Southern Maine Transit Tracker seeking feedback on its tracking system

Originally published as monthly Treading Lightly column in the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Source section.

As a transportation professional, I’ve long understood the benefit of giving people access to real time bus arrival information. But until this past year, little did I know firsthand what a joy it would be for me, a regular bus rider, to use such a system myself.

Not quite one year into the launch of the new system in the Greater Portland area (the Southern Maine Transit Tracker (SMTT) got its start last June) I checked in with other riders as well as transportation officials about how they like it.

Metro Bus Stop Sign

The white and purple sign attached below this Metro bus stop sign gives the stop number and more info to access the Southern Maine Transit Tracker.

Waiting in a state of uncertainty, frustrated or anxious about when a bus is ever going to arrive, is hard on regular riders and can keep others from trying the bus altogether. Bus-tracking technology like the Transit Tracker, which uses GPS to accurately predict when a bus is coming, reduces that critical “time cost” for riders. In larger cities with frequent public transportation service, this information is less important because another bus or train is likely coming along in just a few minutes. In places like Maine, however, where the bus may only come every half-hour or even hour, the technology is especially important to support ridership.

“I love seeing if I have time to pop in a store before heading to catch the bus,” Metro rider Jeanine Bischoff said, “but mostly, it’s just nice to know where the bus is and when it will arrive when I’m standing there at a stop,” Bischoff, a Portland resident who rides the bus to work at the Sierra Club every day, checks the SMTT website from her phone.

Ben Donahue, who lives in South Portland, shares a car with his wife so he occasionally takes the Route 21 bus to his job at Portland law firm Hallett, Zerillo & Whipple. “I use the texting option to see how close the bus is before I head out,” he reported. “Overall, it works well for me. Sometimes the bus comes a couple minutes after the texted time, but that’s much better than too early.”

Donna Tippett, a transportation planner who helped start the program and still consults on the system for South Portland and Casco Bay Lines, reminds riders that it isn’t perfect. “You still should get to your stop 3 to 5 minutes before the predicted arrival time,” she said. “Given the ebb and flow of traffic and delays in data transmission, the system can never be 100 percent accurate.”

The tracker system isn’t just for riders. It’s also useful for staff. And for the most part, employees at South Portland and Metro are, like the riders I talked with, pleased. They point to its benefits for day-to-day operations and for improving efficiency.

“I use it all the time to keep tabs on our buses and make changes or add a bus when needed, even from home,” said Art Handman, director of the South Portland Bus Service. “It was sleeting this morning, and I checked at 5:30 to make sure there were no delays. Sure enough, there was the 24A, right on schedule.”

Naturally, there have been a few bumps in the road. For instance, the two new buses South Portland bought for its fleet this winter lacked a connector that allows them to link with transit tracker hardware. Until the manufacturer could send a technician to South Portland to install and test the equipment, the bus service used those vehicles only as a last resort. Also, although Casco Bay Lines are part of the network, the system for ferries has required additional tweaks so won’t officially launch for riders until early this summer.

The Portland area is not the first to introduce transit-tracking technology in Maine. The oldest – and the state standout – is Downeast Transportation’s Island Explorer bus service that serves Acadia National Park and the surrounding communities. The Explorer’s Tracking system was introduced a full 15 years ago and is actually just one part of a robust set of coordinated applications that use radio, landline and cellular technologies. For example, operators can also track electronically the number of passengers boarding at different locations in order to add buses to a route if needed.

“Good system design, quality service and convincing folks that transit is a better alternative than their car have been such a success over the years that we’ve more than tripled the number of our buses and quadrupled the number of riders,” said Paul Murphy, general manager of the Island Explorer. “We carried almost 600,000 passengers this past year.”

Still, it’s the Southern Maine Transit Tracker that public transportation officials across Maine are watching, with an eye to what they may want to do – and can afford – in their own regions. Bangor’s Community Connector is soon to put out what’s known in government lingo as an RFP, or Request for Proposals, for an assortment of GPS technology options. The idea is to roll out the system gradually, over several years, based on rider priorities and funding. In the meantime, providers like the Connector and Lewiston-Auburn’s CityLink diligently update their Twitter feeds with any bus delays.

Personally, I was thrilled to check my computer just now and see I had time to start a load of laundry before running out to catch my bus.

GET STARTED WITH THE TRANSIT TRACKER

• If you regularly ride a particular route at a particular time, create an account with Southern Maine Transit Tracker (SMTT) to receive service or route arrival updates.

• Experiment with the Estimated Arrivals and Real Time Map, which shows where the buses actually are.

• When out and about, text SMTT (look for the stop ID on the bus stop sign) 41411 for live-time information or pull up the SMTT website on your smart phone.

• Download and use one of three third-party apps – Transit App, Moovit or Google Maps (iOS or Android). Metro, South Portland and Casco Bay Lines all offer open access to their data in order to encourage innovation.

• Check the SMTT monitor posted at Portland’s Metro Pulse; monitors are scheduled to be installed soon for the South Portland Hub and the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal, as well.

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April 4, 2017 at 5:24 pm Leave a comment

The Bus as Sanctuary: Riding Transit in the Winter

Originally published as monthly Treading Lightly column in the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Source section.

It’s during the cold, dark and mucky months that I most actively ride the bus in and around Greater Portland. My reasons range – from the practical to the social to the environmental.

When the weather is bad, the bus becomes sanctuary. It’s warm inside, and the driver welcomes me with a hello as I settle into my seat to let someone else drive me where I need to go. I’m harbored, at least temporarily, from the slush and ice.

Riding the bus in Maine’s winter lets me put off digging my car out and scraping off ice until a more convenient time. When I reach my destination, I don’t have to find parking in yet another snowbank; I don’t even have to think about parking. As an inveterate walker and biker, when I ride the bus, I can let go of worry that drivers won’t see me, especially at a time of year when dawn comes so late and dusk so early.

I don’t mind if the bus is crowded. Sometimes I even like it. On any given day all year long, there’s a camaraderie on the bus, even if I’m simply reading a book or eavesdropping on conversations around me. That sense of community seems heightened in the colder months, perhaps tinged by the adversity outside.

One arctic Saturday, I caught the bus home from outer Brighton Avenue. It was packed with people, seemingly workers and shoppers. An older woman waved me toward an empty seat, barely visible between her and another passenger. “Honey, there’s a spot here!” she called. I gratefully nestled between them, feeling comforted by their puffy winter coats on either side of me.

These days, thanks to a new technology local buses are using, I know when sanctuary will arrive down to the minute (or down to three minutes, anyhow). Since last June, Metro and South Portland riders have been able to access the Southern Maine Transit Tracker, which uses GPS to provide information on where the bus actually is. Often, I can stay tucked inside, warm and comfortable, and hustle out into the cold just a few minutes before the bus comes.

For practical purposes, catching the bus during the winter also means I save on gas money. Of course, I spend less on gas whenever I take the bus instead of driving. But the savings are even higher at frosty temperatures, when the fuel economy of cars drops for a host of reasons: engine oil thickness, cold and wet pavement drag, higher air density.

Hopping on the bus also lets me minimize the number of times I drive my car at its dirtiest – and I’m not talking about the salt and grime streaking its exterior come winter. Colder months are when internal combustion engines take the longest to get out of “open loop” emissions. During open loop, the exhaust system’s catalytic converter isn’t hot enough to do its job to break up carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen into their separate, more innocuous molecules. The converter needs to be between 400 and 600 degrees F to start working and close the loop. It then operates normally at 1200 to 1600 degrees. Until it reaches these temperatures, the exhaust system dumps our engine’s output straight into our lovely Maine air. (If you drive an electric vehicle, you needn’t worry about this. But in Maine, less than 1 percent of vehicles are electric or plug-in hybrids.)

In the winter, it takes my car, and yours, a while to warm up and produce toasty heat. It’s tempting to let it idle and warm up until we’re ready to go. We need to resist that temptation! It’s wasteful for a car to idle for more than a minute, getting a big fat 0 miles to the gallon. On top of that, it’s bad for our cars. Remember – “warm it up before you drive it” is outdated advice from the carburetor era. Driving the car down the road gets it up to the proper temperature much faster and is better for all those moving engine parts. And fuel injection – which replaced the carburetor beginning in the early 1980s – senses and accounts for all variations in outside temperature.

Actually, I don’t have to resist temptation. Instead, I’ll ride the bus and be happy for the refuge. If you live near public transit and don’t use it, I encourage you to give it a try. I hope to see you on board!

February 28, 2017 at 8:27 am Leave a comment

April 26 – Co-Sponsoring FHWA Workshop for Greater Portland on Contemporary Approaches to TDM Planning

Register Here Now

We’re excited to offer a great opportunity for local municipalities and practitioners to learn more about contemporary Transportation Demand Management (TDM) planning and ways to increase the use of TDM measures in the Greater Portland region.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will be delivering this one day, no-cost workshop on April 26 at the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG)/Portland Area Comprehensive System (PACTS), 970 Baxter Boulevard, Suite 201, in Portland. Please save the date on your calendar and Register Here Now.

Those encouraged to attend are:

  • transportation planners
  • traffic management professionals
  • transit operations staff
  • transportation demand management (TDM) professionals
  • others interested in vehicle trip reduction planning

Key Workshop Takeaways – participants will:

  1. Identify opportunities to broaden the scope of demand management beyond traditional alternative commute mode programs and to address emerging issues, such as shared mobility.
  2. Identify how to build institutional capability to support effective demand management.
  3. Develop an action plan for improving integration of demand management into existing and future planning activities.

Agenda Overview
Morning:

  • Introduction to the Workshop
  • Overview about Demand Management/Executive Summary
  • TDM and Planning Integration in the Region: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Opportunities
  • Emerging Approaches, Strategies, and New Directions for Demand Management: Shared Mobility and Integrating TDM and Traffic Operations

Lunch in the Neighborhood – purchase your own tasty take-out from nearby eateries and continue the conversation
 
Afternoon:

  • TDM and Planning Assessment Exercise
  • Discussion: Opportunities to Integrate Additional Demand Management into the Planning Efforts in the Region
  • Action Plan Development
  • Wrap-Up

You can see more about the workshop in this FHWA flier. The workshop is co-sponsored by GPCOG, PACTS, the Maine Division of the Federal Highway Administration, and Cushman Transportation Consulting, LLC.

Looking forward to it and hope you can join us!

February 1, 2017 at 1:09 pm Leave a comment

National Grant Award for Demonstration Bus Stops at Casco Bay & PATHS High School Campus in Portland!

I’m excited to report our Public Health in Transportation Coalition (PHiT) has received one of only 22 Every Body Walk! nationwide Microgrants. The grant supports implementation of a student-led bus stop placemaking demonstration project and development of student recommendations for region-wide transit improvements. The Every Body Walk! Microgrant Program is sponsored by America Walks and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative – and in this instance, the grant was matched (and thus doubled) by partner organization TransitCenterThe micro grant program provides funds that support grassroots efforts aimed at getting communities walking and creating more safe, accessible and enjoyable places to walk and be physically active.

As local folks know, Portland is Maine’s largest and most diverse city – home to 66,000 people including a sizeable immigrant and refugee community. In 2015, the Portland Public Schools embarked on an exciting partnership with the local transit provider, Greater Portland METRO – switching high schoolers from yellow buses to public buses. Portland high school students receive a METRO transit pass for each school year, for unlimited trips throughout the city. While the partnership was partly motivated by fiscal goals, it also represents a commitment by the District to facilitate students’ independence and cultivate a new generation of transit users. In addition, Portland has also created a great opportunity for building relationships across demographics that typically do not interface. Because of the additional fare revenue and ridership, the METRO has increased frequency and made strategic improvements to its City loop bus route that have improved service for all riders.

nov-2015-kids-at-stop-at-duskThis project maximizes and sustains the benefits of student transit use by engaging youth as planners and construction leaders – with benefits to the whole community. The project involves students from two schools – Casco Bay High School (CBHS) and Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS – the regional vocational technical school) – as well as parents, staff, and the public. More than 200 students use the two stops where the demonstration project will take place, with as many as 60 students gathering at one time to wait. In addition, the stops service other METRO riders who live in the surrounding neighborhoods or work or attend programs at the school buildings. The current basic shelter can accommodate eight people comfortably, so students often wait in the rain, snow and dark (4pm in winter), simply standing at the edge of a busy arterial street.

The demonstration project uses placemaking approaches to allow students to design seating, shelter, lighting, and amenities that will make a better bus stop. Students will assess and prioritize other stops around the City and region with potential to replicate the design in those locations.

Altogether, the project involves four phases:

  1. April 2017: The PHiT workgroup will lead a week-long transit planning intensive for 20 CBHS students. With guidance from PHiT members and their teachers, the student group will conduct community engagement and hands-on site analysis. The week will culminate in development of a model (or charrette) and City-wide recommendations for the Greater Portland METRO Bus service.
  2. May 2017: Students from PATHS will implement the first phase of bus stop improvements, including landscaping, stonework and installation of rustic benches. PHiT members will work with the METRO, the School Facilities Department, and the City of Portland to finalize the practical design and confirm all permissions are in order. PHiT will also work with PATHS instructors to plan the implementation and construction of the design, engaging students in the landscaping, carpentry, construction, and welding programs.
  3. June 2017: Students from both schools will present project outcomes and recommendations to the district school committee and the METRO board.
  4. Sept 2017-June 2018: PHiT members will work with PATHS students in the construction and welding programs to build and install the final bus stop improvements.

phit-logoThe Public Health in Transportation (PHiT) Coalition brings together planners, public health practitioners and active transportation stakeholders in the Greater Portland region. PHiT works for public policy and investments that promote walking, bicycling and public transportation for mobility and health. As an active member, it was fun and inspiring for Cushman Transportation Consulting, LLC to assist with drafting the grant application. Other members include the Greater Portland Council of Governments (PHiT’s fiscal sponsor), Portland Trails, the City of Portland Transportation Program, the metropolitan planning organization (PACTS), the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District, and both the statewide and the City bicycle-pedestrian advocacy organizations. The lead grant writer and director for the project is Zoe Miller, the Chair of PHiT and a public health practitioner with a passion for integrating health into planning and community development.

January 5, 2017 at 1:43 pm Leave a comment

Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place in Vancouver Offers Real Inspiration!

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Many thanks to Mark Plotz, Vice President at PPS and Program Director of the National Center for Bicycling & Walking, who does the heavy lifting for the conference! He took my phone call when we still had half of Washington State to bike across and I wasn’t sure I’d make the event because of headwinds.

My family and I dipped our front wheels into Puget Sound at the end of our bicycle journey across the U.S., just in time for me to hop a bus from Seattle up to Vancouver for the 2016 Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place Conference and Placemaking Week, September 12-16.  It was an incredible treat – to experience Vancouver and also to participate in these events put on by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and other partners!

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View across the harbor from the Woodwards Building

By chance, I was able to stay with a lovely couple who are Warm Showers hosts living in the famous Woodwards Building in Gastown – a former department store that was the site of affordable housing protests against luxury redevelopment.  It has been re-made into mixed income housing with incredible views of the port. In a nod toward Vancouver’s typically rainy climate (this particular week was bright and sunny the entire time) the complex also has several indoor-outdoor communal spaces, as well as a neighborhood grocery and other services on the ground floor.

The very first afternoon I was able to jump on a Seabus Ferry with other conference participants to cross the harbor and engage in a mobile workshop put on by the City of North Vancouver and consultants from Nelson/Nygaard. Called (Un)Squaring the Square, the workshop invited practitioners and local stakeholders to walk through, sit down, and re-envision two underutilized public spaces. The session was engaging and well organized and also a grounding and connecting experience for many of us just arriving in Vancouver.

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Atrium public space at the Woodwards Building at night.

Despite the tremendous beauty of the City of Glass and its surrounding mountains, I appreciated how open local conference organizers were about Vancouver’s continued affordable housing and mental health crises, as well as other serious issues. The keynote, Charles Montgomery, local to Vancouver and author of Happy City: transforming our lives through urban designshared how important it is that we help people connect with one another through our transportation and placemaking work.  That everyone belongs and should be made to feel that way.  And how connecting people in public spaces and through walking, bicycling, taking transit, and carpooling is essential for our mental health and economic futures.  It affirmed all of the base motivations for the work I do and I look forward to reading more of the science associated with Charles’ work.

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Mobility walking workshop to see the various elements and changes that will result from the planned removal of two auto-centric viaducts downtown. Many thanks to City of Vancouver staff Holly Sovdi and Devon Fitch for this great session.

Vancouver has a great bike share, Mobi, which partnered with PPS for various parts of the conference. For this particular week, however, I was able to throw my bike on the bus up from Seattle and use my trusty steed for transportation. As a bicycle and pedestrian professional and advocate, it was incredible to get to use Vancouver’s extensive bike and sidewalk network – much of which has been built out in the past decade. It really was a delight to walk and ride around the city – both to and from the conference location downtown and for mobile walk and bike workshops.

Local folks shared it hasn’t been an easy transition to all of the separated bike facilities that now exist for miles along major downtown streets – and are filled with bicycle commuters. There are regular reports of conflicts with motorists.  And bike theft is such a crazy problem that it sounds worse than New York City.  I was happy to have secure inside bike parking at night and that the conference had contracted with local non-profit Better Environmentally Sound Transporation for Valet Bike Parking during the day.  B.E.S.T. told me they were asked to provide Bike Valet all summer, 7 days a week, for large employers on Granville Island – because bike theft has been so severe that folks refuse to bike there.  It was a great success and bicycling employees have been sad to see the program end with the fall.  Hopefully they find a way to sponsor it year-round. Side note: I love B.E.S.T. for their work and resource materials.  I was using them a decade ago for car ownership financial literacy work – so it was fun to meet them in person.

img_6160-2The city is doing some interesting public engagement and experiments with re-use of public space, too. For example, this block in the photo at right has been closed to car traffic in a central location downtown. In addition to the usual street furniture (nice to eat my lunch there!) and food trucks, they’ve used bright temporary paint to ask people for their input, with an information kiosk and suggestion cards available nearby.

On Thursday night, I volunteered for the Waterfront Redesign site that was part of Placemaking Week’s POPCrawl. Organized by the lovely Jackie Kanyuk, a local consultant and Volunteer Manager for the conference and Placemaking Week, this was a walking tour of various public spaces, potential redevelopments and public art installations.  Using old-school, simple materials, folks stopping by our site were invited to revision a proposed redevelopment of a parking lot adjacent to the port – not as luxury looming condos, but as mixed use space.  A local artist/architect was on hand to quickly visualize and post people’s input in vivid drawings.  Others wrote their ideas on I Would Like to See This Here stickers that were displayed in an ever-growing number on a big piece of cardboard.  Each attendee carried a passport we would stamp for visiting our site and the busy sidewalk pulled in lots of local Vancouverites to participate as well.  Local advocates will use this public feedback as part of their work with the city to alter the current design for the site.

 

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Arthur playing his favorite song on a public piano. There seemed to be public pianos all over town.

All week I had the chance to meet new folks from across the U.S. and Canada and farther afield (New Zealand, Brazil, etc.) – plus see a few New England faces from back home.  And I got to spend time with the fabulous Arthur Orsini of Urban Thinkers and Vancouver Coastal Health. In 2011, following the National Safe Routes to School Conference in Minneapolis, I was able to do a training with Arthur on facilitating authentic youth engagement in active transportation projects.  It was just amazing and inspired me to do some youth-led projects in my Safe Routes consulting work back in Maine.  He’s the real thing when it comes to not tokenizing young people and doing genuine facilitation – and it was so fun to get to hang out with him in his hometown!

September 19, 2016 at 9:11 am 2 comments

Falmouth Bike-Pedestrian Plan Wins Plan of the Year

Exciting news!

falmouth-bike-ped-plan-12-sarah-cushmanThe 2016 Falmouth Bicycle & Pedestrian Plan won the Plan of the Year Award from the Maine Association of Planners.  This annual award goes to a “written plan that is a significant advancement to the science and art of planning.”  The plan was judged on its originality, transferability, quality, comprehensiveness, public participation, and implementation.  Cushman Transportation Consulting, LLC enjoyed providing technical and public outreach assistance for this project, in conjunction with Greg Bakos of VHB and the Town of Falmouth. It’s a good plan and the recommendations will do much to help guide the town’s next steps.

falmouth-bike-ped-plan-1-sarah-cushmanIn addition to a very active and bike-pedestrian interested citizenry, the town is very fortunate to have Theo Holtwijk as its Director of Long Range Planning, who is the strong lead on this and many other projects.  In addition, Jay Reynolds, the Public Works Director; Bob Shafto, Falmouth’s trails and land aquisitions Ombudsman; Lucky D’Ascanio, the Director of Parks and Community Programs; and Nathan Poore, the Town Manager,  all contributed and offered tremendous support for the plan. The project was funded by the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System – PACTS – the local metropolitan planning organization.

July 26, 2016 at 8:18 am Leave a comment

Family Bicycling Sabattical – April through September

SAM_0367 (2)From April through September 2016, my family and I are going biking!

We (Sarah, my husband, Rob Levin, and our nine-year-old daughter, Cedar) will be bicycling across the country – Delaware to Seattle, or as far as we get. We’ll dip our back wheels in the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Henlopen, Delaware on the morning of April 2. And if we actually make it all the way, we’ll put our front wheels in Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington some time in late September.

This has been a dream of ours for the past 10 years or so and we’re feeling incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to try it – and be re-inspired for the work that we do by experiencing our country at a 10-mile-per-hour pace. We are keeping an online journal while we’re away and here’s a link to our route.  If you’d like to receive occasional e-mail updates from our trip, please feel free to sign up for those here (and no worries if you’d rather not add more to your inbox!)

Amidst the day-to-day adventure, I’ll be using this time for some enrichment: informal meetings with local pedestrian, bicycling, rideshare, and transit professionals and advocates; review of various on-the-ground transportation and land use initiatives (suggestions welcome via our online journal!); and reading more from the field.

We’re trying to be good about really being unplugged from work, so I will not be checking work e-mail or voicemail.  However, I look forward to hearing about ways we can work together when I get back in the fall.

Best wishes for a lovely spring and summer in the meantime!

March 31, 2016 at 5:41 am 2 comments

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