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Experimental real-time transit screens come to Arlington, DC

If you go into the Java Shack coffee shop near Court House in Arlington, or walk past the Red Palace bar on H Street in DC, you will see a new experimental project from the Mobility Lab: Digital screens showing real-time transit arrivals and Capital Bikeshare availability.

Real-time transit screen at Java Shack.

At Java Shack, customers waiting for coffee or sitting at a table can see the next Metrobus, ART, or Orange Line arrivals, and bike availability at the Capital Bikeshare station across the street. The Red Palace screen faces outward onto the sidewalk on H Street, letting passersby see their bus and CaBi options.

Stop by one of these businesses and let us know what you think! This project is still in an early stage, so the screen displays will evolve over time. Moreover, we're hoping to add screens in more businesses soon.

One of the main challenges in convincing people to switch to transit is the unpredictability of bus arrivals. If every stop featured a digital screen displaying the number of minutes until each bus arrived, more people would be willing to take the bus.

Outdoor screens, however, are expensive to install, which is why we created this indoor alternative at a fraction of the cost. For the past few months I have been working with Andy Chosak and David Alpert at the Mobility Lab in Arlington to bring this low-cost alternative to fruition.

Screenshot of the Java Shack screen.

Screenshot of the Red Palace screen.

Every 20 seconds, our web server queries each transit agency for the arrival predictions for the stops near both test sites, then relays the data to the screens. The actual unit inside the shops is just a low-cost, barebones Linux system connected to a standard computer monitor and the business's own Wi-Fi and power. We've configured the box to automatically load up the screen when it starts, so there's no need to log in or launch an app after the unit is plugged in.

We are continuing to build the system so it can be deployed quickly and cheaply throughout the region at participating shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants. Ultimately, a business will be able to sign up, type in their address, and get a screen automatically customized with the nearest bus stops, Metro station, and Capital Bikeshare station. And someone with their own computer connected to a standard computer monitor will be able to set up their own screen for free.

This project is only possible thanks to open data from our transit agencies. We can only pull bus and train predictions as well as the status of each CaBi station because the agencies behind these systems have wisely chosen to provide stop locations, route information, and real-time arrival predictions to outside software developers.

If you run a businesses are interested in finding out more about purchasing one of these screens for your location, let us know at

Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 


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Well done.

by Greg Billing on Jan 5, 2012 11:21 am • linkreport

This is rather neat. I assume that they will work best in highly trafficked areas.

What are the longterm goals for these sort of displays and how much public investment will be required?

by HogWash on Jan 5, 2012 11:33 am • linkreport

Forget business, I want one of these for my house!

by Chris Slatt on Jan 5, 2012 11:49 am • linkreport

This is great. Will the project be open-sourced so that those of us who love to tinker could integrate it into projects at home?

by John Dewar on Jan 5, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

Really Cool! Don't they have something like this at the commuter store in the Rosslyn Mall?

by James on Jan 5, 2012 11:53 am • linkreport

yes -- connected TV or screensaver would be interesting.

is this the same as in the Arlington executive building?

by charlie on Jan 5, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

This is GREAT, but what would be really useful is if this were integrated into a quick-loading app for my iPhone. I currently have 3 or 4 different apps I have to reference to find out when transit is coming and I have to go through 3 or 4 steps to get to the informaiton I'm looking for. I want something I can open up and BOOM, it looks up my GPS point and gives me EVERYTHING within each category nearby all at once in a dashboard (closest metro stop, closest 3 or 4 WMATA bus stops, etc.). This is a great model, but I need it on my phone. I just don't see there being enough penetration for these static screens to do me much good -- great if the coffee shop or bar I'm in happens to have one, but what's the likelihood of that?

by Elizabeth on Jan 5, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

Very nice. Do you forsee a possibility of incorporating these into bus shelters in future? I understand the cost problem, but if these prove viable presumably someone might prove more willing to make the investment.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Jan 5, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

Another throught: you should have consistent categories that are always there even if the stop is far away. Example: on H Street, I'm looking for the X2 schedule, but it's because I'm going to take the X2 to get on the Metro somewhere, so even though the metro stops (Union Station, Gallery Place) are far away, it would be useful to know when the trains are coming (especially off-peak) to know whether I should catch the X2 coming in 2 minutes or whether I'm going to have a 25 minute wait once I get to the metro station and should just take the next one.

by Elizabeth on Jan 5, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

This is pretty nice, but one criticism from someone who knows just enough about this technology to be dangerous:

I agree with the above commenters that it'd be awesome if this could be something that anyone could put on a screen or their phone or whatever, just by entering your location. But if Mobility Lab actually has to have its own server request the information for the two specific screens, its scalability is extremely limited.

Couldn't the computers with the screens just request the data themselves?

by Tim on Jan 5, 2012 12:16 pm • linkreport

I seem to recall there's something similar but not as elaborate at the Mayorga Coffee near the Takoma metro stop. Might just be Red Line trains on that screen, but still useful.

by jfruh on Jan 5, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

Elizabeth: Making this part of a smartphone app is definitely a next direction we'd love to go with this.

John Dewar: Yes, this code is open source. The latest code is not up on github right now but Eric is working on doing that. I will post an update as soon as we have it.

James, Charlie: There are a few screens including at the CommuterStore and the Arlington county building. Gabe Klein put one in the Reeves Center when he was running DDOT as well. Most of those are in the several thousand dollar range, which makes it impractical for most businesses to afford putting them in, which is why we did this project to build a much lower cost version.

Ser Amantio di Nicolao: We'd love to see these in bus stops, and WMATA has some funding to do some real-time info in some bus shelters. However, installing anything in bus shelters requires much more robust hardware to prevent being vandalized or damaged by heat and cold, running power to the bus stop, and using a mobile phone network or something for network access, which makes things more expensive. Other companies offer products for that kind of market; we are trying to develop something for a lower cost segment of the market.

Elizabeth again: Having info about Metro waits could be helpful, indeed. It's going to be a tradeoff between making the screen really easy to read and having the info be large, so people can see it from far away, versus having more info.

by David Alpert on Jan 5, 2012 12:20 pm • linkreport

It would be nice if Metro had something like that at their station platforms. Their old PID signs are out of date and sometimes don't work. Metro has been unable to buy any new technology signs since they don't have money.

by Davin Peterson on Jan 5, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

Building on Elizabeth...

What would be really cool is an app that let's me plug in a destination and then based on where I am at the moment, it would tell me the various transit options with connections of how to get there. For example, if I was on U ST and wanted to get to Falls Church, the app would tell me when there's a bus/circulator to the orange line, how long till the next train, when I can expect to arrive in Falls Church, and total trip time. The app would provide me say the next 3-5 potential trips so I could say, wait 20 mins to catch the bus/train combo with the shortest total trip time.

Basically, most of this is already provided by google maps already except for the forward looking options which is really the key to minimizing trip time when you're in a position to wait around for the ideal trip.

by Falls Church on Jan 5, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

@DA; thanks. You are being too polite as usual by saying your going after a different market. Several thousands for these screens seems like a waste.

In terms of bikeshare, what would be interesting is finding a way to locate the nearest station, and the top 5 stations used by that station (if that makes any sense). I dont' think the data feed has that information.

by charlie on Jan 5, 2012 12:40 pm • linkreport

I love this. I agree with all the sentiments expressed so far: smart phone app, server load, open-source. A few comments:

For those locations with only one nearby stop or only a few bus routes, it might be better to allow framing - show weather, menu, map, or twitter feed in the top frame, transit info in the bottom frame.

Also it would be nice to see bus stop numbers, for the off-chance someone needs those things.

by OctaviusIII on Jan 5, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

By the way, the Bay Area's MTC has something similar installed at BART and MUNI stations (unsure about other regional transit agencies). MUNI uses cheapo LED signs at bus stops for their real-time arrival info, although weatherproofing that would still be difficult.

For agencies without open data, a halfways step would be to count down the next scheduled departure. It's not the best, but as long as it's clear this is scheduled rather than real-time it could work out.

by OctaviusIII on Jan 5, 2012 1:00 pm • linkreport

Love it! Agree with the suggestions, especially with OctaviusIII's, final suggestion. The disruption will come quicker when we have very simple tools to use the exisiting schedules. Think of them as transition technologies. It isn't real-time, but once they start investing in (or seeing the value of) technology, all the rest will slowly , but more quickly, fall into place. Congrats Arlington!

by Sid Burgess on Jan 5, 2012 2:23 pm • linkreport

Smartphone app is def the way to go. Now, I gotta look at next bus/next train but would delight in being able to just click on an app and see the various options. I live near at least 6 different bus routes so it would make my travels much better.

@Davin, It would be nice if Metro had something like that at their station platforms.

I'm not sure how much different they are but Gplace "had" screens which showed the real time train arrivals but I don't recall seeing them in operation for quite some time. I thought it was a good thing but something happened.

by HogWash on Jan 5, 2012 2:40 pm • linkreport

Chicago has had this type of display, albeit minus bike share, for a about 2 years now. It was spurred by the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce which developed pilot projects with the city. It was made open source about a year ago I believe, since that is when it showed up at the coffee shop around the corner on a very old TV monitor displaying data via their internet connection. The open source version doesn't have ads, but the ones at L stations & Wicker Park Bucktown area stores do.

But way to go, this seems like a organizational upgrade from the CTA interface, & hopefully we can learn from it when we institute bike share this spring.

by Chicago Jake on Jan 5, 2012 2:46 pm • linkreport

I love the design and layout of your screens. If you could bring this to a super-robust Android app, I'd buy it immediately. I currently use the DC Metro Transit app all the time, but it doesn't seem like the developer updates it anymore, and the app certainly use some refinement. Its ability to bookmark specific bus stops and call up the latest arrival times instantly is a godsend. I wonder if Google has some of these features in the works though for Google Maps?

by A-lo on Jan 5, 2012 2:52 pm • linkreport

Seems like running this only on Linux is a limiting factor. I understand that the stand-alone boxes are cheaper, but if it ran on Windows (e.g.) I think adoption would be greater, and there are a lot of old machines that could easily be repurposed to run the program. Plus people could run them on household machines during parties. :-)

by John Mitchell on Jan 5, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

John Mitchell: being open sourced, chances are it could be built to run on any platform, Windows included.

by John Dewar on Jan 5, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

What are the costs to a business that wants to install one of these? Have you guys given any thought to reducing those costs by allowing some of the screen to contain advertising?

by Jimmy on Jan 5, 2012 4:14 pm • linkreport

One more idea for the app: an alarm system. Tap or click on a route or stop to open a menu. One of the options would be to ping an alert when the next vehicle to the stop or selected route comes in X minutes. To further the idea, you could set an alert for the next bus going to a given stop.

by OctaviusIII on Jan 5, 2012 5:12 pm • linkreport

The first image appears to show the screen installed in a corner, up near the ceiling, behind the counter.

Please remember that not everyone has 20/20 vision. That screen looks far away, and the font tiny.

And remember that someone with bad vision is more than likely relying on transit because they cant drive.

Please install these things at eye level, where someone can walk right up to it and get as close as they need. The current installation (from the picture provided) appears useless to many, many people.

by JJJJJ on Jan 5, 2012 6:28 pm • linkreport

I don't think scalability will be an issue if done right. The clients can all request from your own server, which can keep a cache of the data to reduce loads to WMATA. So if 10 clients request the 32 bus time, your server gets it once from WMATA, keeps it cached for 30 seconds, and delivers the cached copy to the clients.

by Justin on Jan 5, 2012 7:09 pm • linkreport

Righto, what's the github for this? I would love to put one together for my house and/or office.

by wmataplusside on Jan 5, 2012 7:32 pm • linkreport

The author is not being "too polite" when he says they're going after a different market than the multi-thousand-dollar displays already deployed elsewhere. A very large, vandal- and/or weather-resistant screen that's usable in a large public space or outdoors can easily cost an order of magnitude more than a smaller, consumer-grade display. Costs for larger, more robust displays continue to decline along with everything else, but they will probably remain fairly steep for the foreseeable future.

Someone pointed out that a limiting factor is the need to go through a centralized web server to obtain the real-time predictions. This is difficult to get around because different transit providers have very different API's for their real-time feeds, but it shouldn't be impossible.

by jimble on Jan 5, 2012 7:52 pm • linkreport

Justin writes: "So if 10 clients request the 32 bus time, your server gets it once from WMATA, keeps it cached for 30 seconds, and delivers the cached copy to the clients." Well, yes and no. Remember that the 32 buses have a lot of stops. It would be an enormous job for the centralized server to get and cache data for every stop on every line.

by jimble on Jan 5, 2012 7:58 pm • linkreport

An even better app would track the positions of all the folks who had the other schedule app up on their smartphones -- sort of a street-level radar screen -- so you could avoid being hit by the other idiots running for the train staring at their phones, instead of watching where they're going.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jan 5, 2012 8:33 pm • linkreport

Even better still would be an app that used the tech they use to operate prosthetics for those who have had spinal injuries and combined it with Google auto-drive car tech to operate all pedestrians. That way we'd be relieved of ever having to look up from our phones -- and wouldn't bump into other pedestrians or wander into traffic. We wouldn't have to worry about trying to read screens in a restaurant or integrating different info onto our phone screen, because the phone would take care of everything. Just tell it where we want to go and when, and it will get us there efficiently, by foot, bike, bus or train -- or , if nothing else is available, the phone will direct a cab to our location. A totally integrated seamless transportation network. My idea.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jan 5, 2012 8:51 pm • linkreport

Beautiful interface and very useful. One minor point: the CaBi location is located under the headline bar, whereas the location for Metrorail and Metrobus appear above it. I'd suggest being consistent with this (my preference is for placing the location above the bar) for ease of reference across modes. You could then spell out Capital Bikeshare below the bar where the arrival time is for other modes. Excellent project.

by D on Jan 5, 2012 8:53 pm • linkreport

Amazing! Great job!

by H Street Landlord on Jan 6, 2012 4:58 am • linkreport

I downloaded the git branch this morning and am having some issues... but the README file is total gibberish. Was this intentional?

by John Dewar on Jan 7, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

I also wish the github site had a little more documentation than a readme file that doesn't contain any info.

by MLD on Jan 9, 2012 8:31 am • linkreport

Make this an Android app with some GPS capability, and include MARC, VRE, and maybe Amtrak, and you've got a killer app.

Then can we get it to do connections? e.g. WMATA to MARC, MetroBus to MetroRail, etc.

by Jack Love on Jan 9, 2012 11:52 am • linkreport

The code is now up, with documentation, at:

As the README says, "The Transit Screen code is in its early stages, so future code changes to improve reliability and coding elegance are on the way. In the meantime, here are some instructions to help you get started."

by Matt Caywood on Jan 10, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

This is really great and I hope its use and availability spreads, so the suggestions/questions below should not be taken as criticism.

In general, it would be ideal if the listings mimicked the font and color of the relevant transit system. While this is mostly true, it’s unclear why WMATA buses are listed with a blue background. In contrast, the use of an orange background for the orange line trains is great -- intuitive and user friendly.

• The white route name next to the bus icon is small and hard to read.
• The meaning of the small numbers to the far right of each bus listing is unclear to me. Perhaps they could be better defined or they could be removed.

• The words “Capital Bikeshare” are hard to read because of the red script. It may be worthwhile to do something to improve the readability, without altering the color or font. Perhaps it would be as simple as increasing font size.
• The term “docks” can be confusing since the number of docks does not change based on whether or not they are filled. Therefore, it could be changed to say “empty docks” or “available docks.”
• The use of a pie chart is great -- particularly the fact that the red and gray each refer to the relevant column (that is, bikes or docks).

Again, this is intended as constructive criticism, not a nasty anonymous comment, because these screens are really great.

by b on Jan 10, 2012 4:43 pm • linkreport

I love it!

Could you add GPS functionality to a static location and/or smartphone app to tell the viewer how far of a walk it would be to a certain stop/station? Okay the x bus is coming in y minutes, but how long would it take to walk (or run) there?

by Clark on Oct 17, 2012 10:18 am • linkreport

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