Signals from bus riders’ smartphones are giving researchers new insights into transit use

Transportation officials are forever struggling to figure out how best to meet bus riders’ needs within their limited budgets. One of their biggest challenges has been determining where and when people are getting on and off buses, whether they’re transferring to other routes and how long their ride is taking.

The trouble is there hasn’t been an affordable, reliable way to get that data — until now.

University of Washington researchers are doing experiments in which they collect the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals sent from passengers’ cell phones and other mobile devices to create a clearer picture of transit use. In an experiment conducted this past spring, they were able to use these signals to determine when and where passengers were getting on and off UW buses. They presented their study last week at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C.

“This will fill a very important gap in transit operations,” said Yinhai Wang, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Pacific Northwest Transportation Consortium, or PacTrans, who worked on the project.

“The previous way of [doing]data collection is very challenging,” he said. “Basically you hand out questionnaires to people.” The surveys are expensive to administer and many riders fail to complete and return them.