An electronic attendant with speech and an LED screen beckons people on a Jefferson Street sidewalk to board Roanoke’s free Star Line trolley.
As the red trolley approaches, those gazing at the high-tech pedestal or the VMGO smartphone app are in the know. They know where the trolley will go and its travel times.
Real-time passenger information went live on two of Valley Metro’s bus routes last month. There’s now an app with bus-tracking GPS technology for those routes covered by the trolley, which connects downtown Roanoke and Carilion Clinic’s main campus at Roanoke Memorial Hospital, and the Smart Way, which connects Roanoke and Blacksburg. Officials plan to expand use to all buses covering Roanoke, Salem and Vinton streets in 2021.
Systems that are designed to inform bus riders about the progress of travel have been available for more than 20 years, according to a Federal Transportation Administration report from 2006. Riders have told Valley Metro since at least 2016 they want it. Valley Metro joined the trend by investing $300,000 to buy the new system and will spend about $20,000 a year to operate it, General Manager Kevin Price said.
Think of VMGO as an informed travel companion. It predicts when a bus will reach a given stop based on actual conditions, not the schedule. It uses a passenger counter to calculate the percentage of occupied seats, which is part of what the user can find out. Buses depicted as dots crawl slowly along streets on a map.
Its trip planner can recommend which trolley or Smart Way bus to board to reach a desired destination. It transmits messages and alerts such as detours and service changes to the user.
“The agency can push a message to all of the users of the app and they’ll get that as a pop-up on their phone and it’s a way to keep everyone up to date … so there are no surprises on your commute,” said Alex Fay, chief commercial officer at GMV Syncromatics, the system’s Los Angeles-based builder.
The free app works on Apple and Android devices. There is a web-based version at vmgoapp.com for people without the app.
The company has been in installing intelligent transportation technology for transit systems for about 12 years. Fay said today’s improved versions are more reliable than those of the past and that it was a good time for Valley Metro to invest. The GPS reports bus location every four seconds and is supported by a fast data network and cloud-based software, he said. A console near the steering wheel is for the bus operator, while dispatchers can view results on terminals at the central hub.
The particular system Valley Metro bought is in use in about 30 cities, though no others in Virginia, Fay said. Syncromatics is preparing to launch a equivalent of VMGO in Santa Cruz, California, and Salem, Oregon, he said.
Apart from the app, the VMGO system feeds riders aboard Smart Way buses and trolleys with journey information announced by a computer voice and displayed on a small screen. The solar-powered pedestal talks, too. In addition, as the sun heads down, it is designed to light up so nobody needs to wait in the dark for a bus, Fay said.
Corri Stevens, a Carilion employee whose office is adjacent to the Jefferson and Kirk trolley stop, waited near the stop Wednesday afternoon with an armful of possessions as she pondered whether to walk to her car or wait. Her usual routine, she said, is “I come out here. Where’s the trolley? I don’t know. I’m going to walk,” she said.
She had not yet noticed the LED sign displaying a countdown to arrival. “That’s great,” she said after a reporter pointed it out.
But the trolley doesn’t consistently arrive when the counters says it will, according to Carilion employee Brenda Manning, who works in the same building as Stevens. However, the trolley and the counter were syncing Tuesday, Carilion worker Karen Thompson said Wednesday. “It was right on the spot yesterday. It was very nice,” Thompson said.