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Transit


WMATA might offer open data for all regional transit

WMATA planners helped STLTransit create an animation of transit across the entire Washington region. That's possible because WMATA has a single data file with all regional agencies' schedules. They hope to make that file public; that would fuel even more tools that aid the entire region.


Click full screen and HD to see the most detail.

One of the obstacles for people who want to build trip planners, analyze what areas are accessible by transit, design visualizations, or create mobile apps is that our region has a great many transit agencies, each with their own separate data files.

Want to build a tool that integrates Metrobus, Fairfax Connector, and Ride On? You have to chase down a number of separate files from different agencies in a number of different places, and not all agencies offer open data at all.

The effect is that many tool builders, especially those outside the region, don't bother to include all of our regional systems. For example, the fun tool Mapnificent, which shows you everywhere you can reach in a set time from one point by transit, only includes WMATA, DC Circulator, and ART services. That means it just won't know about some places you can reach in Fairfax, Alexandria, Montgomery, or Prince George's.

Sites like this can show data for many cities all across the world without the site's author having to do a bunch of custom work in every city, because many transit agencies release their schedules in an open file format called the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). Software developer Matt Caywood has been maintaining a list of which local agencies offer GTFS files as well as open real-time data.

We've made some progress. Fairfax Connector, for example, recently started offering its own GTFS feed. But while DASH has one, you have to email them for it, and there's none for Prince George's The Bus.

The best way to foster more neat tools and apps would be to have a single GTFS file that includes all systems. As it turns out, there is such a beast. WMATA already has all of the schedules for all regional systems for its own trip planner. It even creates a single GTFS file now.

Michael Eichler wrote on PlanItMetro that they give this file to the regional Transportation Planning Board for its modeling, and offered it to STLTransit, who have been making animations showing all transit in a region across a single day.

This is one of many useful ways people could use the file. How about letting others get it? Eichler writes, "We are working to make this file publicly available."

Based on the STLTransit video, WMATA's file apparently includes 5 agencies that Caywood's list says have no public GTFS files: PG's TheBus, PRTC OmniLink and OmniRide, Fairfax CUE, Frederick TransIT, and Loudoun County Transit. It also covers Laurel Connect-a-Ride, Reston LINK, Howard Transit, the UM Shuttle, and Annapolis Transit, which aren't even on that list and which most software developers might not even think to look for even if they did have available files.

Last I heard, the obstacles to the file being public included WMATA getting permission from the regional transit agencies, and some trepidation by folks inside the agency about whether they should take on the extra work to do this or would get criticized if the file has any errors.

Let's hope they can make this file public as soon as possible. Since it already exists, it should be a no-brainer. If any regional agencies or folks at WMATA don't understand why this is good for transit, a look at this video should bring it into clear focus.

Transit


What's up with NextBus, part 2: A pile of APIs

Why do some apps for getting bus predictions work with some DC-area bus services, like WMATA and the Circulator, but not others, like ART and Ride On? Why couldn't the NextBus DC app just use the same data source that other apps do? Why is this all so complicated? The answer lies in APIsapplication programming interfacesand fragmentation.


USB cables are standard; real-time bus APIs need to be. Photo by osde8info on Flickr.

Previously, we talked about how the NextBus DC app went away because they were getting their data from NextBus Information Systems, which lost its relationship with NextBus Inc., the company powering the WMATA bus tracking web and phone tools known as NextBus.

The plethora of things called NextBus aside, my first question when the NextBus DC app went down was, why can't they just reconnect their app to a data source that isn't broken? If the bus locations still exist, and the bus predictions still exist, and there's nothing wrong with the app's code itself, we should look at why it's not easy for them to simply bypass the broken link in the chain.

To understand what's going on, we have to delve a little more into APIs. An API, or application programming interface, is a way for one computer program to contact another computer and get certain information directly, in a structured format, without a human having to be involved.

For example, Twitter has an API, and if you're writing a software program that accesses Twitter, you can have it talk directly to Twitter to post tweets, search tweets, and so on. I put code on the Greater Greater Washington system so that when a post goes live, it also automatically posts a tweet that the author or editor have written ahead of time, without a human having to go onto the website and click around.

Each API has a certain vocabulary. The asking computer users certain terms, and gets back data in a certain format. Other APIs have different words and different formats. If one API breaks but there's one using the same vocabulary and formats on another system, it's trivial to just have the app connect somewhere else. If the API is different, the software writer has to redo the code, maybe just a little, or maybe quite a lot.

NextBus DC app was not using the "official" API

WMATA contracts with NextBus Inc. to run the bus prediction section of wmata.com and a text message and phone service, but not for an API. For other systems that contract with NextBus, it also offers an API for developers as part of its package of services. However, that is not available for WMATA Metrobus predictions.

A few years ago, WMATA embarked on a pretty ambitious project to offer all kinds of data, including bus predictions but also rail predictions, rail station locations, bus stop locations, schedules, elevator outages and more. Because they have this service, said WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel, they have asked NextBus not to offer its own, different API.

However, that NextBus API is actually what the NextBus DC app was using, because of the legacy agreements between NextBus Inc., NextBus Information Systems, and AppTight. When those expired, that API went away. AppTight could have probably redone its app to use the WMATA API, but that would not have been an easy task.

Is WMATA right not to let NextBus use its own API? There are definitely some valid reasons for this. Stessel explained that if WMATA let app developers use the NextBus API and then WMATA decided to end its contract with NextBus, all of those apps would break. Plus, there is a lot of other information in the WMATA API, so people building apps on the WMATA API would find it very easy to also show next train arrivals, for instance, while anyone using the NextBus API couldn't.

We need standardization

API formats are particularly important because there are a lot of transit agencies, across different cities and even within our region. If they use incompatible APIs, then it's difficult for app writers to support all of them, and smaller bus systems get left out.

The bigger the potential audience who might pay a buck or two for an app, the more app developers will build transit apps. If they can build one app and have it help riders in DC, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc., that's a lot more incentive to build something than if it just works for one city. Small cities especially benefit here, because not as many people will want to build an app for the bus system in Charlottesville, but if the Chicago app works for Charlottesville too, great.

The same logic applies to bus systems here. Some apps work with the WMATA API but don't support any of the regional bus systems. The DC Metro Transit Info app has Metrobus and also supports Circulator, Fairfax CUE and PG The Bus, all of which work with NextBus and support the NextBus API. ART and Ride On have real-time APIs, but they're not the WMATA or NextBus APIs, and the author of DC Metro Transit Info hasn't done the extra work to integrate those as well.

What needs to happen is that all transit agencies and app developers need to coalesce around one API format. WMATA should modify its systems to offer apps the option of making their requests and getting data back in this standard format. So should NextBus. So should ART and its provider, Connexionz, and Ride On, and New York MTA, and Chicago CTA, and everyone else.

It's similar to power chargers for cell phones. Once, every phone had a different plug. You had to use a special charger just for that phone, and if you got a new phone, your old chargers were junk. Now, almost everyone except for Apple use micro-USB, and all the chargers for my 2½-year-old Android phone work on my brand new one as well.

Fortunately, WMATA is open to changing its API to a standard. Stessel said,

Over the course of the next six months, we will be reviewing our API effort in full, and determining ways to improve the service. Standardizing the format is a definite consideration. However, current applications must be taken into consideration... Short answer: Yes, it is something that is being considered.
If WMATA just switched its API, all existing applications would break, just like NextBus DC did. They could simply offer 2 APIs, but for how long? It creates extra work to have to maintain multiple APIs far down the road. They could switch APIs and offer both for a transition period, perhaps a year, but no matter what some apps won't make the switch.

There's a big obstacle to all agencies moving to a standard API, however: it's not yet clear what the standard should be. If the USB of real-time bus data is out there, there isn't the consensus around it. In upcoming parts, we'll talk more about the API standards that exist today.

Plus, having a standard API is great, but it's useless if the actual bus locations are not good, and many say WMATA's data is just not up to snuff. We'll talk about that and their efforts to fix the problems with bus tracking.

Transit


New staggered bus schedules help Greenbelt riders

Prince George's County has fixed its schedules so that TheBus and Metrobuses traveling to the same places in Greenbelt stagger their departure times, helping riders make the most of the service that's available.


Photo by Beechwood Photography on Flickr.

In December, I wrote about the scheduling of Greenbelt's revised bus service. Greenbelt is now served primarily by 3 bus routes: Metrobus G12, Metrobus G13/G14/G16, and TheBus 11. The lack of coordination when making schedules for these routes meant that all 3 buses would arrive at common points at the same time.

Riders found it frustrating to see 3 buses leave simultaneously and then be forced to wait 30 minutes for the next synchronous departure.

New Greenbelt bus frequency chart for midday weekdays. Click to enlarge. (Full day chart)

The hard work of Transit Riders United of Greenbelt and elected officials in Greenbelt has paid off. As of yesterday morning, the routes are now offset by several minutes. Riders should not have to wait more than 16-18 minutes for a bus during rush hour if they're headed for parts of the city where the routes overlap.

While the bus schedules are not staggered by the optimum 15 minutes, the offsetting is clearly an improvement.

It should be noted that the G12 and G13/G14/G16 are a line family. The buses on those routes meet at Greenbelt Center for a timed transfer, so the red and green dots on the above chart should always be right above one another.

The Prince George's route 11 overlaps mostly with the G12 or is within 2-3 blocks of the G12 at any given time. So, the best way to schedule this route is to offset the 11 from the G12 by about 15 minutes.

The new schedules don't offset route 11 by exactly 15 minutes, and some riders will face a 20 minute wait between some bus departures, but most riders will average about 15 minutes between departures. An exact staggering of times is not possible, since the G12 and G13/G14/G16 wait for 5 minutes at Greenbelt Center, whereas the 11 does not. This makes the offset timing difficult.

Prince George's County Transit should be commended for listening to the concerns of riders and making a positive change. Hopefully, the result will be shorter commutes for residents and better transit ridership in the county.

Bicycling


Weekend video: Buses and bike racks

Clarence Eckerson and the team over at Streetfilms have put together a great video about buses and bike racks.

The film even includes an interview with WMATA's own Nat Bottigheimer, Assistant General Manager for Planning and Joint Development.

The film mainly talks about how New York City is the only major city in the United States without bike racks on its buses.

And it notes that 100% of Washington's buses are equipped with bike racks. However, that's slightly misleading. It's true that 100% of WMATA's buses are equipped, and they represent the lion's share of buses in the region, but not all of our buses have the racks.

None of Prince George's County's TheBus buses have bike racks. In Alexandria, the city council made bike racks on buses a priority, but it's unclear if the racks have been installed. DASH's website doesn't make any mention of bikes.

Among the other local bus operators though, 100% of buses have bike racks. That includes every bus operated by Arlington Transit, DC Circulator, Fairfax Connector, Fairfax City CUE, PRTC (local buses only), and Montgomery's Ride On.

It's time that the rest of the region got on board with bike racks.

Transit


WMATA, TheBus fail to coordinate Greenbelt bus schedules

On Monday, WMATA and TheBus revised virtually every route serving the Greenbelt area. Some of the changes are positive. But instead of staggering departure times, multiple buses will leave almost at once and create unnecessarily long waits in between.


Photo by Beechwood Photography on Flickr.

Old Greenbelt and Greenbelt East are now primarily served by 3 bus routes. Metrobus operates 2 of the routes, the G12 and the G13/G14/G16. Prince George's County operates the third, TheBus route 11. Planners from WMATA and Prince George's County worked together to devise routings that complimented each other and attempted to serve as many residents as possible.

But planners did not work together to devise schedules, and the result is a schedule which utterly fails to capitalize on investment. Poor scheduling is nothing new to Greenbelt, but this scheduling is actually worse than the schedules that existed prior to December 20.

Greenbelt bus frequency chart for midday weekdays. Click to enlarge.

As you can see from the chart, the buses are clustered in the schedule. This is especially true at Greenbelt Center (Crescent Road and Gardenway), where for almost the entire day, all three buses are scheduled to depart within 2 minutes of each other.

The Metrobuses are supposed to operate that way. As a part of simplifying Greenbelt's bus service, Metro removed bus service from certain neighborhoods to other destinations. To solve this problem, Metro introduced a "timed transfer". Westbound buses on route G12 meet westbound buses on route G13/G14/G16 at Greenbelt Center, where they have a scheduled 5 minute layover. The same is true for eastbound buses.

But TheBus route 11 operates over a route very similar to Metrobus G12. Since it serves the same neighborhoods as one of the timed transfer routes, it does not itself need to meet at the transfer point.

During rush hours, all 3 routes operate at 30 minute headways, so the ideal scheduling would be for Route 11 to be offset from the G12 and G13/G14/G16 departure by 15 minutes. That would give much of Old Greenbelt and Greenbelt East 15-minute bus service.

Instead, the failure of WMATA and Prince George's County to coordinate means that Greenbelt will have 3 buses leaving at virtually the same time, with approximately 29 minutes between departures.

It appears that the failure to coordinate occurred because WMATA was not able to release finalized schedules until about a week before the new service began. Prince George's County, not knowing when Metro's buses would be running, scheduled their departures on the hour and on the half hour from Greenbelt Metro. They released their schedules to the public well before WMATA did.

As a result, when Metro finally released their schedules, it was too late for Prince George's County to do anything.

Because of this snafu, the buses are going to cannibalize each others' ridership, which is bad, since the old routes were already underperforming.

Prince George's route 11 is the fastest way to get from Greenbelt East, Greenbelt Center, and the North End to the Metro, but it might not reap the gains it otherwise would've, because many riders don't know as much about the TheBus system.

That's a marketing problem, which will be exacerbated since riders will be able to chose between TheBus and Metrobus, with the same departure time. If the buses were offset by 15 minutes, riders might be more likely to just get on whichever bus came first.

The simplest solution would be for Prince George's County to move their bus schedule for route 11 by 15 minutes in either direction. That would result in 15-minute headways parts of Greenbelt for rush hour, and would keep the half-hour headways in the off-peak that are currently scheduled wherever route 11 operates.

This failure to coordinate has resulted in substandard service for a densely populated part of Prince George's with relatively good transit ridership. But not all is lost. A few simple scheduling changes could result in vastly improved bus service in the area, at no cost to either transit agency. And better bus service might mean more revenue in the form of new riders.

Transit


Prince George's plans revised bus service in Greenbelt

The Prince George's County Department of Public Works and Transportation is planning changes to TheBus service on all 4 routes operating out of Greenbelt Station.

Prince George's wants to better allocate resources to run buses at higher frequency. But several Berwyn Heights officials are upset about the plan, because they think residents don't wantand won't ridea bus with more frequent service.

The County is holding a public hearing on the proposed changes tomorrow evening at 7pm at the Greenbelt Community Center. The Greenbelt Community Center is located at 15 Crescent Road in Old Greenbelt, which is accessible by Metrobus routes C2, R12, and T16 and by TheBus route 15.


Proposed TheBus service in Greenbelt. Map by author.

These changes are planned to improve ridership and to work with the revised Metrobus service plan adopted by the WMATA Board in late September.

Two of the lowest ridership lines in the County, the 11 and the 15, operate out of Greenbelt Station. Prince George's County wants to change these routes, because without an improvement in ridership, it is likely they will be cancelled altogether within the next few years.

The largest change will be taking the equipment and workers used to operate routes 11 and 15 and merging them into one route. This new route will be called route 11. It will run every 30 minutes. The route will no longer serve Beltway Plaza (as the old 11 did), but it will continue to serve the Federal Courthouse. It will serve Old Greenbelt and Greenbelt East, but it will no longer serve NASA Goddard.


Existing TheBus service in Greenbelt. Map by author.

Passengers needing to reach NASA Goddard will have to use Metrobus G14/16 or TheBus 15X. In the past, the County was considering adding some additional service on the 15X (which is currently rush-hour only), but I'm not sure if that is still in the cards.

Additionally, I believe the 15X should be rerouted so that it can stop in Old Greenbelt. Currently, there are no stops on route 15X between Greenbelt Station and NASA Goddard. A stop at the Greenway Shopping Center would be helpful as well, since it's the only stop in Greenbelt (aside from the Metro station) where all the other routes in the city stop.

In order to serve Berwyn Heights, which is losing its route 15 service, the County proposes rerouting route 16 through the town. This will mean better service for Berwyn Heights, which currently only sees one bus per hour in each direction. Route 16 runs every 30 minutes.

But not everyone is happy about this. In a recent Gazette article, the Mayor of Berwyn Heights, Cheye Calvo, objected to the change. Saying "Every [20] minutes, there's going to be a bus driving by people's houses... It is going to be a change in frequency that is a rather significant one ... When I see the bus right now, it's empty."

Author's note: Initially, this post failed to mention that the Mayor and Council voted 4-1 to take the official stance with the county that they will not oppose the plan. This is contingent on the County reviewing the change in several months to see whether ridership has increased. I apologize for the omission.

There are reasons that the 15 has low ridership. One reason is that it only comes once an hour, throughout the day. Another reason is that it takes a very circuitous route. In my case, it takes more than twice as long to get to Greenbelt Metro on route 15 than it does on Metrobus route R12.

TheBus 16 has much better ridership than route 15. So even if no new riders from Berwyn Heights start taking the bus, the Mayor will likely see more people on it.

One Councilman, James Wilkinson, says that he thinks the bus would be better on the periphery of the town. That would mean the least impact for current riders on route 16, but it would mean less mobility for Berwyn Heights residents. That means it's especially important for Berwyn residents who want better bus service to come to the hearing.

Better frequency and more logical routing are clear benefits to these changes. But bus service in Prince George's has a long way to go.

Currently, TheBus does not operate past 8 pm or at all on weekends. That needs to change if Prince George's is to become a more accessible, sustainable, and livable place.

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