Vanderbilt researcher uses AI to analyze bus occupancy data, create real-time map of available seats


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A researcher from Vanderbilt University is utilizing artificial intelligence to analyze available bus occupancy data, hoping to create a real-time map of available seats.

The research is all in an effort to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on public transit; helping Nashville’s WeGo bus system not only maintain social distancing protocols, but figure out how many vehicles to send out and the frequency at which they should arrive.

Abhishek Dubey is the lead researcher on the project and an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Vanderbilt. Dubey said COVID-19 has not only disrupted million’s of lives, but created operational and scheduling challenges for public transit agencies like WeGo.

“We’re trying to understand the shift in ridership,” Dubey said. “You need to understand how quickly demand is changing so that you understand what schedule to run.”

You’ll see in the graph below, ridership dropped by more than half from February to May.

Dubey said these agencies are struggling to maintain accessibility with reduced resources, changing ridership patterns, vehicle capacity constraints and reduced services due o driver unavailability.

Dubey’s estimates will be used to make recommendations to WeGo Public Transit in Nashville and CARTA in Chattanooga, specifically, the number of buses that needed to be added or subtracted from specific routes to ensure passenger safety.

​”​Right now, if we want 50 percent capacity, than you might actually need additional vehicles on some frequencies, some stops, some routes, but then you’ll see on other routes you need less number of vehicles,” Dubey said, adding in the long term this may balance out, meaning, the resources are there but they may just need to be reassigned to make more sense.

In addition, Dubey is designing a camera-based ridership detection method to show commuters how many people are on a bus and where they’re sitting in real time.

“We want the public to understand how many people are on the bus,” Dubey said. “If the bus is getting packed up and if you’re in a high risk category, maybe you don’t want to get into the bus at that time. What we can do is provide you a map of where people are sitting, but what we can’t do is provide a reservation because there is no reservation, suppose you expected the seat was available but really, anyone could take that seat.”

Dubey said mass transit is a lifeline for a lot of people, adding, the city can’t just shut down WeGo and call it a day.

“We need to try to figure out the best way we can provide the most information to people, assuming people can make the rightful judgement; do they wait for the next vehicle or do they get in?” ​

Dubey hopes some of this data is available to the public in a couple of months. As for the real-time ridership detection, he hopes that will come online within the next six months.

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