How AI Is Making City Buses Smarter
By Paul P. Skoutelas, APTA President & CEO
The idea that artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to become an essential part of everyone’s daily life may stir excitement, trepidation, or even sci-fi images of robots at every Starbuck’s. In truth, that reality arrived some time ago — and it was carried on a city bus.
As broader AI trends unfold, public transit agencies have been responsibly using AI to help tackle the challenges of population density and the demand for more efficient and sustainable transportation. Expect this innovative technology to play an increasingly key role over the next five years. And nowhere is AI proving to be more quickly embraced than in public bus systems.
Streamlining Routes For Efficiency And Enhancing Customer Experience
Optimizing route scheduling and planning is one of the most challenging elements in public transportation, but is critical to lower fuel costs, efficient maintenance, effective use of transit personnel, and customer satisfaction. It is also where AI is offering the greatest value. Smart bus systems equipped with AI provide real-time updates on bus locations, estimated arrival times, and even suggest alternative routes during disruptions.
And unlike traditional bus routes, which often follow pre-defined schedules that can lead to delays, inefficiencies, and underutilization, AI algorithms use real-time data analysis to dynamically adjust routes based on factors like traffic patterns, weather conditions, and passenger demand. In the post-COVID environment where the traditional twice-daily rush hours have evolved into multiple ridership peak times throughout the day, the technology is matching transit services to mobility needs — and enabling transit users to make better travel decisions with more accurate and timely information.
For example, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) turned to AI to continuously analyze traffic data in real-time to reroute 10 buses along its 79th Street bus route, one of the agency’s busiest. Using this technology, CTA has been able to proactively meet route ridership demand and reduce passenger crowding and wait times. And in early 2024, CTA will be launching an AI-powered chatbot, a convenient, new way for customers to get answers to travel questions and leave feedback on the quality of CTA’s performance.
Likewise, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is using predictive analytics to forecast transit demand, optimize bus routes, and manage traffic flow. Using AI algorithms, the agency can analyze vast amounts of data, such as real-time traffic patterns, weather, and special events, to predict congestion and adjust routes accordingly.
Traffic Congestion And Road Safety
Traffic congestion is a perennial problem for communities across the country, one that directly impacts bus systems and seems to grow worse each year. While congestion lessened during the pandemic in 2020, it is growing and taking a toll on the nation’s productivity. Last year, the average U.S. motorist spent 51 hours sitting in traffic – 15 hours more than in 2021. This is why many public transportation agencies are looking to AI for answers to improve the flow of traffic and make roadways safer.
In California, for instance, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is exploring how generative AI can help achieve zero road fatalities and serious injuries by 2050. By analyzing crash sites, lighting conditions, traffic patterns, and behavior of “vulnerable roadway users” such as pedestrians and cyclists, data is becoming a vital safety tool. Caltrans says AI can help bus drivers, system operators, and engineers anticipate and address safety issues in advance or more quickly, rather than reacting to them after the fact.
In Los Angeles, an AI-based traffic management system is helping buses navigate through busy streets by dynamically adjusting traffic signals. This not only reduces travel time but also contributes to a more sustainable and efficient public transport network.
And cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C., are using bus-mounted cameras with AI technology to better enforce parking violations, hoping to clear transit lanes of vehicles and make public transit faster and safer.
As transit agencies across the country adopt and adapt to AI innovations, the journey toward safer, more efficient, sustainable, and user-centric public bus systems is well underway and growing.
From scheduled maintenance, worker training, mitigating risks, more cost-effective use of human and capital resources, and being able to serve under-served areas and “transit deserts,” the technology holds the promise to achieve transit’s full power and potential for both bus and rail.
AI is moving our industry toward a future of moving people smarter. It is not just a means of better mobility but a seamless, intelligent experience that can transform lives and improve communities.
After all, isn’t that what the best sci-fi stories aspire to do?
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is a nonprofit international association representing an $80 billion industry that directly employs more than 430,000 people and supports millions of private-sector jobs. APTA is the only association in North America that represents all modes of public transportation, including bus, paratransit, light rail, commuter rail, subways, waterborne services, and intercity and high-speed passenger rail. Visit apta.com.