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Part 3: Greater Wellington Regional Council's Real-time Passenger Information system

Digital access to information and services: Learning from examples.

3.1
In this Part, we discuss:

Summary of findings

3.2
The Real-time Passenger Information system (the system) tracks where a bus or train is along its route to predict its arrival or departure time at selected stops. The system produces real-time information that is communicated through electronic display boards, websites, and smartphone apps.

3.3
Real-time information has improved people's perception of the reliability of public transport services. It is likely that this improved public perception has contributed to more people using public transport.

3.4
Transport operators also use real-time information in their day-to-day management to monitor service quality, assess existing scheduling, and make improvements where applicable. For example, real-time information has been used to identify operational performance issues such as buses using incorrect routes and not following the scheduled times for services.

3.5
We used an independent assessor to assess the Regional Council's Metlink website and app against government-approved web standards for accessibility and usability. The assessment found that the website and the app had only minor non-compliance issues. Generally, the website and the app were reported as very good, especially the service updates that affect the route included in each journey plan.

3.6
The Regional Council initially took a cautious approach to publicly sharing its real-time information. This was to try to minimise risking the integrity of the system by third parties using the information for their own purposes. The Regional Council is now starting to relax its approach.

3.7
The Regional Council needs to make sure it keeps up with changes in people's expectations about technology and the way they use it. Governors and managers need to ensure that they think about these changes in the way they manage information, processes, culture, and behaviour, both internally and externally. This applies to any public entity that plans to provide information and services digitally.

Public transport in the greater Wellington region

3.8
The Regional Council is responsible for planning and managing public transport in the greater Wellington region. Public transport is funded through a combination of rates, fares, and joint investment by the New Zealand Transport Agency.

3.9
The Regional Council manages the Wellington regional public transport network under the brand name Metlink. Other companies are contracted to operate buses, trains, and ferries, and to manage other network assets. Revenue from fares does not cover the full operational costs, so support from central government is essential to operate the public transport network.

3.10
The public transport network comprises:

  • more than 100 bus routes, more than 200 school bus services, about 2700 bus stops, and 517 buses;
  • four rail lines, 49 railway stations, 28 "park and ride" free car parks at railway stations, and 98 train and rail units; and
  • harbour ferry services using two harbour ferries between four wharfs.

3.11
The greater Wellington region has the highest proportion of public transport use in the country. This is partly because Wellington is densely populated with a bus stop, railway station, or ferry terminal within a six-minute walk (500 metres) for 84% of people living in the region.

The Real-time Passenger Information system

3.12
The system tracks where a bus or train is along its route to predict its arrival or departure time at selected stops.9 This real-time information is communicated through electronic display boards, websites, and smartphone apps to let people know when they can expect the next service. This information complements other available information such as signs and printed timetables, and also supports call-centre help and audio announcements.

3.13
To communicate digital information, including real-time information, Metlink operates a website10 and has an app for both iPhone and Android smartphones (the Metlink Commuter App). Several third-party journey planning websites and apps (such as Google Maps, Embark, and Tripit) also use Metlink's information.

What we looked at and how we carried out our audit

3.14
We carried out a performance audit to assess whether the Regional Council is achieving the expected benefits from the system. We asked:

  • What benefits has the system achieved?
  • How open and available is information from the system?
  • How accessible and usable is the information from the system?

3.15
We expected to find that the Regional Council was:

  • monitoring the benefits of using information from the system;
  • able to show how the system was used to directly improve services;
  • giving people access to the real-time information; and
  • improving services to the public.

3.16
We did not audit the implementation, including the Regional Council's procurement, of the system. We did not audit the system's performance or data quality.

3.17
We reviewed project and governance documentation, research conducted on behalf of the Regional Council, and research related to real-time information done for other organisations. We talked to Regional Council staff and some of the contractors responsible for providing real-time information, the Metlink website, and the app. We also interviewed people who use Wellington's public transport system.

3.18
We asked an independent assessor to assess the Regional Council's Metlink website and the app against the government-approved web standards for accessibility and usability. Although local government organisations do not have to follow these standards, the Regional Council was happy for the assessment to take place to identify where improvements could be made.

The Real-time Passenger Information system has achieved benefits

Use of public transport has steadily increased since 2014

3.19
The main goal behind implementing the system was to increase the use of public transport. To achieve this, the Regional Council used the system to improve perceptions about the reliability of public transport and to improve operations.

3.20
There was an increase in people using public transport between 2002 and 2006. There was as much as an 8% increase between some years. Between 2007 and 2013, this growth slowed, and there was a decrease in people using public transport in some of these years.

3.21
Although the system was implemented before a period of steady annual growth of 2-3%, it is difficult to know how much the system contributed to an increase in people using public transport. Other factors can influence how people choose to travel, such as the cost of petrol.

Real-time information improved how reliable people perceived services to be

3.22
A reliable service is possibly the biggest challenge for all public transport service providers. Unreliable services can be frustrating, which can lead to fewer people choosing to travel by public transport.

3.23
Real-time information can significantly improve a person's experience of waiting for a bus or train by letting them know when services are disrupted. Addressing people's frustrations caused by delays was identified as an important benefit of the system.

3.24
Real-time information has improved public perceptions of how reliable public transport is. For example, in a 2015 survey, 10% of respondents said reliability was something the public transport system could improve. However, in a 2016 survey, when asked what improvements could be made to the public transport system, only 4% of respondents said reliability.

3.25
The reliability of services also continues to improve. The percentage of rail services running to time in the region increased from about 88% in 2009/10 to almost 95% in 2015/16.

3.26
By improving the perception that public transport in Wellington is reliable, it is likely that the system has contributed to more people using public transport. It is also likely that actual increases in reliability are partly a result of using the information generated by the system to optimise scheduling.

Real-time information is used for operational improvement

3.27
The Regional Council and transport operators have used real-time information to identify operational performance issues, such as bus drivers using incorrect routes, and buses and trains not arriving on time. Transport operators also use real-time information to monitor service quality and assess scheduling. The Regional Council uses the real-time information for operational schedule optimisation and strategic network planning.

3.28
Although transport operators have used real-time information since it became available, this was on a voluntary basis.

3.29
The Regional Council told is that, in 2019, new contracts between the Regional Council and transport operators will support using real-time information to evaluate service performance. When using real-time information to evaluate service performance, both the Regional Council and transport operators will need to be mindful that this does not displace other aspects of good service, such as face-to-face customer service.

More open and available information could lead to other benefits

3.30
Local authority organisations were invited to apply government plans that give people access to digital information where a local authority considers it appropriate. The Regional Council has thought about how to apply these plans to the system.

3.31
The Regional Council supports the intentions of open data in ways that it thinks are appropriate. It does this by responding to requests for access to the information produced by the system and by providing "static" information, which is a component of the system.11

3.32
Making real-time information available to third parties could improve people's access to services. In some instances, this could be as simple as sharing information. It might also lead to the information being used in new ways.

3.33
Initially, the Regional Council took a cautious approach to sharing information from the system. Some third parties are using the real-time information from the Metlink website for their own real-time information apps. This has not caused any issues for the Regional Council.

3.34
The Regional Council no longer considers that providing real-time information to third parties is a risk to the information's integrity. The Regional Council is acting consistently with government plans to share data and apply the New Zealand Data and Information Management Principles. It has signalled in its Public Transport Information Strategy its intention to provide open data and information (including real-time information) through people's channel of choice.

3.35
The Regional Council could further enhance its approach by developing protocols for proactively releasing real-time information. The policy would identify the risks, benefits, costs, and priorities for making this information available.

Ensuring that digital information is available to third parties could improve people's access to services and lead to new ways to use the information.

Assessing access and usability produced encouraging results

3.36
Information that is accessible and usable helps people to access services. People can use real-time information to plan their day by finding out the times and locations to catch a bus, train, or ferry.

3.37
The Regional Council is aware that different people have different preferences for how they access the Council's information (such as through printed brochures, apps, or websites), including the Metlink website and the Metlink Commuter App. The Regional Council's research shows that using the real-time information to alert people to service disruptions greatly affects people's overall perception of the performance of the bus, train, or ferry services.

3.38
The Regional Council has recently improved the timeliness of information and increased the number of channels used to communicate disruptions. As a result, people have indicated increased satisfaction with accessing this information.

The Metlink website is an effective platform for providing real-time information

3.39
We had an independent contractor assess the Metlink website and the Metlink Commuter App against government-approved web standards for accessibility and usability. Like other local authorities, the Regional Council does not have to comply with these standards.

3.40
The assessment found that, although Metlink's website and app do not fully comply, the Regional Council created a useful website that people appreciate.

3.41
The independent assessment of the real-time information and Journey Planner parts of the Metlink website found only minor non-compliance issues. The functional coverage was reported as very good, especially such aspects as the service updates that affect the route included in each journey plan.

3.42
The non-compliance issues related to the website using unexplained route numbers or station numbers without reference to their names. This could confuse people new to these codes.

3.43
Although the Regional Council's research identified some areas for improvement, it shows that people find the Metlink website easy to use. This research corroborates the independent assessment of the Metlink website that we commissioned. Together, these findings indicate that the Metlink website is an effective platform for providing information.12

3.44
The Regional Council could have a "world class" website if it continues to invest in bringing the website up to standard. In our view, the Regional Council should continue to use the government-approved web standards and run regular usability and accessibility reviews to improve its digital presence for all users, including those with visual impairments.

3.45
We strongly encourage the Regional Council to take a consistent approach throughout the organisation when making its data open and available for use by third parties.

Access to real-time information for people with visual impairments

3.46
Wellington City Council's Accessibility Advisory Group noted that accessible information makes it easier for people with visual impairments to use the public transport system. Electronic signs displaying real-time information and transport information that is easy to access were specifically identified as examples of accessible information.

3.47
The Regional Council took steps to ensure that the electronic-display signs met an international standard for visibility.13 However, there is more work to do to make real-time information services more accessible for people with visual impairments.

3.48
As part of managing the initial costs of the system in 2008, the Regional Council did not implement some features (for example, electronic signs that display the next stop on 75 buses). However, the Regional Council told us that, from 2019, there will be electronic signs and announcements on buses. These will be useful for people with visual impairments and people who are unfamiliar with the bus route.

3.49
The Regional Council needs to identify the channels that are most effective for communicating with different groups of people (such as people with visual impairments) when planning changes or improvements to existing Metlink information channels, including the system.

3.50
We strongly encourage the Regional Council to fully implement the audio messaging capability of the system.

Responding to changes over time is important

3.51
The opportunity to use smartphones to deliver information directly to people was not a feature of the system's business case. This is not surprising because smartphones were not widely used in New Zealand when the project started in 2007.

3.52
Since the system was implemented, smartphones have become commonplace. The system is flexible enough to incorporate smartphones as a significant channel for providing information.

3.53
The Regional Council was implementing the system while mobile devices were becoming widely used. This meant that the Regional Council was less able to realise the potential of the real-time information and how it could support improvements to its public transport service.

3.54
The value of the system has increased since 2007. For some time, the Regional Council used the information mainly for people using public transport. However, it has improved how it is using the information.

3.55
For example, information from the system is now used in preparing the Wellington Regional Land Transport Plan 2015 and for optimising the use of the existing transport network. This is to be achieved by using network efficiency tools, intelligent transport systems, and other tools.

3.56
This is progress from previous strategic goals of using the system to increase the number of people using public transport.

Real-time information has become central to a broader information strategy

3.57
The Regional Council has a new Public Transport Customer Information Strategy (the strategy) to use information, including real-time information, to improve people's experience and provide more choice about travelling on public transport.

3.58
The strategy is about managing information and data about public transport services. If successful, it will help the Regional Council to meet people's changing needs and expectations. The Regional Council aims to do this by:

  • providing more accurate real-time information;
  • providing a greater range of information;
  • providing open data (including making real-time information more available) and information through people's channel of choice, including third-party travel websites and apps; and
  • ensuring that data and information can be easily integrated into future smart travel and Mobility-as-a-Service platforms.14

3.59
The main idea behind the strategy is that information that properly supports travel choices results in a better customer experience. This could lead more people choosing public transport.

Thinking and planning for how information is used must be ongoing

3.60
Since implementing the system, the Regional Council's strategic aims have changed from improving people's perceptions of the public transport system's reliability and increasing the number of people who choose to travel by public transport, to focusing on improving people's experience.

3.61
People's experience includes, among other factors, increased reliability, integrated services, and better efficiency. Not all strategic plans have included the same amount of detail and focus about the system and its contribution to the strategic aims. Real-time information is now used to prepare new strategies.

3.62
The emergence of open data, smartphone technology, and apps while implementing the system provides a good lesson for other entities about meeting present needs while anticipating future needs.

3.63
The Regional Council's customer research demonstrates that it is collecting and analysing evidence to help it understand whether present needs are being met, identify potential improvements, and anticipate future needs.

3.64
The Regional Council's plan is to make real-time information more open, accessible, and usable. By acting on these plans, it will improve how the system supports a future public transport network.

Anticipating future needs means that governors and managers will need to identify emerging technologies and customer expectations that could affect their business. The need to think about, and plan for, the future is ongoing because technology is constantly changing and these changes will bring new opportunities and new risks. Governors and managers need to keep up with these changes and consider how they affect the way that information, business processes, organisational culture, and behaviour are managed.

9: The "real" time is actually an estimated time, calculated from the vehicle's current location and accumulated travel time information.

10: The website address is www.metlink.org.nz.

11: This is information about scheduled service times, and bus stop, railway station, and ferry terminal locations.

12: The quality of the design of the Metlink website was also acknowledged by a panel of international designers (see www.metlink.org.nz).

13: The standard is found in RTIG (2012), Meeting the needs of disabled travellers: A guide to good practice for bus passenger technology providers.

14: Mobility-as-a-Service describes a shift away from personally owned modes of transportation towards mobility solutions that are consumed as a service, such as Uber. This is enabled by information technology.

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CoverDigital access to information and services: Learning from examples

ISBN 978-0-478-44288-5