DART lights up its message
Working with longtime partner Luminator, the Dallas agency is using passenger information to connect with its community
By Richard Tackett
In 2011, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) was in the midst of rolling out new vehicles and developing a new fleet with the expressed intent of providing a fresh feel for their riders. The goal was to appeal more to discretionary or “choice” riders – riders who use transit but don’t need to. The DART team outlined a multi-point plan that would increase appeal for these choice riders. A chief priority in this plan was ensuring that DART could meet today’s expectations for on-demand passenger information.
“We now live in a culture where we have an on-demand expectation for real-time information,” says Morgan Lyons, assistant vice president, external relations, at DART. “We want to make it easier. From a bus perspective, it’s really an extension of what we have seen over the past 20 years with developments like larger destination signs and more intuitive route nomenclature.”
For DART, passenger information serves multiple purposes – not only is it about providing route information to the rider, but it should also create an environment where the agency can push useful information to the customer. This information can include anything from instructions on how to use the system to prompts for customers to ride the system more frequently, marketing and emergency alerts.
It only made sense for the new initiative to be undertaken with DART’s passenger information partner of well over 21 years.
“We’ve been a provider of DART’s on-board destination signs since the agency’s inception,” says Dan Kelleher, vice president of sales and marketing at Luminator Technology Group (LTG). “We’ve also worked with them to provide interior and exterior lighting for their light-rail system, as well as LED displays at wayside stations.”
The Luminator INFOtransit system was particularly unique and the DART team knew it was exactly what they were looking for. Thus, the system was included at the time as a requirement in a competitive DART vehicle solicitation for up to 650 buses.
INFOtransit, which saw its initial North American deployments in Dallas and El Paso, combines next-stop information and route ladders with public service information, advertising, news, weather, local event notifications, audio announcements and security.
INFOtransit Using on-board monitors featuring a visual route ladder tracking real-time vehicle location, INFOtransit provides previously unheard-of levels of information for passengers about their trip. A visual stop requested announcement flashes when activated.
DART is able to use the system for video advertising, with the ability to allow both route info and advertising to appear simultaneously. INFOtransit uses the vehicle’s location to showcase local-area events in Dallas, as well as geo-targeted advertisements.
DART can update the controller wirelessly at any point, ensuring current information on all vehicles at all times. This is especially helpful in the case of an emergency public service announcement or an Amber Alert.
Implementation and training
DART took full advantage of, as Lyons says, being “right down the road” from Luminator Bus, a division of LTG located in Plano, TX. Luminator delivered a model system to DART’s offices. This single monitor plus a laptop prototype was pre-loaded with the necessary software which the DART team needed to start the process of implementing some of their ideas into the system.
“We began where I like to begin any of our exercises here at DART – with a blank sheet, imagining what we could accomplish with this system,” Lyons says.
Luminator provided training to the DART team, but the highly intuitive software made that an easy and collaborative process.
“It was always either a local phone call or a visit to our offices,” Lyons says. “There was some formal training, but a good bit was, frankly, informal. It was very iterative process – and an extremely good process. We enjoyed working with them and continue to enjoy working with them as we learn new things.”
After a period of working with the prototype monitor, the DART team used Luminator’s training to deploy some initial information batches to the fleet. This was accomplished by loading relevant information onto USB drives which were then individually deployed to buses in the fleet. Luminator has since expedited this process, as buses are currently remotely loaded with information when they’re in one of DART’s bus yards.
Because DART was the first transit agency in America to receive the INFOtransit system, the entire deployment was a learning process for all concerned.
“We worked with Luminator to develop best practices for the system, where we could both learn about it,” Lyons says. “We sought to find flaws, correct them and make the system as user-friendly as possible. Some of the things we learned have actually helped inform how Luminator delivers this product to other markets of different sizes.”
“The project evolved as we learned more about the capabilities of the system and how it would fit in our operating and maintenance environment,” adds Mike Hubbell, vice president of maintenance at DART. “Luminator and DART teams worked throughout the process to bring the system online. The teams were creative in solving problems, but stayed focused on the goal; to put the screens out for the customers.”
Initial implementation required working with DART’s CAD/AVL system supplied by Trapeze Group, necessary for automating trip I.D. selection. Trip I.D. is a numbered code that identifies the specific sequence of stops and the path that a vehicle uses on its route. Luminator uses that data to display stop information on the INFOtransit screens. The bus operator can manually enter that information or automatically deploy it throughout the system.
DART and Luminator continue working together to implement new features and functions.
Riders make full use
DART currently uses its INFOtransit screens to alternate between route information and visual public service announcements. DART signed a contract earlier this year to run advertisements on the system soon, taking full advantage of the technology.
Rider feedback has been quick and positive.
“Our new vehicles came with the monitors and customers were instantly impressed,” Lyons says. “They were excited to see them, and I think they really like having access to this level of information. It makes the trip easier, particularly for new customers. “
Riders are also appreciative of the additional information that DART provides, including the prompts about the many ways to ride DART’s multi-modal services
“It’s key for us, and every transit system, to encourage existing riders to use the system more frequently, and, frankly, to use more of it,” Lyons says.
Passenger information in the digital age
As a public agency, DART has enhanced its service tremendously because of its new ability to disseminate real-time information to passengers.
“DART’s digital screens can provide relevant transit information on the fly,” says Mike Roth, product manager at Luminator Bus. “They can make changes every day if they want. If they know that there’s going to be a route change, they can inform their customers with real time information, just like that.”
Advertising will bring a whole new set of capabilities to DART. The agency will be able to move beyond running regular ads into video-based and even geo-targeted ads. For instance, if a bus is pulling into an area with a nearby hamburger restaurant, and the restaurant is an advertiser with DART, the INFOtransit system will automatically run ads for that establishment. Furthermore, this will afford DART and local businesses a level of traceability to transactions. In the case of the burger restaurant, physical DART fare passes might be used for a discount. This will provide extra value to DART riders, and will allow businesses to see profits tied directly to onboard advertising.
As it looks to the future, the DART team believes the state-of-the-art INFOtransit features will even further enable the agency to provide deeper, more satisfactory levels of service to the Dallas area.
“This system helps us advance our objective of helping our community see public transportation as more than just the transaction of moving people from Point A to Point B,” Lyons says. “Transit is a community asset and it is transforming the quality of life in our region. We want to be a community enhancer, not just a utility. This tool helps us to do just that.”