July 06, 2019

On Mexico City’s Buses, a Little Technology Goes a Long Way

By Santiago Fernández Reyes & Gonzalo Peón Carballo, ITDP Mexico (see in Full Report in Spanish here)

Over eight million people rely on public transport in the Mexico City Metropolitan Area (MCMA). Many daily commuters travel two hours each way under conditions that are generally unsafe. In 2016, there were 3,667 traffic collisions involving public transport in Mexico City. Over 90% of commuters report fearing for their safety while riding public transport. Many cities in developing countries face similar problems because of unsafe and inefficient public transport systems. While privately operated vehicles fill the gap, the service is poor and they are largely unregulated.

Bus fleets used in the study

There is great potential for technology-driven applications to improve bus safety, quality of service, and sustainability in developing world cities. In 2018, ITDP carried out a treatment-control experiment in which remote sensors were applied to two privately-operated bus routes in Mexico City. In one route (Fleet A), an alert system was activated to let drivers know when their driving exceeded acceptable safety standards, while the other route (Fleet B) continued operating normally. Results showed that a simple technology framed in a robust policy strategy had a measurable impact on the reliability, safety and efficiency of public transport, cutting fuel consumption, saving costs for operators and lowering carbon emissions.

Today, cities have increasing amounts of data that help plan transport systems become more efficient and accessible. Ride hailing companies that offer services through mobile apps have become very popular in cities like Mexico City or São Paulo, yet their trip data is not consistently shared with cities. Despite the potential of new technology to give real-time information and simplify bus operations, government agencies are often not able to collect or make full use of this data, even if they have heavily invested in monitoring and control technologies.

Cities are learning how using mobile technologies can improve transportation systems by making them more efficient, sustainable, and equitable. This includes the mapping of informal transport systems on smartphones. The challenge is how to help governments use this data to benefit the low income groups who most need improved transit access, as well as promote environmentally-sound transport practices.

To explore how technology could improve transportation planning in Mexico City, ITDP Mexico, with the assistance of AT&T, carried out a simple experiment. The project focused on two important issues: safety and fuel efficiency. With a sound experimental framework, ITDP installed a GPS device—to track movements over AT&T’s 4G LTE wireless network—on buses traveling two comparable routes. This gave the research team information about a given bus’ location, rate of acceleration, braking, turning, and fuel consumption.

ITDP tracked the fleets for a month to create a baseline of their operation. The next month, researchers activated an alert mechanism on the buses belonging to Fleet A, our variable in this experiment. The alert let drivers know when they exceeded speed limits, idled for more than five minutes, made rough turns, or braked suddenly. Fleet B continued to operate as before. 

Analysis of the data collected, including diff in diff regression, a technique used to assess impact between different groups, confirms that technology based applications can have measurable impacts.  Researchers found two interesting results. First, they saw a tangible decline in maximum speeds. The frequency with which buses exceeded the legal speed limit was also significantly reduced. The second result was improved fuel efficiency. By reducing excessive engine idling and decreasing speed, buses consumed less diesel. On average, Fleet A buses were 3% more fuel-efficient, saving around 1.6 liters of diesel per day. If accompanied by other measures, this could significantly impact a company’s bottom line and reduce even more fuel consumption and emissions.

The study also found no changes in the frequency of accelerations, braking, or turning. The drivers told us that the calibration is tricky since a bus that is loaded to capacity is much more likely to exceed RPM limits, even when it’s not driving aggressively. Similarly, braking and turning are mostly affected by traffic conditions. ITDP will consider including driver input and loading levels in future studies. A key part of this process will be translating the data into useful indicators for the people in charge of the day-to-day management and operation of the routes. 

Through this experiment, ITDP learned that even a simple monitoring device can have a huge impact on the safety and efficiency of public transport systems. Ride-hailing companies already take advantage of this technology. These companies have been very successful in efficiently matching users and drivers, but they prioritize single vehicle trips, which could have adverse effects in terms of pollution and congestion. It is clear that technology can play a key role in improving performance and reducing emissions. Can cities and public transport providers use these tools to improve the long-term sustainability and equity of our urban transport systems? It depends on whether collective modes of transport can become a viable and competitive option to traveling alone. These results prove that successful integration of technology will be key to improving transit service for millions of urban residents.

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