way to get from points A to B.

Transit also offers first- and last-mile connections to RTD with the Transit+ feature. For connections to RTD services, Transit will suggest taking a bike, scooter, Uber or Lyft part of the way and connecting with public transit. This feature allows users to plan multimodal trips, while getting real-time updates on their RTD connections.

The most impactful features include:

  • Ticketing. By integrating with RTD’s Mobile Tickets app, Transit makes it simple to purchase your RTD fare. Just tap the "Buy ticket" button next to RTD's logo on the home screen, and a few taps later, you're ready to ride.
  • Crowdsourced real-time information. When you use Transit's GO feature to guide you along your trip, you're also sharing the location of your bus or train with other Transit users to provide them with accurate real-time vehicle information, including how many people are riding on your specific route. In the spirit of helping others out, Transit lets you know just how many people you're helping by simply pressing GO.
  • Service alerts. Keep on top of schedule changes, stop relocations, entrance closures and other unexpected surprises by subscribing to service alerts for your most frequently traveled transit lines. You can receive notifications straight to your phone when agencies publish alerts. 

Google Maps offers users real-time trip updates, service alerts and vehicle positions. Users can plan their trips by selecting the “Commute” tab and plan step-by-step navigation for connections to RTD services. Google also suggests Uber or Lyft connections. 

Google has recently rolled out some new features to better inform commuters on travel restrictions, COVID-19 checkpoints and a “crowdedness” feature, which predicts how crowded a bus or train will be. 

The most impactful features include:

  • Real-time trip planning. Catch your bus, light rail train or ride-share with real-time transit information. Planning your daily commute is easier when you know if there are changes in departure times.
  • Crowdsourced real-time information. Google Maps uses aggregated crowdsourced data when real data isn’t available, to predict how crowded your trip will be.
  • Service alerts. Alerts with essential information are displayed to riders, including service disruptions, service changes, certain policy changes and emergency information.

These three apps offer excellent usability, customizability and support. Try out the Next Ride app by visiting the RTD website. Google Maps and the Transit app are available for download in the App Store and Google Play Store.