Better, Quicker, Together: Enabling Public Transport Service Quality Co-monitoring Through a Smartphone-Based Platform

TitleBetter, Quicker, Together: Enabling Public Transport Service Quality Co-monitoring Through a Smartphone-Based Platform
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsCorinna Li
Academic DepartmentDepartment of Urban Studies and Planning
DegreeMaster of City Planning, Master of Science in Transportation
Date Published05/2016
UniversityMassachusetts Institute of Technology
CityCambridge, MA
Thesis TypeJoint MCP/MST

Public transport system is an important part of cities, and the quality of public transport service – passengers’ perceived performance – is a key urban indicator. Customer satisfaction surveys has been the traditional methods and metrics for monitoring and evaluating public transport service quality, but they come with a number of weaknesses. They are administered too infrequently and ask subjects to provide only general ratings. The infrequency results in potential delay for agencies to receive feedback, and the abstractness reduces the possibilities of associating satisfaction levels to specific trips and their attributes, as well as using the data to inform service improvement decisions.

Given these shortcomings with conventional surveying practices, there is great value in engaging riders as additional sources of information. This reflects the concept of “co-monitoring” – agencies using public feedback to supplement the official monitoring and regulation. This is aided by the growing ubiquity of Internet-connected mobile devices, which enables citizens to generate and submit feedback without time or geographic constraints. From the data collection perspective, this would make the process more dynamic, low-cost, and in real-time. Equally importantly, it is poised to enhance public transport agencies’ relationship with their customers – conveying to customers that their experience and feedback are valued. The service sector today is increasingly striving to be more responsive to the customers’ needs and experiences, seeking to strengthen the relationships with customers. The benefits of co-monitoring may help public transport agencies adapt to these current service paradigm shifts towards “real-time” and “on-demand.”

This thesis documents the creation and piloting of a smartphone-based platform for engaging customers in becoming co-monitors of the local bus service quality. Working with a team of academics and software engineers, the author leads the effort to adapt a smartphone-based travel survey system, Future Mobility Sensing (FMS), to collect real-time customer feedback as well as objective operational measurements on specific bus trips. The system (FMS-TQ) uses a combination of GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellphone accelerometer data to track transit trips, while soliciting users’ feedback on trip experience with built-in questionnaires. FMS-TQ has been piloted in partnerships with public authorities in Singapore and Boston. The pilots have demonstrated the platform’s capability to collect trip-specific performance data, as well as value for public transport operators and regulators.

The significance of this effort is three-fold. First, it embodies one of the first successes in making public transport service quality data associable, attributable, and actionable. One can associated this information to individual trips, and attribute performance excellence or shortfalls to specific infrastructure, personnel, or service operations. As a result, the data may reveal more actionable information for service quality monitoring. Second, the new kinds of data open up possibilities for new academic inquiries on travel satisfaction. Finally, the system’s public deployment signal the beginning of a mentality shift in customer-engagement and relationship-building in the public transport sector. Collectively, the methodology and institutional innovations aim to contribute towards a better public transport service for the city and its people.


Supervised by Chris Zegras and Jinhua Zhao