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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
The tag beacons every five minutes. When a bus arrives at a stop, an individual can enter the vehicle, and the bus' exciter instructs the rider's tag to beacon once more. The reader captures the tag's ID, emitting a beeping sound (for the benefit of both the tag user and the driver), in order to indicate that a tag was read. A GPS unit on the bus is also tracking the vehicle's location. Both data points—the read event and the GPS location—are transmitted via a cellular connection to Wave Reaction's server, where its software links the location data with the RFID read. The individual can then take a seat on the bus, and the tag will transmit its ID to the interrogator every five minutes, thereby indicating that the rider is still on the bus.

Upon exiting the bus, the rider passes the field generator at the doorway (on larger buses, the device is installed at each doorway), and the tag transmits again, indicating that the commuter is now at the door. Once he or she steps off the bus and the vehicle has continued on its route, the reader will receive no further transmissions from the tag, and the software can then determine where the individual debarked, by linking the GPS data and the read event.

Each volunteer carries an active 433 MHz RFID tag.

IBM Research analyzes the read data and forwards that information to the city on a weekly basis, for further evaluation. The city can then make adjustments to bus route, based on the results. If ridership is especially high in certain areas and at particular times, for instance, an additional bus could be introduced to the route, whereas low ridership at other times could indicate that a smaller bus would suffice. The locations of bus stops could be changed as well, based on ridership data.

Passengers began utilizing the tags in mid-August 2011; the city has yet to begin viewing the results. The first few weeks of the pilot, Lyons says, were spent testing the system to determine how well the tag reads were being received. Several "dead zones"—locations at which cellular transmission was unreliable—were identified in that process, Daoud notes. In that case, the software was adjusted to recognize those spots, and to accommodate for the temporary cessation of transmissions.

Lyons says he hopes that Dubuque will be able to use the collected data to make bus service more convenient for riders, as well as increase sustainability, by ensuring that appropriately sized busses are scheduled at the proper time, in order to meet passengers' needs. A large bus requires more fuel to operate than a smaller vehicle. Thus, if there are few passengers, a smaller bus could be more efficient and environmentally sustainable.

"For Dubuque, it isn't just interesting data," Lyons says. "It's economic development."

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