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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
May 27, 2015

Bus passengers in Blacksburg, Va., are locating their bus stops and buses via beacon-based technology. Blacksburg Transit (BT) reports that its BT4U (Blacksburg Transit For You) app, used in conjunction with GeLo beacons attached to buses and bus stops, also collects vehicle usage data to help BT further improve on service.

Blacksburg Transit operates the town-owned bus line, comprising 47 buses and 50 stops, throughout the New River Valley area. In 2014, the agency provided more than 3.6 million passenger trips. Because Virginia Tech's campus is located in the town, 95 percent of riders are students, faculty and staff, says Tim Witten, Blacksburg Transit's manager for intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

When a BT4U app user comes within transmission range of a bus stop's Bluetooth beacon, the app lists the next three buses due to arrive there.
"We've always tried to make the transit system as easy to use as possible," Witten says. Most students who attend Virginia Tech have minimal bus-riding experience, he explains, with the exception of school buses. Although the vehicles are clean and typically on time, with friendly drivers, some students, staff and faculty choose to drive to the campus simply because they aren't certain about schedules and whether a particular bus can get them where they need to be. The BT4U bus is aimed at such potential riders, thereby reducing greenhouse emissions from car use, and freeing up parking spaces on campus.

Blacksburg Transit's Tim Witten
BT began looking into an app to make ridership easier in 2014, and with a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant for greenhouse gas reduction, Witten began investigating beacon-based app solutions. He discovered that several city transit systems have tested beacon systems, but that they did not educate passengers about the beacon technology's use in advance. Consequently, the adoption by passengers was not as strong as it could have been. In addition, Witten says, he began exploring beacon technology vendors but found that most wanted to sell a full solution, and offered features that the transit authority didn't want, such as the capability for a beacon to be programmed remotely (something that could expose the system to hackers).

Instead, BT selected two local companies to develop the content-management system residing on the company's server that would manage data received from and sent to passengers via the app. ACI Web developed the BT4U app, which is based on software provided by Nomad Mobile Guides.

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