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How Swiftly is Harnessing Big Data to Improve City Transit


For city dwellers, heavy traffic and a lack of parking are just part of urban living. But as cities get “smarter,” both residents and commuters may reap benefits like less congestion and more readily identifiable parking spaces.

Connected technologies and devices — like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and big data analytics — are evolving rapidly, allowing companies to design elegant solutions to some of our most pressing urban problems. As Jonathan Simkin, founder and CEO of Swiftly Inc., a Samsung NEXT company, explains in the “End of the Beginning” video series, his company is using big data to transform urban transit.

“What we’re building at Swiftly is a way to understand the movement of vehicles holistically and the movement of people holistically so that cities can ultimately make streets that move more efficiently,” explained Simkin.

Smart cities create a ton of data, but much of it is being unused today. As more of that data is leveraged for real-time decision making, cities may become more efficient. “We’re using data to enable cities to design better routes, better streets, that ultimately get people from A to B faster,” Simkin said.

Jonathan Simkin, founder and CEO of Swiftly, Inc. demonstrates how the company’s urban mobility solutions help transit agencies pinpoint where delays are occurring and adjust traffic signals or transit routes accordingly.

The short road to smart transit

Cities have always been hubs of innovation and commerce. But with the trend toward global urbanization, city landscapes are shifting rapidly, becoming denser and more congested by the day. Current projections estimate that around 5 billion people will live in urban areas by the year 2030. As people flock to city centers, issues surrounding traffic and parking are expected to intensify.

Implementing smart city technology promises a wide range of economic benefits. For instance, Americans lose roughly $160 billion in productivity each year sitting in traffic, for a total of nearly seven billion hours. Crowded roads also contribute to problems like climate change, as nearly one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation.

The challenge: antiquated grids and technologies

Smart city technology has to work around a fundamental constraint: Most cities are stuck with the roads they have. “If you think about it, for the most part, the road network itself can’t easily be adjusted,” Simkin said. Locked into transportation grids built for another era, cities can’t always expand roadways to ease traffic. As a result, they have to use existing roads more efficiently.

Yet, current transit technology is rarely equal to the task. “Many of the technologies used by public transit agencies are decades old,” Simkin explained. “They often use Excel spreadsheets, paper and pencil, or one-time studies to analyze their network performance.”

Swiftly, however, is bringing the power of big data to bear on the challenge, and as a result, ushering city transit technology into the modern era.

Harnessing big data to improve urban mobility

Swiftly’s transportation experts have built a modern big data platform for cities and transit agencies that analyzes billions of data points collected from across a city’s entire transit fleet in real time.

This allows cities to pinpoint congestion problems — e.g., a bus line that’s running 20 minutes late — and prevent transit issues before they occur. For cities, it’s a way to make transit more efficient, reliable, and seamless.

It’s also a game-changer for the rider experience: With more accurate arrivals for buses, light rail, and trains, riders know exactly what their daily commute will look like.

“Swiftly is a paradigm shift,” according to Simkin. “It allows cities to track data 24/7 from 100 percent of the fleet. It’s also predictive, leveraging billions of historical data points, allowing cities to make real-time decisions and accurately model future performance.”

To date, more than 55 city transit networks are using Swiftly technology to improve transit operations. Above, a screen from the Swiftly dashboard shows in real-time if a particular transit route is running early, on-time or late, enabling transit systems to move more efficiently.

For instance, Swiftly allows transit agencies to complete what used to be expensive, six-to-nine-month performance studies in just a matter of days. The fact that cities can view their entire transit operations from a single, intuitive interface doesn’t hurt, either.

Transit data in action

Swiftly is already delivering practical solutions to cities across the country. To date, more than 55 city transit networks — including the MBTA in Boston, MDOT MTA in Baltimore, VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, Capital Metro in Austin, and VTA in Silicon Valley — are using its technology to improve their transit operations.

In Boston, for example, the company has helped to decrease wait times at bus stops while delivering more accurate bus predictions to riders. In Santa Clara, it’s worked to improve speeds throughout the entire transit network. The company is also building a first-of-its-kind tool with the state of Hawaii to manage buses in real time.

MDOT MTA in Baltimore, MD, operates 750 fixed-route vehicles on 65 routes. Image: BeyondDC

While increasing bus speeds seems like a simple goal, Swiftly’s capabilities will harness technology in new ways. For example, in Baltimore, Swiftly has enabled transit signal priority — automatically changing red lights to green when buses are late — which has helped decrease run times by 20 percent along some of the city’s busiest corridors.

The future of smart city transportation

These successes offer us a glimpse into the future of smart transit. One hallmark of that future includes broad connectivity of transit technologies and devices. “Connectivity is hugely important for transportation,” said Simkin. “Today, transit data is often siloed, making it hard to connect separate systems to one other, much less the entire transit infrastructure. Swiftly provides the connections that cities need to stream transit data to any location they desire.”

As connected networks and technologies like 5G, IoT, and AI evolve, smart cities will get even smarter. In the city of the future, buses, trains, cars, and even roadways will be interconnected — enabling digital systems to “talk” with one another, and helping cities to move people more efficiently than ever.

Learn more about trends in smart cities by watching the smart cities episode in the End of the Beginning video series.

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