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Blacksburg Transit Installs Beacons to Boost Ridership, Adjust Service

More than 12,000 riders use the beacon-enabled app to direct them to the correct bus stop; the agency employs the system to collect ridership data and modify bus dispatching accordingly.
By Claire Swedberg

A bus rider first downloads the BT4U app from the iTunes or Google Play website. The app creates a unique ID number for that person's smartphone, with which it can collect analytical data, and uses the phone's GPS data to identify the user's location. He then enters his destination, and the app displays, based on his location, where he can find the closest bus stop for his trip, along with which bus or buses he would need to take in order to reach that destination. He then leaves the app on, and proceeds to that location.

A GeLo Bluetooth beacon is mounted on the frame of each bus stop's signpost.
When the user comes within transmission range (20 to 30 feet) of the GeLo beacon installed on a signpost at that bus stop, the app indicates that he has reached the correct location, and also lists the next three buses due to arrive there. Once a bus pulls up, it has a GeLo beacon mounted on it as well, inside the front door. His phone captures that beacon's transmission, and if the bus is the correct one for that passenger, he receives a notice on the phone. Because the transmission distance is 20 to 30 feet, Witten says, there is little likelihood of a passenger's phone receiving transmissions from multiple buses simultaneously, since each vehicle is at least 40 feet in length. The app then indicates which stop he should use for his destination.

The system is designed to do more than just help passengers find their way to their destination. Witten also uses it to better understand how many riders there are at specific times, days and locations, as well as when queues might develop at bus stops. The BT4U app not only displays data for the passengers, but also sends the unique ID and app-based data to the content-management software on BT's server, in order to collect a record of passenger behavior. For instance, if a rider looks up a specific route, that event is captured, and if he actually completes that route, that event is also collected.

According to Witten, this data could prove invaluable in better managing the fleet of buses, as well as where they should be and when. For instance, he states, "We have a rush hour every hour to hour and a half," based on when classes let out. By better understanding where buses need to be to ensure that long lines don't develop, BT can improve service to manage that flow of passengers. By making sure the agency doesn't have too many vehicles traveling in the area, and thereby consuming unnecessary fuel, it can also reduce greenhouse emissions.

All of the data is anonymous, Witten says, and no passenger is tracked—only the ID number related to the phone and app.

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