Monitoring OC Buses ‘A Video Game You Never Win’

OCEAN CITY — Just above the south end of the Boardwalk with bells and whistles emanating from its arcades, Ocean City Transit Supervisor Chris Smith sits in front of a bank of screens and monitors playing a video game of a different sort as he tracks the locations of the resort’s fleet of buses.

Last Tuesday morning, the Transportation Committee got a close-up look at the nerve center of the resort’s municipal bus service. In 2007, Ocean City approved the purchase of the Auto Vehicle Locator (AVL) system, a bank of computer monitors and video screens that allow transit officials to closely monitor the locations of the active buses out on the streets moving the throngs of people up and down Coastal Highway.

Smith was monitoring the locations of less than a dozen municipal buses out on the streets, taking radio messages from drivers and redirecting them to areas where bus stops were filling up. It was fairly quiet last Tuesday, Aug. 16 as Smith explained the process to Transportation Committee members, but he had just finished an early morning crunch.

“It doesn’t look like much is going on right now, but about a half an hour ago we had a big crunch getting morning employees to their jobs,” he said. “We had buses in the downtown area already ‘white-lined’ because of the early morning push from employees.”

“White-lined” is an expression in transit vernacular meaning a bus is already filled to capacity. It derives from the familiar white line near the front of a bus in front of which no passengers may stand. It’s a situation that occurs frequently, particularly during hectic summer nights, but one the transit system hopes to avoid.

The AVL system, a bank of 10 computer screens that divide the north-south corridor up into areas, along with another monitor showing video surveillance footage of the downtown and uptown bus stations, the Park-and-Ride in West Ocean City and some of the various bus stops up and down the route, is housed in the top floor of the downtown tram station on the south end of the Boardwalk. The screens show green blips indicating the location of the buses heading north and south and even their bus numbers and their current speed. Red blotches indicate where buses are stacked, or backing up, sometimes planned and other times not.

“It’s a video game you never win,” he said. “Any situation can slow traffic down and you never know what’s going to happen. On a bad beach day, we’re probably going to lose it at some point. On a nice day like today, we’re in control all day.”

Moving the buses around to best meet the demand is not an exact science, but resort transit officials try to play it close to the vest. Avoiding long delays and crowded bus stops is paramount, but the city also doesn’t want empty buses rolling up and down the highway, burning fuel and paying drivers.

“It’s a little harder to run in the morning with just 10 or 11 buses on right now,” he said. “During the day, we got it down to a science. Any less wouldn’t be enough and any more would be a waste. It becomes a math issue.”

Smith said there are goals for the timing between buses and achieving them depends on a variety of factors. Even one minute added to the schedule can create a domino-effect.

“Right now, we’re running at eight minutes,” he said. “We shoot for 10 minutes. If we go beyond 10, we document it.”

Smith said in some cases buses will bypass full bus stops, much to the chagrin of waiting passengers, but there is a method to the madness. Typically, a bus might bypass a stop at the direction of a transit supervisor who is monitoring the locations with the AVL. In other cases, the drivers work in concert, with one bypassing a stop followed shortly thereafter by another.

“Perception is reality out there,” he said. “The reality is they’re trained to work as a team.”

Naturally, there are certain times of day that are busier than others, and certain areas of the town that are busier than others. Transit supervisors will often utilize a “flip” method, such as turning a northbound bus around at the Convention Center, or 65th Street or 94th Street for example, to redirect them to trouble spots instead of going all the way to the Delaware line.

“We get a southbound crunch almost every day, usually around 4 p.m. and there are people on every corner,” he said. “If you see the buses stacked up at the north end, there is a reason for it.”

Smith said the opposite typically holds true at night.

“You’ll see them stacked at the south end at night waiting to knock out the northbound crunch,” he said. “Sometimes, the first bus turns the corner and gets to Worcester Street and it is already white-lined. We just leap frog them up the road and keep them going until we knock it out.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.