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WorkLink Takes RFID for a Ride

The free van service relies on the technology to improve its ability to connect people in isolated communities in Western Pennsylvania to public transit and jobs.
By Bob Violino
Nov 09, 2009—Many of the people who live in Western Pennsylvania's economically challenged Monongahela and Turtle Creek Valleys do not own cars, and some of the towns have such narrow streets, steep hills and tight turns that they are inaccessible to buses. The WorkLink Community Van Service and its affiliate, Ship of Zion, provide free, scheduled transportation to connect individuals in these isolated communities to public transit—and, thus, to job training, jobs, childcare and other support services.

The WorkLink program was established in 2001 by Heritage Community Initiatives to meet one of the organization's main goals: helping people secure and retain good jobs by reducing geographic limitations. On average, WorkLink provides 5,400 trips per month and serves more than 3,300 registered riders, many of whom are low-income or live below the poverty level. To date, the service has provided more than 500,000 rides.

WorkLink rider scanning RFID ID card

Another of WorkLink's goals is to use technology to collect information about ridership and van activities, to better understand the organization's operations and the movement of passengers and vehicles. Among the technology components are identification cards embedded with RFID chips that broadcast to scanners in the vans, providing a highly accurate system of rider verification; a global positioning system (GPS) unit in the vans that identify each vehicle's precise location at any particular moment; and a wireless Internet connection that transmits from the vans to WorkLink's administrative computers a detailed record of when and where passengers get on and off.

The information generated through this system enables WorkLink and its funders to understand rider usage patterns in detail, and to determine how the transportation service is being used. Knowing where and when the demand for transportation is highest and lowest allows the service to be fine-tuned for optimum use, says Robert Grom, Heritage Community Initiatives' president and CEO. Partly as a result of WorkLink's use of technology to improve services, both the Pennsylvania State government and the federal government have cited the organization as a model of innovation, efficiency and effectiveness.

How It Works
WorkLink's tracking capability has evolved over the years, and continues to be refined. Initially, the organization employed bar-code laser scanners to track ridership. "In 2000 to 2001," Grom says, "when we were considering our needs for tracking and the available low-cost technology, there frankly was not much else beside bar codes to consider."

But shortly after implementation, WorkLink recognized the system's limitations. The devices weren’t reliable enough to collect the data required, with the level of accuracy the organization and its funders wanted. The equipment frequently malfunctioned, mostly due to mishandling on the part of van drivers. There were also limitations and weaknesses with the bar-code product itself, including frequent scanner breakdowns with long delay times for repair, as well as the inability to download data to central computers. In addition, the information collected didn’t sufficiently capture how each rider was using the service.
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