Greater Greater Washington

Transit


Ride On piloting real-time bus tracking

Bus riders in Montgomery County can start trying to track their Ride On buses with a new real-time system the county is piloting. However, the system still lacks a public API that would allow developers to use the data in other applications.

A map application lets you enter a stop, pick a stop from a list of routes and their stops, or enter an address. The map then shows the entire route, a green circle at the stop's location, and the position of buses along with an estimate about when they will arrive.

One potentially tricky element for those picking routes is that you have to choose routes just by number; there's no explanatory name for each route, as there is with Metrobus, to help riders know if they have the right route.

According to Carolyn Biggins, chief of the Division of Transit Services for Montgomery County DOT, Montgomery County will also be placing some digital signs showing real-time arrival information. When the new "Paul S. Sarbanes Multimodal Center" opens in Silver Spring in the spring, it will have signs, and Montgomery hopes to add more "in the next few years."

One of the most valuable aspects of real-time data is the way most systems provide an API, a computer interface that lets other applications like smartphone apps or Web tools from outside the agency access the real-time bus predictions.

People have already developed many useful tools, and the Mobility Lab in Arlington is working now on some more, including more low-cost digital screens which can combine data from multiple bus providers. Doing this requires having APIs for each bus system.

Metrobus, Circulator, Arlington's ART, and Fairfax CUE buses already offer real-time arrival data, accessible to developers through APIs. This allows Web and mobile apps to aggregate data from all the systems and display it all in one place.

Biggins says, "Ride On also plans to offer the data in an open format for people to use in other applications as well." However, Kurt Raschke explains that the system Montgomery County chose, AVL SmartTraveller Plus, does not support an API for accessing the data at this time.

Raschke writes,

It seems that Montgomery County judged the options mainly on their ability to provide a Web frontend and an SMS interface to real-time passenger information. Regrettably, that's a somewhat backwards way of looking at things.

As far as I am aware, unlike NextBus, SmartTraveller Plus has no API for developers. From what I can tell, if Montgomery County wants an API for real-time data, they're going to have to build directly on top of the OrbCAD database, because it's not going to come from SmartTraveller Plus.

Instead of picking a vendor for their frontend, Raschke says Montgomery should have focused on setting up technology to expose the bus location data, then used a freely available Web and mobile interface like One Bus Away or hired one of the consulting companies that can customize it.

Meanwhile, Ride On riders can start getting their bus predictions, but will have to use separate webpages and apps to transfer between RideOn, Metrobus, and other systems.

The wait for real-time arrival predictions in Montgomery County is finally over. But those hoping to integrate Ride On into multimodal online tools and help more people use Ride On still have to wait for future phases of this long-awaited project.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Right On Ride On...

by Matt Glazewski on Nov 1, 2011 10:30 am • linkreport

Is there an iPhone (or Droid) app?

by Cavan on Nov 1, 2011 10:32 am • linkreport

@Cavan

I saw a sign on a bus a few weeks back that you can e-mail bus@ride-ontime.com and I've tried it a few times with mixed results.

by AM on Nov 1, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

The webpage doesn't work that well on Blackberry or any Android phones I have tried. While a step forward, MoCo really didn't set this up as something that can be very useful for most people, at least from what I have found in the last 1-2 weeks. It is even pretty difficult to use with a computer, because you need to select each route and stop separately... you can't just punch in a stop number like with NextBus and see what is coming up.

by Cassidy on Nov 1, 2011 11:26 am • linkreport

Sorry... I meant enter a stop number on a mobile device. On the computer it seems to work okay.

by Cassidy on Nov 1, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

@ Cassidy

You should be able to use the Find By Stop tab and just type in the 5-digit ID.

by Roger on Nov 1, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

Eh. For as far behind as Ride-On is with technology, I expected a better tool. It seems like we've waited a long time for a vastly inferior product. This seems like next bus, on the cheap. The zoom in and out are hell right now.

It's somewhat useless data unless it can be accessed from a mobile phone and a list of "preferred stops" can be downloaded and saved. Certainly, the current estimated location is the best feature of this interface, but it's chunky and slow.

Maybe the app with the same data, but without the map will be useful once it's rolled out.

by asd on Nov 1, 2011 12:13 pm • linkreport

What I'm wondering is whether the real-time arrival times are based on Ride On's schedules, or actual GPS data. It does not always seem to be accurate. What actually feels more accurate is the SMS and email notifications.

It really needs to just show the number of minutes left until a bus arrives like NextBus does. As of now the service is better than nothing but still has room for improvement.

by Roger on Nov 1, 2011 2:03 pm • linkreport

Not sure if I'm just noticing it, but nextbus has been awesomely helpful and friendly lately. Liking the service.

by Cephas on Nov 1, 2011 3:19 pm • linkreport

In sum: "Ride On real-time bus tracking is great, but it could be greater." Am I right?

Also, did you hear that the Captcha security tests you have to pass to post a comment here and everywhere on the Internet don't even work that well? http://www.fiercecio.com/techwatch/story/annoying-captcha-security-tests-not-even-effective/2011-11-01 Well, for now, "nsryin Flowers," it is.

by ZR on Nov 1, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

Ever since I saw an ad for this on the bus, I've been using this tracking tool multiple times daily. I use the site primarily via Android phone, which is simple. All you do is type in the Stop ID number, and then it gives you a list of the next 2-3 bus times for each bus that stops at that stop. I've found that it works pretty well, and is really easy to read. I have yet to have a problem with the interface on my phone.
@Roger: From what I've discovered, if the results come up with some minutes (eg. 5 minutes), then it is being tracked via GPS. If it comes up with a time (eg. 5:00 PM), then it is simply using the schedule.

The one thing that it's missing that I think it needs to borrow from Metro's NextBus is the ability to select your route and your stop from a list, as opposed to only being able to get information via the Stop ID. That would be very valuable for those instances when you need to know the bus times for a stop, but you're not standing at that stop. Most people aren't going to memorize the Stop ID numbers, so there needs to be a way to select a stop from a list. For the computer interface, the option to click on the map exists, which is fine, but no such option exists via mobile. I feel that one addition would make this tool that much more valuable.

by Justin..... on Nov 1, 2011 4:55 pm • linkreport

Our company, TransLoc, is wrapping up a regional real-time system here in NC that takes data from five transit agencies and three different hardware vendors and puts it all in one place.

While all the arrival estimates are not available yet for all the agencies (just Chapel Hill Transit and NC State), you can see a preview at http://live.gotriangle.org

Oh, and there's API documentation at http://api.transloc.com for all the developers out there...

by Josh on Nov 2, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

By the time this is all done a year from now, late 2012/early 2013, 3rd party vendors will have what to work with. Keep in mind that what you see now is a roll-out in beta testing. Cost was an issue -- not the capital cost of purchasing a system as much as the eventual operating costs of supporting a system(s).

There needs to be an understanding of what is an otherwise evolutionary process. Ride On had one of the first ORDCAD systems in the US, starting in 1997. The basic intent then was, and still is, to assist on-street supervisors in the management of service delivery. Public information was seen as a product of that effort. There were attempts at providing the public with real time information from the 1997 project --mostly signs in shelters -- but it was less than successful. What was not deemed desirable was an overlay, duplicative system, which is what NextBus is (WMATA has a separate ORBCAD system they maintain and support in addition to NextBus.) This duplication of effort gets quite expensive over time, a short time at that, especially when a 3rd party providing the information earns fees along the way. SmartTraveler was picked in 2009 because it came from the same original vendor and thus provided a relatively smooth transition from the original, by then amortized, 1997 system; the County didn't have to try to operate two parallel supervisor systems at the same time and then throw the baby -- by then a teenager -- out with the bathwater. Now that supervision is up and running, the public pieces, always viewed as necessary but to built from the supervisory step, can start to be rolled out. All the public pieces won't be SmartTraveler brand (next spring's IVR won't be) but by coming from the same core, only one set of operating costs are supported, not two.

Patience. You will be quite pleased with what you see at the end.

PS Times 30 minutes out or more are usually Schedule (as compared to GPS) because in all liklihood the trip hasn't departed from its terminal yet. Typical Ride On routes operate every 30 minutes and are only about 30 minutes long one-way.

by Interested Observer on Nov 3, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

@Interested Observer:

Typical Ride On routes operate way more than every 30 minutes. That's the minimum frequency from what I've experienced. A lot of them run every 10-15 minutes (i.e., the 46 on Rockville Pike).

Also there's no way they top out at 30 minutes one-way. I'd bet some of them take well over an hour to go one way, especially during rush hour. I've certainly spent 30 minutes on a Ride On before, without traveling the entire route.

by ZR on Nov 3, 2011 2:18 pm • linkreport

@ZR:

You're probably right for a typical Ride On passenger's experience, because the bulk of their ridership is on the heavier routes. But typical routes? As I recall, there are 75+ Rideo-On routes. Some are heavy/frequent and long, like the 46 (& 55). But others, like the 3, 6 and 7? I'll check timetables over the weekend, but if typical = median, I'll venture that more than 37 of their routes run no more frequently than every 30 in the rush -- and the typical one way trip is in the 25-35 minute range, terminal to terminal.

by Interested Observer on Nov 3, 2011 3:20 pm • linkreport

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