Having the Transit Safety Solution makes quick work of trend identification, one of the most crucial patterns in truly preventing incidents from happening and identify areas that the transit agency needs to focus on.
For Phoenix-Area Transit Agency, GIS Becomes a Powerful Business Enabler
What GIS can do
At Arizona's Valley Metro Regional Public Transportation Authority, which provides coordinated transit services to residents of metro Phoenix, decision-makers rely on geographic information system (GIS) technology in a growing list of business areas. Beyond traditional uses for GIS—such as route planning, ridership, and equity analyses—the agency is implementing GIS for its safety program, to provide support for local businesses during construction, and to help with the pandemic's costs post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
Valley Metro operates as the umbrella public transit organization for the City of Phoenix and its greater metropolitan area, providing bus, light rail, paratransit and ride-share services. The agency is unique in that a number of services are actually funded and operated by the individual cities, while all services come together to create Valley Metro as a common brand and a common face to the region’s transit customers. The agency covers an area of 500 square miles and with more than 100 bus routes and a light rail line that serves 19 cities, geared to providing a high-quality, efficient and well-regarded service to a regional population of almost five million and a ridership which totals almost 66 million annually.
Valley Metro’s experience in GIS stretches back over a decade when it was first used in support of an application which has since been retired: providing mapping data for biannual printed updates of service changes. That had the initial benefit of bringing location information into a functional database and gave some idea of GIS’s potential. More modern developments have resulted in a series of apps and dashboards which have made themselves indispensable in terms of planning and operations, and which have set trends and gained national recognition.
New benefits of GIS
The watershed came two years ago when Valley Metro’s GIS team wanted to look at their current and future software needs over a several year period. To gauge true need, and the potential for use beyond planning applications, the GIS team, which is headed by Joe Gregory, put together a slide deck and then presented it to the organization’s various departments.
The first big hurdle was to convince people that GIS is about more than ‘just’ maps, he says. Showing people the data behind maps and dashboards, and the analyses and outcomes possible, proved to be of great mutual benefit. Not only did the GIS team gain a greater understanding of all the various business groups within the agency, but the different teams within Valley Metro became more aware of what GIS could do, and the data potential held within GIS. This series of meetings, conducted over a week, also included a team from Esri which assisted with the discovery sessions.
Significant early traction was gained by working with the Valley Metro’s safety team to help it meet its Federal requirements in terms of reporting and compliance.
As one of the early identified opportunities in the agency, Esri staff, along with the GIS team at Valley Metro helped to spatially enable a suite of safety solutions including a hazard reporter, events reporter, safety manager and a dashboard. Additional functionality includes such features as anonymous hazard reporting; accident and incident reporting; and probable cause and preventability tracking, together with spatial analysis tools and performance monitoring metrics to gauge success over time.
This suite of solutions has proven so successful in operation that Esri has created a series of safety templates for other transit agencies to use and hosted it on its own website for easy access.
Innovation and creative solutions
A notable aspect of Valley Metro’s GIS evolution is how new applications emerge from their existing developed applications. For example, the safety solutions’ configuration provided the bare bones of the Bus Stop Reviewer app, says Ben Davidson, GIS Coordinator.
This application proved to be a tremendous success for GIS among the cities, he states. Using a dashboard and a shared website, they can access a wealth of information relating to individual stops and how changes will impact them. Users can access ridership and revenue information, which stops will be impacted by local construction activities, and can help to coordinate with local maintenance activities to minimize service disruptions.
This Bus Stop Reviewer application provides the foundation for the agency’s route planning activities, and for their accessibility analyses, both critical for improving access to mobility and increasing ridership.
For any public transit agency, a day-to-day challenge is how to maintain and encourage ridership. One way to do that is by providing high quality service — fundamentally, one that is dependable and safe. More subtle influences designed to increase the passenger experience include investments in public art, and Valley Metro has made significant investment in at their light rail stations.
This led to the development of Artsline, an app which showcases local artist works at the light rail stations. This, said Jeff Wilkerson, Senior GIS Administrator, grew out of code for an app that Esri had developed for a National Geographic writer who had walked 100 miles and talked about landmarks along the way. Valley Metro configured it to use Esri’s web services and ArcGIS online. The solution is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant and also offers a Spanish translation option.
The Artsline code has in turn given rise to a solution which engages with businesses along the route of a new five-mile light rail line that will connect Downtown and South Central Phoenix. Construction has reduced road capacity from four lanes to two, and the new app is helping to maintain local economic prosperity by highlighting businesses and discount codes. It too is ADA-compliant and offers a Spanish translation option.
A distinction is that all this has been facilitated just with configuration of existing applications, and with existing resources.
Paratransit and equity concerns
GIS has proven instrumental in enabling Valley Metro to optimize its paratransit services as well. A big change occurred when paratransit was “regionalized.” Previously, paratransit had been more fragmented with service provided by the individual cities, with riders often dropped at jurisdictional boundaries for pick-up by the next jurisdiction to reach their final destination. Providing unbroken journeys increased the need to know where people actually live and their travel destinations. Origin-destination analysis done with GIS has helped to achieve the necessary efficiencies, says Davidson. Another important attribute is being able to see who might be impacted by service changes.
“We provide paratransit services within 3/4 of a mile of bus service routes, and when an extension or elimination of a route takes in or excludes a medical facility it’s a big deal,” explains Gregory. “It’s helpful to have information before we go to the public and to understand the full impact to our paratransit customers when there is a service reduction.
The right data will show whether such a decision is viable and give some pre-warning of public relations issues. Valley Metro also carries out its own Title VI analyses using GIS-supported data to let cities know of any equity issues before going public with any changes to service.
Measures to counter COVID-19
Inevitably, the pandemic has impacted operations. Gregory and his team have been working from home since March — although he notes that having transitioned to ArcGIS Pro has provided the enhanced flexibility needed to make online working truly viable.
A big problem for Valley Metro is the large decline in ridership. Although essential workers have continued to provide patronage, this is down 50 percent, and white-collar commuter traffic has fallen by 90 percent.
In the face of falling ridership, providing the optimal safe and secure service becomes all the more important. Combining data from vehicle onboard systems — CAD/AVL and APC — with that provided by GIS enables accurate monitoring of the passenger loads on individual routes. This is especially important when social distancing requires that a maximum of 10 passengers be allowed on a 40-foot bus in order to prevent spreader events. Bringing this data together allows Valley Metro to evaluate where it can save money and vehicles while avoiding overcrowding.
Looking forward, Wilkerson says that Valley Metro is still working through what transit will look like post-COVID-19. There are understandable reservations over whether people will return to normal usage but in terms of GIS there is general agreement that the surface has barely been scratched.
“Come the spring,” he says, “we’ll be getting back together to look at where to go next.”
When describing success, he has very definite ideas about what works: “You have to stick your neck out — bring Esri to the table as much as possible and grab the low-hanging fruit; create story boards and online maps and make it easy to see the possibilities.”
Gregory agrees that visibility is important.
“Make sure you celebrate the wins,” he adds. “Don’t assume that good work will always automatically be recognized — don’t have GIS be seen as a ‘Black Box’ that just does things. Sit down with people and have them appreciate what it is that you’ve done.” And in that regard, the GIS Team at Valley Metro not only has a brilliant vision but can point to inviable successes as they move forward.