Catch the NextBus V – Fairly Balanced

Near the end of my day of NextBus posting, here’s a quick overview of my and others impressions of the NextBus system.NextBus provides near realtime tracking of vehicles by analyzing their predicted movements, modeling traffic conditions, estimating location and then verifying position. In 2003, this combination of GPS, cell and computer technologies probably had a bit of a WOW factor.

A quick check of the NextBus tracking site demonstrates a reasonably responsive interface.

Boulder, Colorado, as noted in these December 12th, 2005 Transportation Advisory Board minutes, has had a few problems:

Cris Jones presented information showing an increase in numbers of people accessing the NexBus website. Still have telecommunications issues. 11 signs have problems with cell network and are not working. Should be fixed within the next couple of months. Information is pulled every two minutes through the orbital technology, so can only see busses every two minutes. Project is in the works to improve this. HOP and Buff Bus have much better prediction times than the rest of the RTD system.

  • Roettker: Is NextBus giving us some compensation for the lack of effectiveness in their system?
  • Jones: Yes.

So did Arlington, Virginia:

The NextBus technology service which allowed riders of the 38B Ballston-Farragut Square line to get real-time arrival information on their computers, cell phone, or web-enabled PDA has ended. The NextBus technology was installed on the 38B buses in September, 2001. However, the sevice turned out to be unreliable and the NextBus contract was not renewed. Service ended on March 1, 2004.

Zooming to February 19th, 2006, this San Franciscan gives a qualified “thumbs up”:

I find that NextBus works very well for my commute on the MUNI in San Francisco. I have a choice of taking a bus that stops two blocks from my house or a streetcar three blocks away. The streetcar is covered by NextBus but the bus is not. Both lines supposedly run every twenty minutes but in reality are rarely on time. As I leave my house, I check the streetcar on NextBus and if there is one coming in between 5 and 15 minutes I head down to the streetcar stop and catch it, otherwise I take my chances with the bus. It is very reassuring to know exactly when the streetcar will arrive. The accuracy of NextBus is uncanny. When NextBus says the streetcar will arrive in one minute, I can always see it down the tracks a block or two away.

The only bad thing about NextBus and MUNI is that only 10 of the agency’s 86 lines are covered. Cost is obviously a factor. Each vehicle needs a GPS receiver and radio transmitter and of course there is the expense of the software and web hosting. An approximate idea of the cost can be gleaned from this public document (pdf) which shows that it will cost AC-Transit, another San Francisco Bay Area agency about $1 million for equipment, implementation and seven years of operating expenses for a NextBus system covering 199 buses on 25 routes including 44 electronic signs along with mobile and web access.

December 25th, 2005, another San Franciscan not only notes the secret “backdoors” into NextBus’ tracking system:

Tipped off by the fine folks at the SFist, I’ve learned that there are “secret” links to MUNI routes not listed in the main Nextbus directory, meaning that for a good chunk of MUNI’s routes, you can see exactly where the buses are in real time. (This will probably mean nothing to you if (a) you do not live in San Francisco or (b) are not a hard-core public transportation zealot. You have been warned in advance that this post contains some frighteningly pedantic information.)

This is fantastic because, at long last, MUNI riders can now capture irrefutable evidence of those two hour minute driver breaks at the end of the line. (I can second Mattymatt’s observation that the standard MUNI driver response: “Another bus will be along in a minute,” is pretty much the norm.)

but observes that real-world discrimination has a way of leaking into cyberspace:

Some bus lines are wired; some are not. In fact, when we examine this list, it’s interesting that nearly every route which limns the rich and superficial pockets of the Marina is listed (including the rinky-dink 41!), while the crosstown routes that serve the people who don’t wear overpriced Hugo Boss suits on a regular basis (the 29, the 38 — at 54,000 daily passengers, the nation’s busiest bus line, and the 71) aren’t wired up yet. Nor are any of the Owl lines. The latter, in particular, would be helpful for those who need to catch the only damn buses running at 3 AM and stand waiting in the shivering cold with an empty wallet and a dead cell phone (thus precluding a taxi) for 90 minutes hoping to hell the bus in question will actually stop for them.

The Federal Transit Administration observes that adding “predictability” into the transit system does increase ridership:

While waiting may always be a part of the commuter experience – in a car or on a bus – commuters appear to be less affected by “hurry sickness” if they simply know how long they will be waiting.

Some of the most successful transit agencies have taken advantage of technology to deliver real time transit information to riders on their palm pilots or cell phones. Others have created web-based trip planners. A great example of this is on our ridership web page. In Ithaca, New York, the local transit agency (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit) added trip planning software to its website in March 2002. The trip planner lets customers select routes and schedules 24 hours a day, 7 days a week based on mode, need for a bike rack, wheel chair accessibility, and traffic conditions. Within one year, fixed route bus ridership increased almost 4 percent.

In Ventura County, California, the Ventura Intercity Service Transit Authority (VISTA) has seen real results from adopting new technology. In August 2002, they contracted with NEXTBus on behalf of VISTA and five other municipal transit operators in the county to provide bus tracking and arrival prediction services. Approximately 100 buses have been equipped with tracking equipment. Now, arrival times and related information is provided on electronic signs at 26 transit transfer points and via the internet. The result? Between 2003 and 2004, ridership increased over 15%.

Clearly, the strategic use of information technology can be an important tool for attracting new riders – especially among today’s hurried commuters.

I won’t argue against the FTA. It makes sense that eliminating uncertainty in the transit system will increase overall satisfaction leading to increased ridership.

But we don’t need NextBus’ system to remove that uncertainty.

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