Real-Time Bus Info: There’s Always Next Year

bus_display.jpgTime and temp? Check. Next bus? Still unknown.
Photo: City Room.

On Wednesday, the Daily News reported that Dov Hikind, State Assemblyman representing Borough Park, called the MTA "the worst agency" in the run-up to a fare hike hearing in Brooklyn. Shame on Dov for not shouldering any responsibility for adequately funding our transit system. But there wouldn’t be such a receptive audience for his blame-deflecting ways if we had fewer stories like this: The MTA is aborting its latest plan for a real-time bus tracking system, reports NY1.

It’s the second time the MTA has thrown in the towel on a tracking
system. Back in 1996, a similar project failed, in part because
satellite signals were lost in the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan —
just one of many issues, the MTA says, that makes it difficult to
predict arrival times.

"It’s not just the urban canyons, but the schedules, the tight
schedules, the headways, the traffic. The operating environment I think
is the most challenging of any city’s," said Sassan Davoodi, Co-Project
Manager, NYC Transit.

Real-time information would be a godsend for bus riders whose trips are all too unpredictable. London has it. Hamburg has it. Paris and Bogota have it. Why has it taken the MTA twelve years and counting to deliver this technology to New York? In prepared testimony to the City Council [PDF], the MTA’s Robert Walsh described the timeline. The original 1996 project, which failed to produce "a reliable and working system," was not terminated until 2001. Four years later, in August 2005, the MTA awarded the second contract, which has now been scrapped.

On to the next candidate, Walsh said: "At this juncture, we are aggressively investigating and evaluating options that we believe may have the potential to meet the needs of our bus system."

Will the third time be the charm? After this latest setback, maybe the way to go here is to ditch the satellite GPS approach in favor of peer-to-peer networked sensors. That, or let the open source hive mind have a go at the problem.

  • If everyone standing at a bus stop has a cell phone in their pocket, and can get a signal, why can’t the MTA make the same technology work for buses?

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Real-time bus arrival information is totally, utterly useless. It is a very poor substitute for reliable headways. All it can tell the rider is one of two things:

    1) Yes, this is a good service that will be here soon; or
    2) This service stinks, but you already know that

    I honestly cannot understand why anyone wants this.

  • Chicago has this. It’s actually quite helpful, Jeffrey. You’re not stuck waiting a bus in the rain or cold or extreme heat that isn’t coming for 30 (or 10) minutes and you know if the bus is even running (rather than vague services hours like “early evening” or “late evening”). From the operating side, I imagine it could help in the fight against bus bunching.

    http://ctabustracker.com/bustime/home.jsp

  • rlb

    This would be a godsend for buses like the B24. The B24 comes twice an hour, and can be anywhere from 5 minutes early to 15 minutes late. If I could check online to see when the bus is actually going to arrive before heading out into the cold for maybe twenty minutes, I would do so every time. Many other people would do so every time as well.

  • Bummer – how many U.S. cities have this?

    Chicago’s CTA Bus Tracker System has been an overwhelming success:

    http://www.ctabustracker.com/

    No digital times at bus stops yet, but it’s accessible via mobile devices. I really like the CTA Bus Tracker for iphone:

    http://cta.growinglogic.com/

  • Streetsman

    You RFP the results you want to get, and see what qualified responses come back. If the lowest-price option to outfit the fleet is a affordable and a qualified company, then you have them implement. Maybe the project goes south once, but TWICE? What is the f%#king problem? This technology is fast becoming old hat in cities around the world.

    You don’t have to GPS the whole fleet. The bus stop just needs to receive a radio signal from the next bus stop to know how many stops away an approaching bus: http://www.flickr.com/photos/reinvented/159559126/
    The driver just pushes a button each time he leaves a stop to update the bus’s position.

  • Rhywun

    The driver just pushes a button each time he leaves a stop to update the bus’s position.

    Oh yeah, that’ll happen. Right after they announce each stop :/

  • Ian Turner

    Mr. Baker,

    Bus information displays make the transit system more useful, because they can inform decisions regarding bus alternatives: If the next bus is not coming soon, then one may want to walk, take the train, or hail a cab instead. Likewise, if the next bus *is* coming soon, then riders might choose it, where today they would just skip the bus and take the train.

  • As I wrote on the DIYCity page, New York Waterways equipped its entire fleet with GPS back in 2003. If they are willing to release the data, we could set up a pilot program.

  • For Jeffrey’s benefit, here’s a scenario where this information would be useful: you get off the subway, and your destination is either a twenty-minute walk away or a five-minute bus ride. You don’t really mind walking, but you want to get there as quickly as possible.

    If you know there’s a bus ten minutes away, you can wait for it and get to your destination in fifteen minutes. If you know it’s more than fifteen minutes, you should walk and get the exercise.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The contractors failed, not the MTA.

    For those of you have haven’t followed this, the MTA has wanted one system citywide, so it has always required the system to work in Manhattan. The density of tall buildings there is unlike anywhere else, which is why two contractors have failed. (Hopefully the MTA will get most of its money back again).

    If anyone can engineer a system that works in Manhattan, go ahead. But I listen to the radio on a bike on the way home and it’s pretty hit and miss.

    Moreover, you can’t predict how long the next bus will take to arrive if everyone is free to block the bus lane, even if you know where it is.

    One solution, of course, is to implement a system that works everywhere but Manhattan, and tell Manhattan tough luck.

  • > If everyone standing at a bus stop has a cell phone in their pocket, and can get a signal, why can’t the MTA make the same technology work for buses?

    I am a network engineer with cellular experience and I endorse this question.

    I’d love to read a post-mortem of how the contractors failed.

  • “Real-time bus arrival information is totally, utterly useless. It is a very poor substitute for reliable headways.”

    I disagree. Here in SF, Muni has never been able to meet a schedule (in large part because it shares the road with cars, which leads to clumping). For decades we’ve just headed to the bus stop and waited for a bus to appear over the horizon, but now, thanks to NextBus, we can actually compare two nearby bua routes to see which is coming sooner:

    http://www.nextbus.com/googleMap/googleMap.jsp?a=sf-muni#

    the future is here!

  • I recall one of the sticking points of the MTA driverless-trains project on the Canarsie line, was the requirement the system cope w/ transponder failure by following the red/green visual cues with depth-perceiving cameras (to differentiate this green light from the red one eight hundred feet down.)

    You’ll never win if you keep trying to solve the wrong problem.

  • andy

    Why are they making the requirement to predict arrival time? Why not just tell us where the next bus is? That at least gives you a rough idea of when the bus might get there.

  • I was in London recently and the bus headway notification wasn’t particularly accurate. What about instead of a headway system you simply baseline bus arrival using RFID on 2 or 3 major bus stops and use that to backcalculate arrival times for the entire system?

  • “The density of tall buildings there is unlike anywhere else, which is why two contractors have failed. (Hopefully the MTA will get most of its money back again).”

    Um….no. I wrote about this in today’s headline comments but I won’t allow Streetsblog’s most proflific comenter to peddle such obvious falsehoods. Garbage trucks have GPS. Taxis have GPS. How long did it take to roll out GPS in Taxis?

    How could it take so long to fail so spectacularly?

  • Tons of spelling errors in that last post. It’s late.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Garbage trucks have GPS. Taxis have GPS. How long did it take to roll out GPS in Taxis? How could it take so long to fail so spectacularly?”

    How long have they had them? And when was the “design” phase of the MTA contracts?

    One possibility was the MTA moved to soon, and hired old-time “transportation” contractors who were used to bidding on their massive bid documents. And those old-time contractors tried unsuccessfully to invent the wheel that was being subsequently invented elsewhere.

    The argument here is that the MTA should not try to do anything innovative, and should rather wait and just buy stuff off the shelf that works elsewhere. And I can tell you that there are people on the inside with that point of view.

  • christine

    Sorry to be so blunt but this whole discussion is irrelevant.

    DOT had installed the 34th red painted lanes for faster bus transit.

    On the block between 8th and 9th Avenue, there are long distance legal bus stops. As a result the lane is legally obstructed 75% of the time on the north side and 60% on the south side, while passengers bound for Boston , Whashington and Philadelphia get in and out of the buses and load and unload their luggage. YES you read it right.

    Not to mention the NYPD TRAFFIC vehicles permanently blocking the lane for the rest of the time .

    Until MTA and DOT get the basics right, a protected clear lane, there is no way to predict how long the trip will be.

    A friend of mine says it best about the M11, “What are those displays going
    to tell us ? that the bus is at least 45 minutes late?”

    What we need is the bus to arrive within 3 to 5 minutes from the scheduled time. Not a system which give the MTA an excuse for not adressing delays.

    Now let eveyone put their head down and focus on one single problem. Protected clear bus lanes.

  • Christine, I agree that protected lanes are the most effective way of improving bus service, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the only thing. When buses have headways less than ten minutes, it doesn’t matter if one is more than ten minutes late by the schedule – what matters is how soon it’s going to get there.

    I would certainly appreciate if everyone focused on protected lanes – for example, extending the 34th Street lane east into Queens – but I don’t think it’s necessary.

    But to focus on the 34th Street bus lanes for a minute, how close are we to Phase 2 – where the bus lanes will be separated from the car lanes? Could we turn the Penn Station taxi stand – closed for “security reasons” since you-know-when – into an intercity bus stop, or just use 33rd Street instead of 34th? Who’s responsible for the NYPD lane-hogging, and how do we put pressure on them?

  • Greg

    We have this in Seattle and it is indeed useful. Nothing like being at some random stop and being able to see what’s coming – example:

    http://mybus.org/metrokc/avl.jsp?id=1132

    That NYC doesn’t have it is a pity.

  • Like a previous poster reported, the NextBus system is working well in San Francisco for the Muni system. NextBus is also installed at over 50 agencies in the US and Canada, with a recent contract awarded by the TTC to provide Toronto citizens with this technology. NextBus also has a project being developed in Washington, DC for the Metrobus fleet.

    NextBus doesn’t use RFID or ‘signpost’ AVL techniques as these are more expensive and less accurate than GPS. Every vehicle is equipped with a GPS receiver and wireless modem to send position updates up to every 5 seconds (buses can only move so much in 5 seconds!).

    NextBus is a huge benefit to transit agencies and their bottom lines. Customer service is dramatically improved and costly labor for call centers is reduced. The archived AVL data allows planners to create timetables that actually match real-world conditions. Couple with real-time passneger counting, transit riders know if the bus they are waiting for is full. Over time, this knowledge will actually help smooth demand spikes without the agency spending any more money on new vehicles. Passengers will learn to catch the earlier or late bus – a difference of 15-30 minutes either way can have a huge impact on overcrowding.

    Last but not least, several posters mentioned that knowing when the bus willa ctually arrives saves them from waiting in the weather or at poorly lit bus stops in the evening. Riders can get those last minute tasks done and simply walk out to the bus as it arrives. What a huge convenience!

    To learn more: http://www.nextbusnews.com or http://www.nextbus.com.

  • Berlin has accurate, real-time info for their buses, streetcars, trains and subways. Plus its a great biking city.

    Bus info sign:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycyclist/3247956492/

    Train info sign:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycyclist/3247981210/

  • Daniel Robinson

    If everyone is standing at the bus stop and with cell phone reception, then why don’t they take matters into their own hands. In my Brooklyn neighborhood there is a group called Roadify (www.roadify.com) that lets users like me give the buses location so that users down the line get that real-time location. I kind of like this better because unlike the monotony of GPS devices, I AM HELPING SOMEONE – it’s more of a personal experience with my neighborhood…

  • Anonymous

    Chicago has the CTA bus tracker and it actually works pretty good. Every bus stop has a specific number on the sign with “text “ctabus 1234 to 41411” with the “1234” being the stop’s own number. You text it, and seconds later, you get a text message back with the number of minutes – and it’s actually decently accurate!

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