Enhancing Public Transit With Wi-Fi

A recent column found by way of Planetizen identifies many of the advantages of providing Wi-Fi Internet access to public transit passengers and provides several brief case studies of transit districts that have implemented wireless networks on their systems. One of the most commonly cited benefits was the ability to enhance the safety of passengers and operators by enabling streaming video from on-board surveillance cameras that can be accessed by dispatch. Many of the agencies mentioned in the column received Homeland Security grants to install their networks.

“Rail and bus companies are using Wi-Fi to entice more passengers to use their service,” said Esme Vos, an intellectual property lawyer based in Amsterdam and founder of MuniWireless.com.

In addition to enhancing the commuter experience, Vos says that Wi-Fi is helping transit operators improve safety and efficiency, by using widespread video surveillance and sophisticated maintenance and diagnostic tracking.

“Streaming surveillance video from wireless cameras on buses to public safety authorities has been very successful for bus operators,” she said.

Jim Baker agrees.

“While offering free Wi-Fi connectivity to passengers is a value-added service that is going to distinguish a public transit operator from its competition, that’s not the main selling point for the operators,” said Baker, CEO of UK-based Moovera Networks, whose company makes gateway devices that deliver broadband connectivity to public transport companies worldwide. “The primary driver is not Wi-Fi for passengers, but Internet connectivity for the vehicle.”

At present, Trimet is planning to offer Wi-Fi on WES. When does Wi-Fi become a priority for MAX and buses? No numbers were offered, but many of those interviewed for the column said they believed ridership increased as a result of offering Wi-Fi, but most of those were for commuter trains or BRT routes. I would suspect that Wi-Fi becomes more appealing to a passenger as the trip length increases. If that were the case – or even if I’m wrong about that – what routes should be at the top of the list to be fitted with wireless Internet access for passengers? Are there routes that you think should be targeted for Wi-Fi in an attempt to boost ridership? Or routes that could use the enhanced security?

Continue reading Enhancing Public Transit With Wi-Fi

23 responses to “Enhancing Public Transit With Wi-Fi”

  1. Wait… MetroFi already sucks. We can’t cover a static area.

    How’s this supposed to work on our transit vehicles?

    Also… I cant see myself using this on the MAX… that seats aren’t designed for that type of use; we’d need Sounder-style cars with tables and such to make it really nice… until a time comes when people have handheld wi-fi e-mail devices.

  2. Red Line to the airport. Business travelers such as myself travel to the airport during the early morning and evening hours when it is not crowded, and I typically get a lot done on my laptop during the one-hour run from Beaverton TC. Wi-fi would make me even more productive.

  3. How’s this supposed to work on our transit vehicles?

    They way WiFi typically works on a moving vehicle is that the vehicle itself has one or more base stations and the riders connect directly to the vehicle’s WiFi with a good strong connection.

    Other equipment on the vehicle attempts to maintain a connection to the Internet via any number of means, preferably keeping more than one connection open as it travels, and (this is important) buffering requests during moments of interruption so that riders do not experience errors, just pauses.

    There are a large number of smaller devices these days which can benefit from WiFi for web surfing and email. (iPod Touches, based on the iPhone, for example, do not use phone networks at all, just WiFi — the Asus Eee PC is a complete very light weight notebook computer for under $400 and can be used comfortably without taking up a lot of room.)

    WiFi on transit vehicles may either become widespread as the technology becomes proven and reduces in cost, or it may become unnecessary in a few years as cell phone providers use new spectrum to deploy data connections which are pervasive in urban areas and not subject to frequent interruptions when users are in motion.

  4. My biggest concern would be in implementation.

    1. If it’s put together on the same quality scale as the joke that is MetroFi, don’t waste your time, or our dollars.

    2. For a bus, you could conceivably set up one 802.11 AP on the bus, and have it act as a router to a cellular EVDO connection, and it would be great. For something like MAX where you could have 100+ users at once, you’ll need something with more bandwidth, or multiple circuits of some kind. Keep this in mind please – I’d rather use my iPhone’s slow EDGE network connectivity than an absurdly slow WiFi because no one crunched the numbers properly in the design phase.

    3. Also remember that these vehicles move, and that commercial WiFi gear has to comply with FCC Part 15 – they must accept any harmful interference, and they cannot cause any harmful interference. Also, the 2.4Ghz ISM band is unlicensed. This means that if the bus drives by a diner with a craptastic microwave oven that squelches out the signal, you can’t do anything about it. Also, if someone has an illegal 16dB omnidirectional antenna that they built for $20 from plans widely available on the Internet on their AP at home (the FCC doesn’t license the ISM band, but they do restrict gain and transmission wattage); and happens to be using the same subchannel that the TriMet system is, you’re hooped. It’s a shared frequency, and there’s only so much that multiplexing buys you.

  5. MachineShedFred –

    I think your concerns are valid and realistic.

    Given that trials are already being done in other urban areas, I’m more than willing to cede the “bleeding edge” to those communities and wait for a tried-and-true commercial solution to be available before demanding widespread deployment here.

    TriMet’s promotional materials for WES (Westside Commuter Rail) state that there will be on-board WiFi. That seems like a pretty controllable environment with a limited number of vehicles. If they do indeed offer that service, we’ll know soon enough how transit WiFi performs under what should be ideal conditions. If it can’t be made to work effectively on WES, we can be pretty sure it’s not the technology of the future for the rest of TriMet.

  6. I think by the time they select a vendor and build out the network, anyone who cares about using WiFi on a train or bus probably will have 3G access from their laptop or phone.

    It’s a nice idea, but the cost probably wouldn’t be worth the usage it would see. WES makes a little more sense, with longer trips, but I hope they’re tapping into an existing data stream they’re already paying for and not spending what I think they could be.

  7. WES makes a little more sense, with longer trips

    Line 92X Murrayhill-Portland: 46 minutes
    Line 94X Sherwood-Portland: 46 minutes
    Line 96 Tualatin-Portland: 30 minutes
    Line 96 Commerce Circle-Portland: 40 minutes
    Line 99 Oregon City-Portland: 41 minutes

    Line 4 Gresham-Portland: 60 minutes
    Line 9 Gresham-Portland: 74 minutes
    Line 12 Sherwood-Portland: 62 minutes
    Line 31 Estacada-Portland: 88 minutes
    Line 33 Oregon City-Portland: 62 minutes
    Line 35 Oregon City-Portland: 40 minutes

    WES: 27 minutes

  8. WES: 27 minutes

    76 from Mohawk & Martinazzi in Tualatin to Beaverton Transit Center: according to the current weekday schedule, anywhere from 42-60 minutes.

    I don’t have anything with wireless capability, and I doubt most of TriMet’s ridership does. On this site, we’ve already debated the mobile usability of Transit Tracker since not everyone has a cell phone.

    Sure, from a marketing perspective it might be nice to have wifi on more trains and buses (one other thing that nobody’s mentioned – if they were to put wifi on MAX, would they wire the tunnel?), but I think some of the other things that people have brought up like travel times, cleanliness and frequency of service should be more of a priority – since if people get to where they’re going (like home, work, school, etc.), then they can connect to whatever internet service when they get there.

  9. It foil time. Time to start wearing foil on my head on the bus to reduce brain fry caused by WIFI fry. Think I’m kidding do your own research.

  10. Wifi will take over the world-EVENTUALLY-

    You want people to use your service? Make it user friendly.

    I would think that every single person posting to this blog would BE IN FAVOR OF IT!

    GAWD, IT WOULD BE GREAT TO HAVE IT! It would make it a pleasure to ride transit instead of a chore!




  11. If you read the article above you will see that this wireless idea is much more than connecting passengers with the internet;


    They should be able to get money from the Dept of Homeland Security for this!

  12. Jason – I agree with your point 100%.

    Had TriMet not dispatched the 12 bus late yesterday, I would have had 20 more minutes of MY time (not TriMet Time) to use an internet access point that I pay for myself, as opposed to a government subsidy paid by Paul for Peter.

    Instead, while I slog in my 18 year old bus (when it shows up, anyways) someone in Wilsonville (who isn’t even in the TriMet district) will get TRANSIT paid for internet access. (Is the 96 line going to get cut back to Tualatin to pay for this???)

    Yes – the priority should be providing TRANSPORTATION. TriMet does not stand for “Tri-County Metropolitan Wireless Internet Service District of Oregon”, it stands for “Tri-County Metropolitan TRANSPORTATION District of Oregon”. I want my damn bus to show up on time, reliably, and have a comfortable ride. Until TriMet can get the busses running reliably, there is no reason for TriMet to engage in auxiliary services that do nothing for its core mission.

  13. Until TriMet can get the busses running reliably…

    Isn’t the best way to get transit to run reliably to give it its own right-if-way? It seems pretty apparent that running transit vehicles in mixed traffic on congested roadways will result in unreliable service. I’m not familiar with the #12 but would be pretty comfortable guessing that this is a primary cause.

    The best solution is to build more MAX, to build WES, BRT, etc in corridors where the demand is appropriate.

    WiFi might be a nice touch to lure more users. If the cost per added rider is less than other means of adding riders, then it is a good deal. If not, then it is fair to suggest TriMet should focus on service first.

  14. “Who monitors the output from all those buses?”


    You can get some stay at home mom or disabled person to do it for minimum wage and they would love it!

    You can do it right from your house!

    Obviously it wouldn’t be needed on all routes.

  15. The best solution is to build more MAX, to build WES, BRT, etc in corridors where the demand is appropriate.

    I’m sure that the folks that live along lines like the 43, 44 and 45 will have no problem with their neighborhood street widened to four lanes, to make way for two bus lanes.

    BRT is not a requirement for better service. Service – and reliability – can be improved in other ways. Schedule reliability on the 12 line is not even largely congestion related – or occurs on the Barbur Blvd. segment (it happens on Sandy, or on other routes like the 4, 9 or 20). The inability for TriMet to ensure that the 12 bus shows up on the Mall on time, that it has appropriate drivers to make the runs, that each bus makes its’ pullout on time and continues on the route, and that Operators do everything to keep the bus moving – all contribute to bus schedule unreliability. Technologies like signal pre-emption also work and need to be further installed (especially at 99W and I-5 at the north end of Tigard, and at the Barbur Blvd. TC).

    BRT would be nice. So would MAX. But to suggest that it’s the ONLY solution is short-sighted at best. Take a ride on the 12 sometime with me and I’ll show you what the problems are.

  16. “Take a ride on the 12 sometime with me and I’ll show you what the problems are.”

    ~~>You know what Erik, I just might take you up on that offer,

    and I’m gonna bring my video camera with me!

  17. WES is something of a unique case for TriMet in terms of implementing WiFi onboard the trains. The primary functions for building WiFi and Internet access along the right-of-way were to provide real-time information to the platforms (on 32″ digital displays) and to offer crews at the Wilsonville facility access to rail maintenance information directly from the cars. In a sense, the chance to offer WiFi service to customers on-board is really a byproduct of the other functions.

    While TriMet appreciates the advantages to customers of wireless access on board buses and MAX, the costs for the infrastructure alone are currently prohibitive.

  18. While TriMet appreciates the advantages to customers of wireless access on board buses and MAX, the costs for the infrastructure alone are currently prohibitive.

    How is the cost “currently prohibitive” for one mode of transport, but not another?

    Every single thing that TriMet is doing for WES can be applied to bus (or for that matter, MAX and Portland Streetcar).

    It’s expected that the per-boarding cost of WES will be among the highest of any of TriMet’s services – because it will have a fixed infrastructure that is only spread out amongst a small group of riders (unlike MAX which operates span-of-day) with a 30 minute headway, and each train requires two Operators (unlike MAX or bus which operates with one Operator per vehicle). These additional costs are just icing on the cake; how does TriMet justify a high-cost system – and, oh, let’s spend a few extra dollars – while continuing to nickel-and-dime the bus system?

    By the way, isn’t TriMet in the process of rebuilding its radio network that MAX and the busses use? Why not convert that to a fully digital wi-fi based network?

  19. The obvious difference between WES and TriMet bus service is scope. WES runs less than 15 miles along a single track and only five stations, on a few cars. There are a lot more buses covering the entire TriMet service district, which raises the cost exponentially. Is it worth investing more than $1 million to add WiFi to buses?

    Again, the investment for WiFi on WES is actually very low and allows the two primary benefits: maintenance monitoring of the vehicles and delivery of real-time information and service interruption information to the platforms.

    TriMet is involved in replacing the radio network as part of the scope of replacing the CAD/AVL program, and under Federal requirements. The technology involved in that program is nothing I can speak to; I do know there are a number of options being considered.

  20. Is it worth investing more than $1 million to add WiFi to buses?

    Well, if adding amenities to transportation vehicles in an effort to attract “choice” riders isn’t worth a million bucks on the bus system, I still fail to see why it needs to be added to WES at additional cost. It would seem to be that TriMet should be looking for ways to increase their declining bus ridership (oh, excuse me, Fred Hansen says ridership is higher but can’t prove it – TriMet’s own PUBLISHED AND DOCUMENTED ridership statistics clearly show a ridership drop) and adding wi-fi internet access, even on the bus system, would be a good way to do this.

    Considering that these vehicles never travel more than 15 miles from their maintenance base, I fail to see why it’s necessary to have constant remote monitoring of their mechanical systems (TriMet has busses that travel much further than 15 miles from a garage – therefore should any bus that operates this distance have a remote monitoring system???), and every WES train will have two Operators that can easily communicate real-time information/service interruption information by calling a TriMet dispatcher who can update Transit Tracker information over the phone and via the website – the same exact system that bus riders are required to use. Or WES vehicles can be equipped with the same BDS system that busses have, and use the same exact radio system that each of TriMet’s 600+ busses are equipped with.

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