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Automatic Vehicle Location
Fact Sheet: Transit Overview

Technology Overview

Use AVL to:

  • Locate transit fleet
  • Monitor schedule performance and assist in operations planning
  • Assign appropriate vehicle for route deviation or demand-response pickup
  • Provide more efficient transit vehicle and modal connections
  • Enhance onboard safety through quicker incident response
  • Resolve passenger complaints

An automatic vehicle location (AVL) system is a computer-based vehicle tracking system that uses location technology (usually global positioning system (GPS) satellites) and a wireless data communications system to transmit the real-time location of any bus, van, train, or boat from the vehicle to a transit operations center. Central software located at the transit operations center periodically receives real-time updates on transit vehicle locations. The transit vehicle is equipped with an onboard computer with an integrated GPS receiver and wireless data communications capability. The AVL-data can be used immediately for daily operations or archived for further analysis. Automatic vehicle location can be used for both fixed-route and paratransit (demand response) systems across a variety of modes.

AVL technology

Transit agencies use AVL systems to improve customer service by providing real-time information. Using AVL, transit agencies can calculate transit vehicle arrival times and post them to variable message boards installed at transit stops, websites and smartphone applications. AVL improves schedule adherence and allows agencies to monitor transit driver performance.

AVL can be the first step toward a comprehensive ITS strategy. Common upgrades to enhance a transit agency’s AVL system include GPS, mobile data terminals (MDTs), security alarms for transit drivers, next-arrival time at transit stops, fixed-route scheduling software integration, and wireless local area network (WLAN) monitoring.

Common Combinations

Daily Operations

AVL is useful in analyzing service delivery questions, but is more effective when coupled with other technologies to create a comprehensive ITS infrastructure. Combined with computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and geographic information systems (GIS), AVL optimizes dispatching and allows each vehicle to service more passengers. Agencies often realize reductions in nonrevenue miles, passenger wait times, and fleet size. AVL is also utilized by transit signal priority (TSP) systems through the detection of specific transit vehicles as they approach select intersections.

Linking AVL to a CAD and time-stamp records management system enables it to be used to help resolve personnel issues. AVL has been used to monitor driver behavior and ensure that the operators are following predetermined schedules (within the acceptable headway range), obeying speed limits, and taking approved breaks. AVL systems are used more effectively respond to and resolve passenger complaints and issues. AVL can identify the exact locations of transit vehicles, link to vehicle passenger loads, and provide other operational characteristics that enable an agency to understand an event situation.

AVL technology

Real-time transit arrival times
are displayed on message boards by the Tri-County
Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet).

Safety and Security

AVL provides enhanced location information to dispatchers if a safety or security issue develops on a transit vehicle. For instance, a security alarm on a transit bus could be activated by a transit driver to alert the transit operations center dispatchers of an onboard emergency. AVL enables a quicker response to the precise location of a vehicle. It also aids in determining the most appropriate response to a security incident.

Systems Planning and Fleet Management

AVL data can be used for systems planning and fleet management. When these data are combined with bus stop and facility inventory data, they can be mapped on GIS. These data can also be linked to automatic passenger counters (APC) to gather ridership information by location and time. APC records timestamps that can be linked to AVL bus location data to estimate the number of passengers and loadings at each stop. This enables development of service metrics that reflect passenger volumes. The data can also be used for planning routes, schedules, and facility and fleet requirements.

Traveler Information

When linked to an electronic traveler information infrastructure, an AVL system can provide information on expected arrival times. AVL data is used to provide real-time next bus/train predictions to customers both pre-trip and en route. Transit agencies can provide real-time information for all routes to passengers in a variety of ways: on its website, through smartphone applications, and via short message service (SMS) and text messaging. Providing real-time information can increase ridership by reducing customer anxiety, enhancing perceived reliability and presenting a more modern image to transit customers.

Factors to Consider

AVL systems provide a number of benefits, including:

  • Interoperability with existing and planned technologies
  • Flexibility for changes in fleet size
  • Capability for testing technology on a subset of vehicles
  • Capacity for data storage and analysis
  • System-sharing across modes and across agencies in a regional context
AVL Benefits Tree diagram

AVL systems are available at a wide range of prices and levels of sophistication to satisfy the budget constraints and needs of most agencies. Most transit agencies should consider off-the-shelf, web-based AVL systems; however, with any system some customization and integration with existing systems will be required.

Agencies that have already implemented some of the core technologies can extract more benefits by adding AVL. In general, AVL is a core technology for bus and multimodal agencies. A phased implementation can spread the cost of the system over a period of time. Some agencies may require complex analytical tools for systems planning and fleet management. Human services and demand-response agencies can obtain significant benefits from an AVL-based communications and dispatching system thatallows for dynamic rerouting and more efficient fleet utilization.

Benefits and Costs


AVL systems can lead to better information, improving transit service planning and customer satisfaction. More accurate running time information that can be passed onto passengers can help increase transit ridership. AVL has been used by some transit agencies to achieve the following results:

  • Decreased passenger late arrival times.
  • Improved on-time bus performance.
  • Reduced emergency incident-response time.
  • Possible savings include:
    • Reduced data-collection costs.
    • Decreased staff labor costs for schedule checkers.
    • Reduction in fleet through integration of AVL and CAD.
    • Environmental benefits: increased transit ridership can save on personal vehicle miles traveled (VMT)
  • Improved data warehousing and reporting tools can provide “dashboards” with real-time displays of key indicators for performance management.
  • Increased customer satisfaction and more smartphone applications for customer decision making.


The capital costs of AVL systems are highly dependent on the level of software customization of commercial off-the-shelf packages, the types of AVL equipment installed on the transit vehicles, and the monthly fees for the wireless communications technology between the fleet and the central software at the transit operations center.

A review of various systems implemented across the country suggests that capital costs are about $10,000 to $20,000 per transit vehicle.

Onboard AVL/CAD equipment

Onboard AVL/CAD equipment


All costs vary based on the transit agency’s specific system requirements. Well-defined system requirements can result in overall cost savings by avoiding costly overruns. Overruns, also known as extra work orders, occur when a transit agency decides to add requirements to the system during implementation. By developing specifications ahead of time and bidding the contract for best value, an agency can receive several proposals for consideration and evaluation.

Smaller stand-alone AVL systems can cost less money, whereas larger agency implementations that integrate central software with existing software can cost millions of dollars.

Operations and Maintenance (O&M)

Annual O&M costs for onboard equipment average 2 to 10 percent of the original capital cost. Recurring costs can include wireless communications monthly service fees.

Training and Staff

Training is an important element of installing an AVL system. Any agency contracts with AVL vendors should include a training component prior to final acceptance and turnover of the AVL system. Some agencies may take a “train the trainer” approach to save money if there is a large number of staff that needs to be trained. This approach allows for periodic refresher training to be held on regular intervals without keeping the AVL vendor under an extended maintenance contract. Useful sources of training for management are regular site visits and sharing information with peer agencies that also use AVL systems. Standard operation procedures are recommended to facilitate training and enable consistency.

Agency Deployments

Agency Contact Information Number of Vehicles Context / Success of Deployment
Beaver County Transit Authority (DART) 200 West Washington Street
Rochester, PA 15074
(724) 728-4200
32 fixed-route, 4 support demand-response operations Upgraded an AVL system to a GIS-based system including MDL, with an integrated GPS receiver and covert alarm switch, and APC technology.
Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) 1600 Blake St.
Denver, CO 80202
(303) 628-9000
1,335 buses Use of AVL, combined with an upgrade in the radio communications system and MDTs, improved on-time performance and increased ridership.
Triangle Transit Authority 4600 Emperor Boulevard #100
Durham, NC 27703
(919) 549-9999
52 buses, 46 paratransit vehicles Developed AVL system for their fixed-route bus and paratransit vehicles.
Valley Metro 101 N. 1st Avenue #1100
Phoenix, AZ 85003
(602) 262-7433
70 Equipped 70 vehicles with AVL, which contributed to real-time schedule adherence.
Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) PO Box 30002
Reno, NV 89520
147 RTC deployed AVL as part of a comprehensive strategy.
King County Metro King Street Center
201 S. Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98104
1,400 (fixed route); 290(paratransit) Fixed route: upgraded to smart cards and newer AVL/CAD system
Paratransit: Upgraded to MDT
Metropolitan Atalanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) 2424 Piedmont Rd.
Atlanta, GA 30324
(404) 848-5000
556 buses Use of AVL and CAD resulted in operating savings and provided detailed cost information.
Milwaukee County Transit Systems (MCTS) 1942 North 17th St.
Milwaukee, WI 53205
(414) 344-4550
484 buses Use of an integrated AVL system improved on-time performance and adherence to schedules.

Additional Resources


Jonathan Walker, P.E., Ph.D.
Chief Policy, Architecture, and Knowledge Transfer, ITS Joint Program Office
U.S. Department of Transportation
(202) 366-2199

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