What Exactly Can Transit Companies Learn From Big Data?

Think about your commute to work this morning. If you drive, maybe you encountered a traffic jam on the road. If you take a train, perhaps it was delayed in coming to the station. You’re certainly not the only one experiencing this – Americans collectively spend 14.5 million hours every day stuck in traffic. This isn’t limited to the U.S., either. Infrastructure congestion costs 1% of Europe’s GDP, and commuters in areas like London and Brussels will spend more than two entire days waiting in traffic every year. Even turning to the airways, things aren’t much better: the U.S. economy loses $6 billion per year due to transit delays at airports alone. However, there’s promise on the horizon: big data. Transit companies are already analyzing the data sets they have in order to improve upon and automate certain processes and increase overall efficiencies. It’s resulted in some great changes in the transportation industry, but companies can’t get complacent.

How then, are companies using big data to their advantage? There are numerous examples but here are some of my favorites:

1. In Israel, a 13-mile fast lane on Highway 1 between Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport uses a toll system that calculates fees based on traffic at the time of travel. In the United States, tolls are typically calculated according to the height of the vehicle, the total number of axles of the vehicle, and distance traveled. The Israeli system counts the number of cars on the road, and evaluates the distance between cars to track congestion. If there are fewer cars on the road, the toll decreases. During peak travel times, the country not only acquires additional toll revenues, it helps improve the amount of traffic the road can bear.

2. Brazil has recently seen an uptick in its aviation traffic due to a larger population and expanded list of destinations. By 2030, annual passenger traffic is projected to more than double, reaching more than 310 million passengers. In order to combat the expected congestion, Brazil deployed a system that uses GPS data to optimize available airspace via less separation between aircraft and shorter routes. It sounds simple enough, right? Make sure the flight path is as short as it can be, and decrease the time it takes to travel. However, enormous amounts of data are being put to work. The distance, speed, and capabilities of each aircraft must be processed, and instead of joining a queue of other airborne flights prior to landing, planes can make their approach much closer to the airport. The first deployment at Brasília International Airport has already seen noticeable results: 22 fewer nautical miles flown on average, saving 7.5 minutes and 77 gallons of fuel per landing. If North American airports adopt this system, it could increase capacity 16 to 59 percent.

3. Stateside, the city of Boston has developed a big data app to address local infrastructure and road repair. Residents can use the Street Bump app to report damages in the road, and the best part is drivers don’t have to physically login to the app in order to report the pothole. The app uses signal data from a cell phone’s accelerometer to detect jolts and reports it to the city. If multiple phones with the app register jolts from the same location, that’s a pothole that needs to be repaired. Previously, the city depended on road surveyors and engineers to identify the roads most in need of repair – a cost of $200,000. In contrast, the Street Bump app cost a one-time fee of $80,000 to develop. That’s not just additional money for other city costs; it helps develop a trust between residents and city services, and provides more accurate and efficient evaluations of the current state of the city’s roads.

The tracking of user movement via cell phones is a very important source of data. Nearly everyone with a smartphone is utilizing its GPS and location capabilities, and that can be very helpful for companies. From setting up way-points of Bluetooth or Wi-Fi MAC trackers, to purchasing anonymized data from cell phone companies, cities can get a better understanding of not only the directional flow of people in and out of cities, but also time of day patterns.

Of course, there are a few concerns with the use of big data. While the Internet of Things typically makes things more convenient for people, many products and services do still require the user to transmit certain sets of data in order to maximize their efficiency. Not everyone may be willing to share data or location information lest they fear “Big Brother” is keeping a close eye on them. As applications become even more data and location connected, consumers will need to continue to be mindful of privacy. On the company side, it’s imperative that they’re using their data correctly. The old adage is quality over quantity, and that’s crucial here. Having massive sets of data is one thing, but not making use of it – or even worse, spending money to analyze data that won’t be of any help – could end up being disastrous.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about big data is that there’s still so much more we can do with it that has yet to be explored. Each and every company should be looking at their data sets to determine how to improve their products. We can use big data to reduce the time it takes to repair roads; or let us know how drivers can be more efficient while driving, saving on fuel and maintenance costs; or to predict traffic flow based on a number of factors. There’s nearly unlimited potential for big data to transform the entire transportation industry and what we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.