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Best Practices for Transit Agencies in Connecting Riders to Critical Information During the Pandemic

Providing public transit riders real-time information about the routes they rely on is essential for any healthy transit system. During a pandemic, service alerts play an especially critical role, and should be optimized to provide the clearest and most important messages to the public.

By Ritesh Warade


May 13, 2020

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, transit agencies are having to adapt quickly. In some cases, trips and entire routes are being cut due to declining ridership, and the fundamental rules of transit riding, including collecting fares or boarding through the front door, are suddenly changing.

IBI Group’s TRANSIT-alerts solution is helping transit agencies get the word out to their customers about these changes. After several weeks of observing and working with our clients that use the system, we wanted to share some best practices with the hope that it will help other transit agencies reach their customers more effectively.

TRANSIT-alerts is a software tool designed to help transit agencies publish service alerts via their website, electronic signs, Twitter, email, and text messages. The system also generates a General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS)-realtime service alerts feed that can be integrated into apps like Google Maps and Transit App.

Using GTFS-realtime service alerts to inform customers via their preferred applications ensures that customers are made aware of agency-wide changes to procedures and policies throughout the pandemic, including whether it is mandatory to wear a mask while riding the bus, and whether, or how, fares will be collected. The GTFS-realtime service alerts also provide information about specific service impacts, including whether regularly scheduled routes are in operation, and which routes will be cancelled, now and in future.  

The challenge for transit agencies is to effectively provide both types of information without overwhelming the customer. We recommend that agencies do the following in their GTFS-realtime service alerts feed:

  • Create systemwide (entire agency/all modes) alerts to inform customers about policy changes, such as rear-door boarding (these often show up front and centre in apps, regardless of which route/stop is selected)
  • Consider creating a designated webpage to provide more granular information about cancelled trips and routes. A link to this webpage can be included in the systemwide alert
  • In the event of route suspensions: If GTFS reflects these changes, then include information about which routes are suspended in the systemwide alert or designated page linked to the systemwide alert. If GTFS does not reflect this change, then create route level alerts for each suspended route with an effect of “NO_SERVICE”
  • In the event of trip cancellations: If GTFS reflects these changes, then include a general note about trip cancellations in the systemwide alert, and provide a detailed list of cancelled trips on a designated webpage. If these trips have not been removed from the GTFS, then supplement this information with one service alert per route, or route and direction, that includes all cancelled trips with an effect of “NO_SERVICE”

Within our TRANSIT-alerts system, trip-specific alerts ensure that the prediction and location information for cancelled trips is suppressed to avoid customers mistakenly waiting for trips that are cancelled.

We hope that these recommendations are useful for agencies that are working to keep their customers informed during these unpredictable times. We will continue to update our best practices as we learn more through experience.

If you have any questions about our recommendations, please contact Director | U.S. Operations Lead, Intelligence, Ritesh Warade, at ritesh.warade@ibigroup.

Ritesh is a Director at IBI Group who specializes in the planning, design, and implementation of passenger information and analytics systems for public transit. He also has a background in transit planning, and intelligent transportation systems. Ritesh leads IBI Group’s Transit Data practice, which focuses on helping transit agencies manage their data, provide high-quality real-time information to passengers, and analyze service quality and measure performance. The Transit Data practice also has a special emphasis on open data, and open data standards like GTFS/GTFS-realtime. Ritesh holds three Masters degrees in Transportation Engineering, City Planning, and Urban Design, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture.

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