Mobile Messaging Case Study

Intelligent Messaging Gives Albuquerque Commuters Near Real Time Transit Updates (Cont'd)

About City of Albuquerque

City of Albuquerque Facts

Government Needs

Give bus riders an easy way to learn when the next regularly-scheduled City buses are due at their stop

Networking Solution

Global Smart Messaging Suite provides quick access to bus information and alerts for affected routes

Business Value

Increased customer satisfaction with faster response times; significant cost savings over calls to the 3-1-1 Information Center

Industry Focus

Municipal government

Size

540,000 residents

Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city, accounting for nearly half of the state’s economic activity. Its diverse economy consists of government, services, trade, agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, and research and development. Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia National Laboratories, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque Public Schools and Central New Mexico Community College are among the City’s largest employers.

Situation

ABQ RIDE, the City of Albuquerque’s Transit Department, promotes public transportation to alleviate the effects of population growth, traffic congestion and air pollution on the City. To that end the City tries to make traveling by bus a pleasant experience, but saw increasing numbers of commuters calling the Albuquerque 3-1-1 Information Center to find out when their bus would arrive. ABQ RIDE wanted to make it easier for people waiting at bus stops to get transit information and alerts.

Solution

Albuquerque commuters are now one text away from the latest information on their bus thanks to the AT&T Global Smart Messaging Suite. With TXT2RIDE, Commuters simply send a text to an abbreviated phone number known as a short code to learn when the next bus is scheduled to arrive at their stop. The solution gives commuters useful information and saves the City money by reducing calls to its Citizen Contact Center (3-1-1), providing the information at a fraction of the cost.

A Rich History and a Promising Future

If we can give our constituents the information they need for two pennies as opposed to $1.86, I think we’re doing our riders a real service and we’re saving the City a lot of money.”

- Stan Low, IT Division Manager, ABQ Ride

Bracketed by spectacular mesas to the west and the Sandia Mountains to the east, Albuquerque attracts millions of tourists eager to experience the distinctive beauty of the southwest city. The area is rich with historic sites like the picturesque Pueblo Indian villages and Spanish missions and offers a wealth of museums, restaurants, galleries and festivals. The popular International Balloon Fiesta, a weeklong event, attracts nearly one million visitors every year.

While many of these attractions are connected to the City’s past, Albuquerque’s sights are set on its future – education at all levels is a top priority. Albuquerque Public Schools is the City’s second largest employer and the state’s largest school district, educating nearly one-third of all New Mexico students. Albuquerque is also home to the University of New Mexico, its third-largest employer, and three other colleges.

The growth of its technology industry is another indicator of Albuquerque’s commitment to tomorrow. The City is part of the New Mexico Technology Corridor, a concentration of high-tech organizations. Technology leaders like Sandia National Laboratories, based in Albuquerque, and the Intel Corporation, with a plant in neighboring Rio Rancho share the area with successful startups like Aspen Avionics.

Environmentally Friendly Operations

The City’s Transit Department, ABQ RIDE, is dedicated to transporting passengers in a timely, healthy and environmentally-friendly way by offering affordable alternatives to driving. It operates approximately 40 fixed bus routes with 2,700 stops. The department actively promotes more than its own buses, encouraging people to use the state commuter rail system, carpooling, walking, bicycling or any combination of these in their daily travels. To support people who want to make at least part of their trip on two wheels, the department has equipped all its buses with bike racks.

ABQ RIDE uses technology to support its mission and make the most of taxpayer dollars. “If it makes our employees more effective and efficient or makes information more accessible to our constituents, we are happy to invest in technology,” said Stan Low, ABQ RIDE IT Division Manager.

For example, green technology helps ABQ RIDE make more than 40,000 passenger trips a day, which comes to just under 13 million in the course of a year. Its fleet of 160 buses is powered by alternative energies like compressed natural gas and diesel-electric hybrid technology.

A high level of comfort with technology led the Transit Department to explore mobile applications that would make it easier for bus riders to get transit information while they’re waiting for a bus. “One study showed that passengers who don’t know when their bus is coming typically feel like they’ve waited twice as long as they’ve actually waited,” Low said. Those who knew scheduled arrival times perceived their wait time as being much shorter.

Commuters Want Transit Information

ABQ RIDE offered several options for people who wanted to know when their bus would arrive, including a collaboration with the University of New Mexico to create a “Where’s My Bus” website and the development of an app that displays the location of each City bus in near-real time. Both of these options, however, require a smartphone or other device with Internet access.

Riders could also call the City’s 3-1-1 center, which handles all non-emergency City of Albuquerque inquiries and services. However, each call took at least 30 seconds for the agent to look up the bus stop, find the correct route, determine the scheduled arrival time and communicate it to the caller.

More than half of all 3-1-1 callers wanted to know about buses, Low said, indicative of how important transit information is to the community. ABQ RIDE needed a way to offer people a more efficient way to get information on bus schedules and routes. Since each 3-1-1 call costs nearly $2 to process, the Transit Department also wanted to save the City money.

Easy Integration, Quick Installation

Initial bids from vendors were higher than expected and some vendors had little experience in the field, so Low was very interested when his AT&T account team outlined what the AT&T Global Smart Messaging Suite could do for the City. “It was not as expensive as other firms had made it out to be, and we knew AT&T was probably a little bit better funded than the small startups we had met with,” Low said.

The intelligent messaging solution that has been dubbed TXT2RIDE lets commuters text the bus stop and route number from any text-enabled cellular device, regardless of carrier, to a special short code and get a quick response about the next scheduled buses. It also has an alert function that lets ABQ RIDE reach passengers quickly with news of detours or emergencies.

Albuquerque started its Global Smart Messaging Suite pilot with three premium “Rapid Ride” express routes by posting special pucks displaying bus stop numbers in raised letters and in Braille. “In that way we provided the missing piece of crucial information to the passenger – the bus stop number,” Low said.

Deploying the cloud-based AT&T application required little effort from the transit department staff and minimal change in business processes, Low said. “This works in the background, with little care and feeding, so that’s why it was so attractive to us.”

The mobile messaging solution integrated easily with the transit data ABQ RIDE makes available through the City’s open data initiative, Low explained. “AT&T made the installation quick and easy. We were already publishing the data,” he said. “We pointed AT&T to the same data, gave them the rules for reading it for any given day, route and bus stop, and they made it happen.”

Substantial Savings

Positive results were quickly apparent. Riders found the AT&T Global Smart Messaging Suite easy to use and Mayor Richard J. Berry noticed an improvement in customer service. “When a rider is in a hurry to get transit information the last thing they want to do is call and wait for a representative to look it up,” he said. “The solution gives riders the information they need right at the tip of their fingers. It also helps the City alleviate demand on our contact center.”

As the City expected, the user-friendly solution is popular with riders who don’t have Internet access; however, many who do also use the text so they don’t have to use their mobile phone data plan minutes. It’s also streamlined for commuters’ convenience, Low said. “Some other services list every bus that services a stop, which can truncate the message or make it hard to read,” he said. With AT&T Global Smart Messaging Suite, each caller gets just the information specific to his stop and route.

TXT2RIDE has clear-cut benefits. “We’ve seen our 3-1-1 call volume for Rapid Ride come down every month since we launched the service and we’re able to give callers the information that’s important to them, “Low said. “If we can give our constituents the information they need for two pennies as opposed to $1.86, I think we’re doing our riders a real service and we’re saving the City a lot of money.” Albuquerque expects significant annual savings once the service is available for all 2,700 stops.

What if commuters’ perceptions are really altered by knowing what to expect? “It’s like cutting the time spent waiting for a bus by 50 percent,” Low said. “At least that’s the way it feels.”

Spreading the Word

The department is introducing the messaging solution to new routes individually so it can measure its effectiveness. “As each route is brought online it’s exciting to watch the 3-1-1 call volume go down and the texting numbers go up,” Low said.

The City’s challenge at this point is to get the word out to passengers. “Each time we visit a bus stop and tell the waiting passengers about the service, we see another spike in service,” he said. “We’re hoping to pick up more ‘frequent flyers,’ people who use the intelligent messaging service regularly, as we spread the word and distribute pucks to more routes.”

In the future, ABQ RIDE is considering adding functionality to the solution, including location-based services to help people find the nearest bus stop, proactive notification of route changes, keyword inquiries and rider surveys to gauge public opinion on new routes or services.

As for now the focus is clear. “If this leads to better communication with our passengers,” Low said, “we are in a better position to answer their needs.”

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