A research team from the University of Washington, in collaboration with local businesses and transit agencies, is breaking the code toward a more cost-effective, socially responsible transportation system.

Extracting business intelligence from transit databases may seem like a long, difficult journey, but a team from UW is doing just that with the ORCA Data Business Intelligence System.

Backed by funding and support from a coalition of public and private stakeholders, the cross-functional UW group is uncovering insights buried in regional ORCA farecard data – creating a powerful tool to help transportation decision-makers turn abstract information into a faster, more efficient, and more equitable transit system.
Financial resources and support for this project have come from a wide range of partners, all with a vested interest in helping people move around our region. These include King County Metro, Sound Transit, Amazon, Microsoft, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, REI, and Challenge Seattle. Starbucks has also been an active participant as a major employer and transit stakeholder locally.

The ORCA Data Business Intelligence System is an example of the power of public/ private partnership for social good, supporting better service for transit-reliant communities and essential workforces. One timely and urgent example is a year-over-year comparison of ridership before and during the pandemic. This type of information can help inform service planning changes and needs for various communities across the region.

The technology underlying this project is specifically designed to delve into data generated by ORCA, the electronic farecard payment system. Each time an ORCA card is used it produces a transaction record with a volume of information representative of travel at the stop, route, and aggregate geographic zone levels. Correlations between the ORCA data and automatic passenger­ count data allow this information to be generalized across total transit behavior in the region, even among riders who don’t pay with ORCA.

The ORCA data used in this project protects individual privacy and complies with the ORCA regional data privacy policies. This project starts with anonymized data and aggregates that data geographically and temporally into summary travel patterns for groups of transit users. Travel patterns of very small numbers of users are not reported. This ensures that no personally identifiable information (PII) is reported. However, the aggregate patterns do allow development of operational dashboards that give us insight into how riders travel through our region from start to finish.

The UW team is led by Mark Hallenbeck, Director of the Washington State Transportation Center, who says the initial phases of the ORCA Data project are complete. By the end of the project, his team will have delivered a functional business intelligence system that can be used by agencies and firms that provide ORCA cards to their employees.

ORCA Data and The Future of Work

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly and dramatically changed how millions of people work in our state. Many simply stopped commuting to an office in favor of working from home. Essential employees who couldn’t work from home still wrestled with rapidly changing work schedules and routines. Transit agencies had to adapt to new protocols, service levels and evolving ridership. All these factors impacted the delivery of public transportation in our communities.

Although the pandemic isn’t over yet, more than 1.4M people in King County are fully vaccinated, prompting transit systems and businesses to evaluate a number of possible return-to-work scenarios. Can some employees continue working from home? Will a combination of remote and onsite hours improve productivity? Will a more flexible approach to workday schedules continue post-COVID and how will that impact travel patterns? Or, will a return to a pre-COVID workplace model be necessary?

The answers to these questions will shape transit and business planning as both sectors look to plan ahead and to adjust course as needed.

The ORCA Data Business Intelligence System will be a powerful tool for post-COVID forecasting and transit pattern assessments, which will help to inform ways we can adapt to new-normal circumstances.

Whatever the post-COVID world looks like, employers will always be looking to streamline travel to and from work, and to comply with Commute Trip Reduction requirements. To those ends, they’ll want to understand which transit routes employees use the most, where they board buses at an aggregate level, how long they have to wait to transfer, and whether options like employer shuttles are needed and/or worth the investment.
Local companies supporting their employees’ travel through ORCA will have access to aggregate statistics about the extent to which their employees (as a whole) use transit, the routes they use, and the transfers they have to take to reach their workplaces.

Transit and Equity

One of the most important goals of the ORCA Data Business Intelligence System is to elevate social equity in transit planning and implementation, which benefits the entire community.

Studies nationwide have shown that transit plays a foundational role in matters of equity by providing access to jobs and educational settings, offering mobility for disadvantaged and disabled community members, which disproportionately affects black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and low-income communities.

The current COVID pandemic has highlighted where demand for public transit has been maintained. Many essential workers continue to utilize public transportation to commute to work, and many in our community rely on public transit as their primary mode of travel. By using ORCA data along with other available information, transit agencies can make more data-driven decisions in understanding where needs are greatest. For example, ORCA data allows the transit agencies to better understand what geographic areas were being used by essential workers during the pandemic, whether transfers were required to complete those trips, and whether those transfers required long delays. This knowledge allows the transit agencies to improve the transit services on which these key workers rely, by adding new routes, improving the time coordination between routes, and by improving the facilities at stops at which transfers occur.

Equity Dashboard

An Equity Dashboard of ORCA user characteristics is one of the first deliverables of the program. Combining demographic data from the census with ORCA transit usage patterns, this tool can help determine which passengers depend most on transit services, where they are, and whether transit is effectively serving those communities.

With this information, needed service improvements can be identified and implemented.

Transit justice is a civil rights issue.

– Rep. Ayanna Presley

Increasing efficiency of public transit

Giving drivers the option to leave their car at home once or twice a week — or more — is often a function of increasing the efficiency of public transit. That’s another challenge the ORCA Data Business Intelligence System is designed to address.
As a tool for evaluating transit patterns at the micro and macro level, the ORCA Business Intelligence System can describe how people are using the transit system, suggest modifications to better meet their needs, and then follow changes in transit use that result from those service revisions.

Since public transportation serves some of the most congested regions in the state, increasing ridership can ease congestion, improve travel time for all residents, and reduce greenhouse emissions.

Adapt and Serve

The ORCA Data Business Intelligence tool improves the ability of businesses, educational institutions and transit agencies to adjust to rapidly changing conditions, as it allows them to easily tap an up to date source of transit ridership data to quickly determine changing transit patterns. This ability has always been important, but it is especially so at a time when travel patterns are changing weekly and new transportation challenges seem to appear as fast as we can solve them. This technology has the potential to help synchronize the needs of business and transit to the benefit of the entire community.

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