Researchers at Madeira’s Lab:USE develop innovative technique for counting passenger trips on public transport

June 2008

Researchers at the University of Madeira’s Human-Computer Interaction program have completed trials of a new system that uses Bluetooth to accurately record passengers’ trips on public transport buses. The system records the exact time when individual passengers get on and off a bus, thus providing very detailed information about passenger behavior.

Vassilis Kostakos“The system was developed using off-the-shelf hardware and cost less than $200” said Professor Vassilis Kostakos, Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Usage-centered Software Engineering (Lab:USE) at the University of Madeira and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. “When a passenger boards a bus, our system uses Bluetooth to detect that a new device has come on board, and makes a note of the time. When the passenger leaves, the device disappears from our system’s range, and once again our system notes the time. This way, we are able to determine when individual passengers get on and off the bus.”

The system was tested in May 2008 by the public transport authority in Madeira, Horários do Funchal. The researchers found that approximately 9.7% of passengers had devices that can talk to the new system.

“Potentially more devices can be captured by our system, if only we can motivate passengers to activate the Bluetooth function on their phones”, notes Kostakos.

Claudio Mantero, director of research and planning at Horários do Funchal, said “The results of the pilot study are very exciting for us. Understanding passenger behavior is very important for our operation, and this system can capture a very representative sample of our passengers.”

Existing systems for counting passengers rely on infrared door sensors or pressure carpets to record the total number of passengers onboard a bus. “An advantage of the system we have trialed is that it records individual passengers’ trips, not total numbers, at a much lower cost. This data enables us to build an accurate picture of how passengers are using our services.”

The researchers are now working with Horários do Funchal to deploy the system on more buses, and integrate it with their existing ticketing systems. Kostakos says, “We do not intend to patent this technology but expect to publish a paper shortly describing our results, and would be happy to help other transport operators deploy this system.”

LabUSE, the Laboratory for Usage-centered Software Engineering, is a unique research and development initiative dedicated to making technology more useful, more usable, and more accessible. Lab:USE is a research unit in the Department of Mathematics and Engineering at the University of Madeira. For more information, contact Vassilis Kostakos.