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Buses to go high tech

Petaluma buses are about to go high tech.

Expected this summer, riders of Petaluma Transit will be able to use a simple iPhone app to see where buses are, when they’ll arrive and to make sure they don’t miss transfers.

Authorization to purchase the new system, which is already being used by the City of Santa Rosa for its bus service, was approved Dec. 15 by the Petaluma City Council thanks to roughly $700,000 in federal grant dollars.

City officials hailed the new system as an important step in modernizing the city’s bus lines while improving service.

“It’s the backbone of all the modern communication for transit riders,” said Joe Rye, the transit manager for the city’s 11-fleet bus system. “The main part of this is providing real-time information to riders and operators. A main component is a smartphone app where riders can pull up their routes and find out where the routes are and how many minutes until the bus gets to their stop.”

In the new system, an “Automatic Vehicle Location Computer Aided Dispatch” will be provided through a Pennsylvania-based company called Avail Technologies, which also provides systems for the county’s two other bus systems. When it’s implemented, likely sometime this summer, computers on buses, at terminals and at the transit office will be able to provide information on buses, routes, schedules and timing data to riders, dispatchers and drivers.

Santa Rosa’s transit officials praised its CityBus tracking system, which is also contracted through Avail Technologies, as a big part of recent efforts to improve and modernize its 36-bus system with an average ridership of about 200,000 passengers a month.

“We had high hopes and they’ve all been met,” said Anita Winkler, the city’s deputy transit director, adding that one benefit has been a decrease in passenger queries about buses and routes because the information is easier to access either online, through apps or on a phone service that provides automated data. “We can see every bus route at the same time as well as where all the buses are. I can say we absolutely love it.”

Dispatchers will have an array of real-time information displayed on their terminals, including the location of buses, names of drivers, number of passengers on board — all of which they can use to help improve response and efficiency.

When the system goes online, riders will be able to access it through an Avail Technologies smart phone app called myStop, which will give them up-to-the-minute data on bus schedules, arrival and departure times, route changes and delays and, eventually, even let riders pay fares without cash. About 400,000 riders use Petaluma Transit each year, Rye said.

The app is already available for download, connecting users to the closest transit system that is operated by Avail Technologies. At present, that is the Santa Rosa CityBus, but this summer, when Rye expects the system will be in place here, it will automatically bring up Petaluma Transit.

“It’s a remarkable, user-friendly system that will really complete what has been a big upgrade in service to our transit system,” Rye said. “We’re very, very excited about the possibilities.”

One benefit Rye and others have said will be important to riders is how it will change the way drivers are notified when connections are late. It was a point made by City Council member Gabe Kearney, who said he routinely rides the city bus and talks to riders about how well it’s working.

“One of the complaints I heard from a junior college student is that if one bus is showing up a couple of minutes late, they don’t always communicate with other buses,” said Kearney at the Dec. 15 city council meeting. “With this system, we’d have a better way of communicating bus to bus about whether or not the connections will be meeting. It will help the drivers in making sure they are meeting those connections.”

The feature, which is called transfer protection, is designed to notify drivers when other buses carrying riders who need to make transfers are delayed, Rye said. When a passenger with a transfer notifies their driver, a signal is sent to small mobile computers that will be installed on each bus to let the other driver know to wait.

“The requesting bus that’s running a little late will push a button and send its info through,” Rye said. “The mobile computer that is on the receiving bus will actually beep, so even if the driver is outside talking to passengers or taking a break, when they get back in it won’t just pull off not knowing. Because right now that’s what happens. They get a radio call and they don’t answer it because they’re outside ... and they might pull way and that transfer will be blown.”

Rye said the system will also be able to send updates to displays throughout the system at kiosks, on LED screens at different bus stops and to the city’s two main transit centers. It will also help the system be fully compliant with the American’s with Disabilities Act, including making automatic announcements on the buses about stops and other information for impaired riders.

(Contact Elizabeth M. Cosin at elizabeth.cosin@arguscourier.com)