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TRANSIT BEAT: Red Line goes high tech with 'NextBus'

January 18, 2013

At the lower left corner of a Red Line bus stop sign are instructions for using your mobile phone to find out when the next bus is coming. Photo/George Shirk

 

The Red Line bus route in Mammoth just became a bit easier to use.

 

It is not that it ever was particularly hard, given that the buses generally run on time, they’re free, and they connect the town to Main Lodge at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area via the Village.

 

Even so, the “NextBus” feature will allow riders to discern when, exactly, the next bus will arrive. 

 

That feature, said John Helm, the director of Eastern Sierra Transit, would come into play during times of gnarly weather or crowded conditions, such as the Christmas-New Year rush, this coming weekend’s Martin Luther King holiday, and Presidents Day.

 

“It’s been in place for a while now, but we haven’t advertised it until we get it all worked out,” Helm said on Tuesday, Jan. 15, during the last-ever meeting of the town’s Mobility Commission.

 

“It’s one of those enhancements that people don’t know about, but I can say that it’s functioning as it’s supposed to work.”

 

The technology that makes it happen is a GPS-based system. By using texting features that are bundled on nearly all mobile phones—including non-smartphones—riders can get a real-time status on when the next bus is to arrive.

 

An instruction card for using the technology is posted at each stop along the Red Line route, on the lower left corner of the route maps.

 

The technology already is in use in many metropolitan areas. Increasingly, smaller communities that have similar transportation situations as Mammoth also have picked up the technology, as have many university transit systems.

 

One of them is in use at Lake Tahoe. The TART system there connects Placer County routes, which serve ski areas.

 

The way it works is straightforward.

 

It might come into play on bitterly cold evenings, such as the evenings Mammoth experienced during this past month’s unseasonable, sub-zero temperatures.

 

After enjoying a meal at one of the many restaurants along Old Mammoth Road, for example, diners could stay indoors and use NextBus to time their mad dash to the bus stop, without having to wait any longer than possible in the frigid temperatures.

 

The same would hold true for any weather event, such as heavy snow in the winter or thunderstorms in the summer.

 

Each vehicle is fitted with a satellite tracking system.

 

Taking into account the actual position of the buses, their intended stops, and the typical traffic patterns, NextBus can estimate vehicle arrivals with a high degree of accuracy. This estimate is updated in real time.

 

Helm said only the heavily used Red Line currently uses the technology, but other bus routes could come online fairly easily.

 

Meanwhile, Helm said he and Mammoth Fire District Chief Brent Harper are looking into yet another technology that could help emergency vehicles, as well as buses, manipulate the traffic light timing throughout town.

 

The Opticom system, designed by Global Traffic Technologies (GTT), is a traffic control system that provides a green light—and therefore intersection right-of-way—to emergency vehicles. 

 

Equipped vehicles have an emitter, which broadcasts a visible light and/or invisible infrared signal to a receiver, which is mounted on or near the traffic signal. 

 

The receiver is connected to a circuit card that is located inside of the traffic control cabinet. When the circuit card determines that the signal is valid it will activate an output that would request the green light from the traffic controller for the approaching emergency vehicle. 

 

This technology already is in use in Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as in other cities. 

 

It is a technology that also might be useful, Helm said, for the transit system during heavy weather or high traffic peak times, such as when the ski area closes for the day or during festival events in the summer.

 

Neither the NextBus or Opticom technologies are anything that an ordinary person would notice on an ordinary day, but for ordinary people trying to get from here to there on an extraordinary day, he or she not only would notice it, but probably appreciate the heck out of it, too.

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