Working Smarter: Mass transit gets rolling on real-time bus info

mass transit

Where’s the bus? Riders in New York City can scan QR codes along some routes to obtain estimated arrival times. Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

A growing number of mass transit systems nationwide are introducing apps and websites that enable riders to track bus locations in real time.

The technology, which relies on GPS and mapping software, could persuade more commuters to ditch their cars by removing one of the chief annoyances of traveling by bus — waiting at a stop without knowing when the next bus will arrive.

Such services are being rolled out in major cities, suburbs and college campuses, marking a major shift in how riders interact with mass transit.

Trip-planning tools, such as Google Maps, changed how riders accessed bus schedules. But those kinds of services are still rooted in the old-fashioned timetable, which remain the information source of choice for many riders.

But the usefulness of trip planners for bus trips can only go so far. Traffic jams make buses much more susceptible to delays than other forms of mass transit.

Where’s my bus?

Most bus-tracking services provide a map view, which displays bus icons on color-coded routes, as well as a table view that shows estimated arrival times of buses bound for a particular stop.

Such information is being provided through web browsers and smartphone apps. Texting a bus stop’s unique code to a five-digit number will also trigger an automated response with the latest arrival times.

The technology stands to solve a host of problems that frustrate commuters daily, including waiting outside in inclement weather and just missing a bus because they walked to the stop too slowly.

It also may help when riders have a choice of bus routes: should they wait for the express bus because it’s faster, or the local bus because it will arrive sooner?

Growing pains

Most tracking systems are in beta, however, which means dealing with the bugs and rough user experiences typically associated with budding technology.

Tech Page One tried the MyBus Now system used by NJ Transit and found that some buses were not being tracked last week. The nation’s third largest mass-transit provider expanded MyBus Now in June to cover more of the state.

Buses that leave the designated route can also cause confusion. A Chicago Transit Authority bus that takes a detour may disappear completely from the city’s Bus Tracker system, the agency warns.

It also doesn’t appear that any system has figured out a way to notify waiting riders about incoming buses that are full and not taking additional passengers.

But these systems seem poised for improvement.

Transit systems in Chicago, New York City and other parts of the country have opened up their applications to web developers in an attempt to spur innovation and a better user experience.

Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn is a journalist covering the tech beat and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. He lives in New Jersey, where he had worked as a staff writer for several leading daily newspapers and websites.
Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn
Tags: Business,BYOD,Downtime,Mobile Apps,Productivity,Technology