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To Boost Sustainability and Efficiency, Dubuque Bus Commuters Take RFID for a Ride

The project employs active tags and readers from Wave Reaction to determine when and where travelers use the city's bus service.
By Claire Swedberg
Tags: Transport
Sep 02, 2011Five hundred commuters in Dubuque, Iowa, are utilizing radio frequency identification tags that help the city track their movements, in an effort to improve the city's public-transportation system. By carrying RFID tags onto the buses they ride, the volunteers are enabling the collection of data regarding when and where people get onto and off of buses. The results can then be shared with commuters (to help them plan their own transportation schedules, based on ridership information), as well as with the city's transportation managers (to improve bus services).

The project employs RFID technology provided by Wave Reaction, based in Galena, Ill., and the ridership data is being analyzed by IBM Research. It is one of two projects being carried out during the city's Smarter Travel Pilot Study, part of a larger effort known as Sustainable Dubuque, designed to improve everything from the city's water service and power usage to health services. The other Smarter Travel project involves tracking the movements of commuters in their cars, via GPS data collected from cell phones. Both Smarter Travel initiatives are being undertaken by city volunteers. Neither project tracks the individuals by name, but simply by an anonymous ID number.

Dubuque is using RFID tags, carried by commuters, to collect data regarding when and where they get onto and off of public buses.

The Sustainable Dubuque endeavor commenced in 2006, says David Lyons, the project's manager, when the city's council and mayor established sustainability as its number-one priority. In 2009, Dubuque began planning pilot programs to learn more about how sustainable city services operate, and how they could be improved. With regard to transportation, the city hoped to obtain information that would help it determine how to encourage more bus ridership, as well as make bus scheduling more efficient (for example, ensuring that buses of the proper size travel the routes on which they are most needed). To accomplish this goal, the city began working with IBM Research to analyze data, and determined that RFID would be the best technology to acquire that information, by tracking ridership on its existing public-transit system. The portion of Dubuque's public-transit system being used in this pilot consists of approximately 18 city buses, as well as several "on-demand" vehicles that are put into use in the event that heavy ridership requires extra service.

Each of the 18 buses—some small, and some full-sized, with two doors—were equipped with RFID readers designed and built by Wave Reaction. The company also installed a device known as a field generator on each bus, attached to the vehicle's ceiling, according to Charles Daoud, Wave Reaction's director of sales. The device consists of an antenna that acts as an exciter, sending a 433 MHz signal to that tag, thereby instructing it to beacon.

"Wave Reaction is a neat example of a local innovator who came in [and] explained the processes in a way that was faster and less expensive than we had expected," Lyons says.

Each volunteer was provided with an active 433 MHz RFID tag compliant with the ISO 18000-7 standard. The tag, measuring about 1 inch by 2 inches, and a quarter-inch thick, fits into a user's pocket or purse. To provide an incentive to carry the tag, the city is allowing the volunteers to receive free ridership if they present the tag to a driver upon entering a bus.

Each participant provided an e-mail address to receive updates regarding the study's results. However, neither that address, nor any personal data, including that person's name, is linked to the tag's ID number. In that way, the information is kept completely anonymous.

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