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Fewer "ghost buses" haunt NextBus

Most of us only see ghosts when people dress in costume on Halloween, but bus riders deal with "ghost buses" on a regular basis. These are not spirits haunting your ride to work, but Metrobuses that mysteriously disappear, or never appear, on the NextBus real-time prediction system. The system now has fewer errors, but riders still encounter problems.


Photo by Stevesworldofphotos on Flickr.

Ben Ball, a representative on WMATA's Riders' Advisory Council (RAC), offered an example of the "ghost bus" problem:

Every day at around 4:40 or so, I check the Metro website to see when the next N2 or N4 bus will approach Ward Circle heading eastbound to Farragut Square. There's usually an N2 in around 8 minutes, and an N4 at around 10 minutes. This week, both are displaying 24 minutes, and there is no bus displayed on the arrivals map. But that doesn't mean that there's no bus.
In fact, when I went toward the Red Line on Monday based on the fact that the next N2 wasn't supposed to come for 24 minutes, an N2 streaked right past me as I was walking up Nebraska Avenue. And then there was another one at Tenleytowntwo ghost buses in a row.
When a bus disappears from the system, the most likely culprits are a lost GPS signal, a bus logging off the system, heavy traffic, a detour, or a bus breakdown, said WMATA chief spokesman Dan Stessel. A bus will disappear from the NextBus system if it stands still for more than 2 minutes or deviates too far from the assigned route.

A bus arriving without ever appearing on NextBus can happen when a driver doesn't log on, equipment fails, or the data feed breaks, Stessel added. This problem has receded to some degree. Before 2011, Stessel said, some 300 buses ran daily without active GPS signals and radios. This year, there are just 40-50 on an average weekday.

WMATA re-launched NextBus in 2009, after discontinuing service in fall 2007 due to accuracy problems. NextBus receives data from GPS locators on the buses and uses them to estimate when a bus will arrive at a given stop. Users can access bus predictions from the WMATA website or through a mobile app.

WMATA uses two metrics to measure NextBus' performance. "Predictability" is how well the system locates each bus and determines when it will reach a stop. This depends on factors Metro is responsible for, such as bus drivers logging on, working equipment and accurate schedules and stop locations. Predictability has improved over the past 2 years, Stessel said. WMATA gave itself a predictability score of 87% in April of this year, up from 85% in April 2011 and 77% in April 2010.

The second metric, "accuracy," depends largely on the NextBus software. A prediction counts as "accurate" if, when the system predicts a bus to arrive within 5 minutes, the bus actually arrives within 3 to 7 minutes. On this metric, NextBus scores above 90%.

What has WMATA done to make the predictions more realiable? Stessel explained that Metro set up an education program and uses performance center monitoring to ensure that bus drivers remember to log into the system and stay on throughout their shift.

Metro has also upgraded onboard radio and communications equipment, and has a project underway to replace existing systems with more modern technology. The newer systems will "poll" buses' GPS locations every 30 seconds or less; the older systems only "poll" every 120 seconds, meaning that buses can travel a fair distance before the NextBus system knows about it.

Still, Stessel said, there is no way to completely resolve prediction issues. "While the new technology will greatly increase reliability and data availability, factors like detours, traffic and weather" will always play a role.

In the meantime, Ball laments that there is no easy-to-use system for reporting bus outages to WMATA. Former RAC chair Dennis Jaffe noted in 2010 that the generic feedback form is complicated and hard to use. There is also no easy way to report NextBus errors from the WMATA bus prediction interface or the mobile apps.

What have your experiences been with NextBus?

Jeremy Barr is a graduate journalism student at the University of Maryland. He previously worked in non-profit communications and has interned in politics on several occasions. In the last year and a half, he has lived in Adams Morgan, Logan Circle and Mount Vernon Square. Email him at jeremy.m.barr@gmail.com. 

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Surely there needs to be a fix to the two minute idle problem? You could have bad luck with traffic lights and stand still for two minutes.

by drumz on Oct 23, 2012 10:36 am • linkreport

Ghost buses aside, NextBus has changed bus riding for me. Even with some errant displays, the app is extremely helpful in planning transportation. I would much rather choose to grab a cab or head to the Metro if the tracker shows a long wait only to see a bus pass me than be stuck waiting at the bus stop with absolutely no information about where the bus is and when it might arrive. The key is in making informed decision making and I only see it getting better.

by Emily C. on Oct 23, 2012 10:51 am • linkreport

not about ghost buses but

for some reason Nextbus always shows the 29G arriving at its annandale stops in the AM at the time of the posted schedule, even when its significantly delayed, but the Nextbus screen at the Pentagon appears to be accurate.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 23, 2012 10:51 am • linkreport

You failed to note that NextBus information is also available from an old fashion telephone. The interactive voice system, which sometimes performs poorly, is not provided by NextBus but by another third party provider under contract with WMATA.

by Steve Strauss on Oct 23, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

Wait! I thought a ghost bus was when NextBus says the bus is there but it never comes. That's a much bigger problem, IMHO, than a bus that comes even though NextBus doesn't show it.

by MDE on Oct 23, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

"You failed to note that NextBus information is also available from an old fashion telephone. The interactive voice system, which sometimes performs poorly, is not provided by NextBus but by another third party provider under contract with WMATA. "

Maybe thats the problem, thats how I use the service at a bus stop.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 23, 2012 10:57 am • linkreport

I ride the 4A/H most weekdays. The NextBus system has been getting significantly better on those routes in the two years I've been using it. When I first moved, I basically didn't bother with the buses because (1) I didn't know about NextBus and (2)the buses always seemed to show up 10 minutes before or after their scheduled arrival times, but never in between. Once I started using NextBus, things worked reasonably well except for the ghost bus issue. Now, it's getting better and better all the time.

My only complaint today is that the predicted times change rapidly, but I don't really see a way to make that better on a road so heavily trafficked as Arlington Blvd--if traffic is moving smoothly, great, but, especially during rush, traffic moves pretty haphazardly down that road.

by Shaun on Oct 23, 2012 10:57 am • linkreport

Wait! I thought a ghost bus was when NextBus says the bus is there but it never comes. That's a much bigger problem, IMHO, than a bus that comes even though NextBus doesn't show it.

Right. The false positive is a bigger problem for the user than the false negative.

by Alex B. on Oct 23, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

I think Nextbus is transformational technology. I use it nearly every day. It also turned my bus-phobic friend into a regular bus user. That said, I think Metro should strive for an even higher reliability factor. I ride the G2 the most. The bus comes as little as twice an hour on weekends and parts of the weekday. When a bus doesn't show up in the system it can appear that the next arrival isn't for another hour. I'm glad to hear that Metro is retraining drivers and upgrading equipment, but I hope that they understand just how important it is to get the right information to riders and potential riders.

by Matt on Oct 23, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

Even if the trend is improving, I've regularly had recent ghost bus errors between 8:30 & 9:00AM on the westbound J1/J2/J3 busses. While some real busses, just aren't listed in Nextbus, I've had the same problem as MDE mentions where a bus is listed as coming in as "4 minutes," "2 minutes," "arriving" and then it never appears. This mistake can't be explained by any of the issues listed above. It could only be a broken down bus, but that wouldn't happen 5 times, three blocks from my stop in the past couple of months. I'm concerned that some other bug has entered the system.

by Dan H on Oct 23, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

zombie bus?

I have to say, it really does seem certain buses are haunted. There is one 3y that never shows up (the 5:30?).

The most helpful part for me is the little map that says where the buses are; if there is a large jam-up the predictions go haywire but you can make up your own mind. I just wish they would provide that in text form rather than the map -- on smartphones you end up scrolling around too much.

by charlie on Oct 23, 2012 11:20 am • linkreport

I also ride the N2. I have almost stopped relying on NextBus to tell me when a bus is coming. Is simply useless many days. In the morning, I know when the bus is supposed to show up and so I just go out to catch it, no matter what NextBus says (often wrong). On the way home--my gawds, on the way home--it is so inaccurate I want to scream some days! More often than not, either the bus doesn't show at all or it shows up and isn't on NextBus. I've had busses sitting in front of me and NextBus saying they are 8 minutes away. Of course, this goes hand-in-hand with the spotty N2 service.

by rdhd on Oct 23, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

I never depend on NextBus anymore. Situation:
I arrive at a stop at 2:27PM. Schedule says the bus is supposed to be there at 2:30PM.
At 2:40PM, the bus hasn't arrived. I say to myself, "Was it early? Did I miss it?" I call NextBus.
NextBus says that the next bus will be there at 3:30PM.
I say to myself, "Damn, I did miss it." Not wanting to stand around for 40 minutes, I walk away from the stop.
I am passed by the bus - the 2:30PM bus was late.

by John Flack on Oct 23, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

Why doesn't WMATA show if the arrival time is for a real tracked bus or just a scheduled bus? I think NextBus told me that this option is available but that WMATA does not use it. This would help people judge how much they should trust a given time.

Also, why did RideOn choose not to use NextBus? Every time I go to MoCo, this lack of consistency makes it a challenge to effectively use RideOn buses. The app I've seen for RideOn is not that easy to use or accurate.

by Steve on Oct 23, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

@Steve:
Also, why did RideOn choose not to use NextBus? Every time I go to MoCo, this lack of consistency makes it a challenge to effectively use RideOn buses. The app I've seen for RideOn is not that easy to use or accurate.
I was just about to ask this. I found out this week that RideOn has GPS on all the buses, and its own system. Why wouldn't they choose to integrate it with the system that most other area agencies use?

by Gray on Oct 23, 2012 12:10 pm • linkreport

The stories here underscore that it's unacceptable for WMATA to pat themselves on the back for a purported "87%" accuracy rating when the consequences of an error are 20, 30, 40 minutes, even an hour. Even if we accept Metro's 87% number as correct and unvarnished, a rider using NextBus on a two-way commute will have a "FAIL" experience more than once a week from this problem alone. Given how many other ways Metro can let bus riders down -- and the problems buses can suffer that are in no way at all Metro's fault -- NextBus simply needs to be a very accurate and reliable part of riders' commutes, not a weekly point-of-failure.

by Nose Straw on Oct 23, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

@Nose Straw
Even if we accept Metro's 87% number as correct and unvarnished, a rider using NextBus on a two-way commute will have a "FAIL" experience more than once a week from this problem alone. Given how many other ways Metro can let bus riders down -- and the problems buses can suffer that are in no way at all Metro's fault -- NextBus simply needs to be a very accurate and reliable part of riders' commutes, not a weekly point-of-failure.

If you compare the NextBus experience to not having NextBus, then the experience on infrequent bus routes has been GREATLY increased. There is, of course, room for improvement. But at the same time, NextBus exists as a supplement to the bus schedule, it does not replace it. Buses are still expected to conform to the schedule, and on-time performance is still measured against the schedule.

Really what WMATA needs to make sure of is that there aren't buses showing up on NextBus that aren't coming - and as far as I have heard this doesn't happen as often as it used to. If NextBus shows no buses coming for a long time, you can always figure out how to make other arrangements. But if you are expecting a bus and wait for it and it doesn't show, that's a bigger problem because you've now wasted your time.

by MLD on Oct 23, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

And to add to this, I'd much rather see Metro spend money to improve NextBus before it spends money installing displays at the bus stops that will just give us this inaccurate NextBus information. Get the program working better first.

by rdhd on Oct 23, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

I find the moving maps to be better than the time prediction, because you can see if buses detour, if theyre stuck, if theyve bunched etc etc

by JJJ on Oct 23, 2012 1:10 pm • linkreport

I've had the non-arriving ghost bus issue a few times in the morning, but have always chalked it up to my stop being within a few stops of the beginning of the route (the 74, headed north from SW). I've always assumed the system plugs in an estimate based on break times at the turn around point, which doesn't always work if the driver takes more or less time for their break.

I do agree that the non-arriving bus is a much, much bigger deal than the bus that doesn't appear in the system. If a bus looks like it's going to come shortly I'll choose to take a bus; if it never shows, I may have wasted a lot of time if I didn't take another option because of the false NextBus info. Plus, many riders will waste even more time waiting at the stop, wondering if the GPS info was estimating a quicker arrival than happened because of traffic delays, which may then delay other transit options even further.

That said, having NextBus has been a *huge* improvement on not having any information at all. Even when it was in beta back in 2007 it was so much better than not having any idea when a bus might meander along, given that the schedules always seemed to be more suggestions than aspirations.

by Moose on Oct 23, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

I love NextBus - no way would I be riding the bus without it. I just moved from Boston, which also has NextBus, and it's even better there. If the drivers don't log in to the GPS system, then Nextbus can't know the bus is even running. That's a WMATA issue, not NextBus. And if the GPS equipment - from which NextBus pulls the location information - isn't working properly, then NextBus can't work - again, a WMATA issue. I hope the new hardware and better management gives us the same reliability I had in Boston!!!!

by Bob Jonsen on Oct 23, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

I could say lots and lots on this subject, but I can simply sum it all up by saying that I'd rather have a sometimes glitchy NextBus than no NextBus at all.

by Justin..... on Oct 23, 2012 5:06 pm • linkreport

I agree with Nose Straw that we need to improve the fundamentals, that Next bus can do better and should do better. People in three different languages have told me how next bus gets it wrong for them. This must stop. (Maybe digging deeper than Dan Stessel is a start. This piece reads like it was written by WMATA.) And I've personally had Next Bus not working for me lately, and I've had to shell out money for a cab. Not fun. Metro needs to investigate things daily to make sure all points are on and are all working.

I'm glad to see so many people riding the bus. It really is the way to improve and expand public transportation in this area.

(HATE the new verification.)

by Jazzy on Oct 23, 2012 6:04 pm • linkreport

@Bob Jonsen
I've taken the T in Boston and Nextbus was a god send for me when I went there last year. They have a different AVL system from Metro and that one seems to be better suited. Also, they have a different scheduling system which also might take into account. I know Metro is supposed to be replacing the Orbital AVL with Clever Devices to improve not only operations, but to provide better polling and reliability. LA Metro has the same setup as WMATA and their system seems to have greater reliability and up time than here.

I have noticed that some buses, especially late night, don't quite show up on Nextbus nor WMATA's API. Friday and Saturday late nights are especially a problem. A couple routes, the 7A and 16E have trips that go up to 3am but you don't get predictions after the 1230am trips even though there might be a bus that is logged in. There might be some issue with the accuracy and wholeness of the data being sent to Nextbus. There is this weird anomaly that occurs sometimes on the weekends when you'll get predictions on some weekday trips (mostly on Sundays). I've also seen where two buses show up on the same block assignment with the same prediction times. So, basically, the current AVL system is really making predictions very inaccurate and this is why I always have the schedule as a backup.

by Ken Conaway on Oct 23, 2012 8:08 pm • linkreport

What I would like is way to find info for all buses in a certain area over the phone take many of the stations or even where buses cross each other. You can have buses going in the same direction but with different routes.

Why are there electronic signs only at a few stops throughout the whole system. Why not put them at all stations or even just have a giant LCD screen (Stadium Size) in the bus bays of a station that stops every route and when it is supposed to arrive.

by kk on Oct 23, 2012 8:11 pm • linkreport

@Jazzy
Agree with most of what you said. I think a solution would be to have an easier way to report NextBus errors so that WMATA can analyze those to see what went wrong. I disagree about the lack of depth on this post.

(HATE the new verification.)

Then click the little box that says "save my name and email address..." and you won't have to verify every time.

@kk
Why are there electronic signs only at a few stops throughout the whole system.

There are plans to install many more signs at bus stops.

by MLD on Oct 24, 2012 8:59 am • linkreport

I love the term "zombie buses" for those that "rise from the dead", meaning they arrive even though NextBus doesn't have them listed. Let's keep "ghost buses" for buses that are listed on NextBus but never come, like they're invisibly sneaking past you while you're waiting at the stop.

by MDE on Oct 24, 2012 9:38 am • linkreport

This never gets mentioned, and I don't think WMATA even officially mention it, but Nextbus's own mobile site is fantastic.

Just go to www.nextbus.com on a mobile device*, and you get a list of buses that are arriving near your current location, sorted by distance and time.

*This link will force the mobile site to load in a desktop browser if nextbus.com sends you to NextBus's ugly corporate site.

It's far better than any of the other sites or apps that I've seen, and it lists buses from any agency that has a contract with NextBus (DC Circulator, THE Bus, Fairfax CUE, GMU, UMD), as well as many other metro areas. It does one thing, and does it very very well -- no clicking, no typing, just a list of nearby bus arrivals.

by andrew on Oct 24, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

I use NextBus daily for riding the CUE bus from Fairfax City to the Vienna Metro. It's very accurate.

However, it usually only works for the CUE bus. If I look up the 2B/2G MetroBus routes, I only ever receive a "Connection Problem" message. The findametro app is somewhat useful but you have to know the stop ID to use it.

I've used NextBus for the MetroBus 1C it works a little more reliably so it may just be the construction detours at Vienna Metro that are throwing off the 2B/2G.

by Cory on Oct 24, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

@Cory

The problem with the 2B/2G may be an issue with the app - not sure if you have an iPhone but the iPhone app often takes a long time to update route/stop changes etc.

Try out the nextbus site on your phone that andrew posted above you - may be of more use if you are close by.

by MLD on Oct 24, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

+1 to MDE's idea of ghost buses vs. zombie buses.

Ben Ball's usage of "ghost bus" is unusual. Every time I've heard "ghost bus" it's from someone who is waiting for a bus that NextBus says is coming...then it disappears.

A ghost bus is visible on NextBus, but vanishes before arrival.

A zombie bus isn't on Nextbus, isn't supposed to be alive, but it lurches past you anyway.

by Matt C. on Oct 25, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

How can we help get this issue resolved. On the 32/36 route, there are likely 2-3 buses missing that I imagine will show up but don't show on NextBus. I emailed WMATA, but this is very frustrating that they don't fix this all too common issue.

by Steve on Nov 13, 2012 3:32 pm • linkreport

I noticed on a Metro presentation from 2011 (and http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/post/metro-tries-to-fix-nextbus-and-proposes-changes-to-bus-routes/2011/09/07/gIQAhidDAK_blog.html) that not all of Metro's buses have NextBus. They had a goal of full installation by (or in) 2013. Does anyone have a status on this issue?

by Steve on Nov 13, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

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