Top Hat

Why are the shuttles so bad?

By Cait Bennett May 4, 2022

I was scrolling through the RPI subreddit and discovered a post “Why is the shuttle system so incredibly bad?” My Facilities and Services Chairperson roots kicked in, and I decided to shed some light on the current system, why it is so bad, and what the Student Senate is doing to fix it.

In Fall 2019, the Student Senate Facilities and Services Committee worked to modify the shuttle routes for the Spring 2020 semester. Prior to Spring 2020, the routes were the East route and the West route. The East route shuttles were known for infrequent stops and would often show up to the Union back-to-back. It was also an incredibly long ride compared to the West route, clocking in at around 20 minutes for one loop. Additionally, rush hour shuttles would end up too full to accept more passengers.

There were also huge issues with the paper schedules they used, as they could not account for red lights and small changes in traffic. Often, to maintain that schedule and make up for any lost time, drivers would either have to drive dangerously or skip stops entirely, which can be unsafe and frustrating. Therefore, while paper routes seem like a good idea in theory, they end up being a detriment to the drivers and the students who use them. At the time, the Institute was entirely responsible for the operation of the shuttle system, as they leased the shuttles and paid RPI-employed drivers, so we were able to use GPS to track the shuttles accurately using the Shuttle Tracker application.

In Spring 2020, RPI’s shuttles switched to a three-route system. The East route was replaced on weekdays by North and South shuttle routes, each of which took closer to 10 minutes to complete. After the switch, the Facilities and Services Committee worked with Parking and Transportation from January to March 2020 to eliminate the paper routes and rely on the Shuttle Tracker entirely. The shuttle system was working great during this time; there were more frequent stops and fewer complaints overall.

The Shuttle Tracker provides multiple benefits over paper routes. Not only are students able to see the location of the operating shuttles, but Parking and Transportation can benefit from live tracking to solve the organizational problems with the shuttles. For example, when we have the shuttle tracker operational and a student tells P&T that “some people report issues with routes at night” or “we have heard reports that there are consistently no shuttles at lunchtime,” P&T can set aside time to check the tracker at those times and evaluate those issues based on real data. Did it happen once or consistently? Were they RPI-owned shuttles or Yankee Trails? Do we have another possible explanation for the issue? We will see tangible changes to the frequency and accuracy of shuttles if we rely on the Shuttle Tracker rather than paper routes.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, budget cuts meant that Parking and Transportation lost some of the leased shuttles. They had to contract many of the shuttle services out to the Premier—and later Yankee Trails—transportation companies. Importantly, these contracted shuttles and drivers are operated by their companies, not RPI. There was a huge impact on the Shuttle Tracker when we switched to contracted shuttles. Contracted shuttles have a GPS tracker that their company uses to keep tabs on their buses, and the Shuttle Tracker’s GPS interfered with that. These companies didn’t want to give access to their GPS data, so for a while, Student Government just couldn’t show any shuttle tracker data.

The new shuttle-tracking solution, envisioned by Web Technologies Group Chairperson Gabriel Jacoby-Cooper ’24, is based on crowdsourcing. The team created a system where students sign on to the shuttle on their phones by pressing the “board bus” button. They share their location anonymously until they leave the shuttle, and that information tells other students where the shuttles are. It is more accurate than GPS data, but obviously, there are times when students are not on shuttles, or when a student forgets to sign on. Currently, the Senate is looking into buying a cheap device that will function over LTE to track the location of each shuttle. It would use the same system, but the difference is that drivers would tap in when they start their shift, so the location would be consistently kept for all shuttles while removing the burden from students.

Solutions are on the horizon to improve the shuttle system—I promise! If you want to be involved, you can join the Web Technologies Group. All of their code is open source, and you can find it on GitHub.