Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Real-time Bus


Transit agencies may get reprieve from patent troll

Any transit agencies around the nation who haven't yet gotten sued by patent troll ArrivalStar might be in luck. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has found prior art which may prove the patent invalid, and has asked the US Patent and Trademark Office to reexamine the patent.

TriMet real-time arrival sign. Photo by sfcityscape on Flickr.

The owner of the patent controls two offshore firms, ArrivalStar and Melvino Technologies, whose sole business is to file lawsuits against transit agencies, airlines, department stores, and anyone else who makes or uses a product that tracks vehicles in real time. Meanwhile, they don't actually make any products that track vehicles.

ArrivalStar and Melvino have sued multiple Northern Virginia governments and transit agencies, the Maryland Transit Administration, the MBTA, the Port Authority of NY and NJ, Chicago's Metra, Portland's TriMet, Seattle's King County, Albuquerque, Cleveland, DFW Airport, Macy's, Ford, Gymboree, United Airlines, and many more for a total of over 100 lawsuits.

Agencies have settled for tens of thousands of dollars of public money to avoid spending even more to fight the lawsuit and try to invalidate the patent.

It's unclear whether anyone can, or should be able to, patent such a broad concept as tracking vehicles with computers. It's not some kind of a unique idea that only came from years of painstaking research, which nobody else thought of or would have. However, that's not exactly the standard for patents under current law, and the patent office often ends up granting unreasonably broad patents.

You can't patent something if someone already invented it and published about it, and that's what EFF alleges. They found a US Department of Transportation technical report from 1992 that describes just the kind of vehicle tracking in the patent. News articles talk about the Nextbus company's product, which also does this, from 1996. Yet the patent office granted Patent #7,030,781 in 1999 2006, but with a "priority date," the date before which prior art is relevant, of 1999 or 1993.

Some patents play a valuable role in ensuring inventors get some compensation for their inventions, and rightly so. They are especially important in fields that require expensive R&D, such as pharmaceuticals. However, for software and business methods in particular, a great number of patents go to whoever first files for a fairly broad idea, like streaming audio on the Internet, multi-player games, looking up bar codes in a database, purchasing things from inside apps, or having users send messages to other users of a website.

Coupled with a 17-year patent term that is far longer than the lifecycle of products in technology, these kinds of patents have done a lot of damage to innovation, by making it very expensive for anyone to develop a new product from scratch. They cost transit agencies money and can prevent transit riders from having the best information.

EFF has been pushing to reform a broken patent system. You can lend your voice at Defend Innovation and become an EFF member (I have been one for many years now). It'll help transit riders and many, many more people who benefit from innovative technology.


More people will ride buses only if information gets better

A lot of people don't ride the bus today, especially for trips outside their usual commute. They find it too confusing and too scary to stand at a random street corner, unsure when a bus going to show up, if ever.

Photo by channaher on Flickr.

Rather than blaming these people for being impatient or not planning better, we need see this as reasons to push for better information, and to support efforts to make better apps that spread that information.

Yesterday, I wrote that I don't find the buses connecting northeastern Old Town to the Braddock Road Metro, a place my wife and I had to go recently, to be a very viable alternative to driving. Biking, on the other hand, will provide a much more reliable option.

Several readers took exception to this. A number implied that since there is a printed schedule and a bus that comes every 30 minutes, everyone should be able to handle taking the bus.

Craig wrote, "I have to agree with several other writers who were a bit insulted by your suggestion that transit to Old Town is not already a real option. On top of everything else, the DASH buses provide full timetables in booklet form at both Metro stations and on the buses."

Catherine said, "You are framing it as a deficiency in the place and its system rather than your own problempoor planning, poor map reading, low patience, whatever." That's unfair.

We can't blame the rider when information is inadequate

I want to see more people ride buses. Buses are the easiest way to add transit service. We spend a lot of money on buses, and the more people ride them, the better the investment. The more people ride, the more frequency there will be, which makes them better for everyone.

But a lot of people do not ride buses. I've encouraged friends and family to try, and often heard back that the person simply gave up because they waited for what seemed like a long time and weren't sure the bus was ever going to come, or they got on a bus and then it turned out to be going the wrong direction, or the bus was rerouted and they didn't know, or NextBus reported a bus coming and then no bus arrived.

Whenever someone tried the bus and then gave up, it's a problem. A system that should serve more people lost a potential customer. We can't meet everyone's needs, but the first step is admitting that current bus service has some failings.

For people who ride the same bus a lot, it becomes easier. It's fairly unlikely the bus isn't on the same route as yesterday. You get used to when it comes. You are sure you know where it will go. But everyone is riding a line without this confidence the first time. Also, a lot of people ride buses in places other than their everyday commutes. We should want bus service to meet those folks' needs as well as regular commuters.

We can blame the person who gave up on the bus, but that achieves nothing. We're not going to guilt people into riding transit. They will only ride transit if it provides a viable alternative for them.

One thing every operator can do relatively cheaply and easily is provide better information. If you know for sure you're standing in the right place and know how long until the next bus, we eliminate this fear factor that deters so many people.

Catherine continued,

When I first moved here, the buses were a total mystery. I once I wound up shivering in a snowdrift in Parkfairfax trying to figure out how to call a cab to get me home (no internet on my phone back then!). To be fair, though, I've also been brought to tears trying to get to Sibley Hospital from downtown via transit (something I have to do every other month), but now that I've done it a few times, it's second nature to me, just like my local bus system is.

When you drive, do you look up directions beforehand or do you solely rely on GPS? I stopped being a regular driver before GPS was a "thing", and had to Mapquest directions before just about every trip (new to the area). Now, it would be much easier had I had a GPS back then but I don't think I'd have learned my way around as well as I did. Perhaps this new way of travel (having GPS guide you around) is changing people's mentality? People don't plan trips to unfamiliar places beforehand anymore?

It's fantastic that Catherine didn't give up on buses after being stuck in a snowdrift. Few people I know are that dedicated.

As for the analogy to GPS, a lot of people used paper maps. With paper maps, you could count on the roads being where the map said they are in almost all cases. If there is some kind of detour, there is almost always a sign and/or a construction worker directing you. You could outline a route and take it, confident that it wouldn't have changed on you.

Unfortunately, with bus service, that's not the case. The bus might get rerouted and you might not know. A bus that comes every 30 minutes might have had one driver sick and missed a trip, and you could be waiting an hour. I know a lot of people who would be quite nervous about driving somewhere less familiar if roads randomly closed without providing information.

Plus, for many of the riders we want to attract to buses, they are choosing between the bus and driving, or between the bus and a taxi. Those provide a confidence that isn't present with a bus like an every-30-minute DASH trip, even when you have a map and a timetable. As I wrote, if you get to the stop at exactly the time the bus is supposed to arrive, and it's not there, and then 10 minutes go by and it's still not, what is the chance it's late and will be by momentarily, and what's the chance it was 2 minutes early and you have 20 minutes or more to go?

What needs to happen?

Many people who find buses intimidating do ride the Circulator. What does it have? A simple route network that's fairly easy to remember in your head. Signs on a lot of bus stops that show the simple network. Buses that almost always come every 10-15 minutes all day.

This is the same logic behind the "frequent route network" Jarrett Walker and others rightly push. Not every bus can run every 10-15 minutes, but some do. They deserve promotion on their own, separate from other buses, including on maps that show them in a simple-to-understand way.

Branching provides more one-seat rides, but also adds confusion. The time I've seen the most confusion among Circulator riders is from people getting on a bus headed eastbound in Georgetown and finding that it was the Dupont bus when they wanted K Street, or vice versa.

And information can be better. There's little reason today for every bus system not to provide schedules, routes, and real-time information in a public format. Then, anyone with a smartphone can use a trip planning app which tells you exactly what corner to stand on and how long to wait.

Alexandria's bus service is better than most, and that's a problem

Yesterday, I specifically criticized DASH. The biggest reason is that they are one of the few bus systems with no real-time information.

Technological backwardness aside, Alexandria actually has better bus service than a lot of places in the region. You can take transit from DC to Seven Corners, but I wouldn't consider it if I can drive. It's about as hard as can be, without being impossible, to get to Upper Marlboro by bus, yet car-free Prince Georgeans have to do that every time they have jury duty.

It's not just the suburbs. DC has plenty of buses every 30 minutes, problems with "ghost buses" on NextBus, and more than its share of rerouted lines. But we can't look at this situation and say, oh well, that's how it has to be, so anyone who finds it inadequate is just a poor planner.

If someone doesn't take the bus even though there's a decent route going where they are going, they might or might not have made a mistake, but we can also blame ourselves, collectively, for not making sure they got better information.


Patent troll sues transit agencies who provide real-time info

Martin Kelly Jones doesn't make or sell a thing, but has made a living by suing transit agencies who use real-time tracking technologies that he says he owns. It's a practice known as "patent trolling."

Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

Jones filed his first transit-related patent in 1993, securing rights to the idea of letting parents know when school buses were running late. More than 30 additional patents of similar ideas followed.

Jones doesn't actually develop or sell any technology relating to real-time vehicle tracking, but that hasn't stopped him (and his two offshore firms, ArrivalStar and Melvino Technologies) from punishing anyone who does. To date, he's filed more than 100 lawsuits against anyone who uses such technologyeveryone from Ford to Abercrombie & Fitch to American Airlines to FedEx. He's now one of the top 25 filers of patent infringement suits, according to

Lately, Jones has focused his litigious impulse on transit agencies around the country.

According to a brief by the Georgetown Climate Center, "ArrivalStar has brought suit against at least ten transit entities, and at least eight more have received demand letters." GCC, which convenes the Transportation Climate Initiative, worries that the suits can create a chilling effect, discouraging agencies from employing vehicle tracking technologies. Real-time bus arrival information has been shown to increase ridership, taking cars off the road and reducing vehicle emissions.

Jones' strategy is not to sue transit agencies for all they're worth, but to offer them a relatively low-cost way to keep these cases out of court. In fact, not one of his lawsuits has gone all the way through trial. They always end up settling, usually for $50,000 to $75,000, though the demands can go as high as $200,000.

"That's $75,000 of taxpayer money that's going into ArrivalStar's pockets without the validity of the patent ever being challenged," said attorney Babak Siavoshy, who represents the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If they make the settlement amount low enough, where the costs and benefits favor settling, then most municipalities are going to settle, and it costs them a lot of money, because the cost of litigation is a big stick."

Siavoshy and EFF want the US Patent and Trademark Office to review Jones' patents. EFF is looking for what's known as "prior art": examples of real-time vehicle tracking being discussed before Jones took out the patent, to show that he wasn't the first one with the idea. Advocates also think they can prove that the systems Jones patented were too "obvious" or "non-novel"that they were logical extensions of existing technology. Abstract ideas, with no technology or product attached, are not patentable.

ArrivalStar attorney Anthony Dowell contends that the patents are defensible and that Jones has the right to seek money from the agencies. "Just because an entity is funded with taxpayer dollars doesn't give them the right to steal property," said Dowell in a recent interview with ArsTechnica. "My client now owns 34 patents that are being infringed, and what else is he to do?"

The transit agencies I called couldn't comment, since the case was pending. But the general counsel of the Monterey-Salinas Transit Corporation, David Laredo, said that they're not challenging the validity of the patents. Their strategy is to assert that the vendor who sold the technology to the transit agency (Trapeze, a spinoff of Siemens) does hold a license from ArrivalStar, and if they don't, that's the vendor's problem, not theirs.

To date, ArrivalStar has reached settlements with the city of Fairfax, Virginia; Boston's MBTA; New York City's MTA; Chicago's Metra; and the Maryland Transit Authority. Suits are pending against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's PATH; King County, Washington; the Monterey-Salinas Transit Corporation; the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority; and Portland's TriMet.

In the past, transit agencies may not have talked to each other about these lawsuits because Jones reportedly insists on a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement. He only brings a few suits at a time, using a divide-and-conquer strategy, taking care not to demand so much from these public entities that they would pursue litigation.

The recent focus of Jones' lawsuits on transit agencies has inspired Georgetown Climate Center and the American Public Transit Association to get these entities to communicate more and to develop a more cohesive strategy. So far, though, Jones' strategy has been working.

But since Jones brought a suit against the U.S. Postal Service last November, the federal government is now affected. His suit charges the post office with violating his patents with its package tracking services.

Since USPS is a federal agency, the Department of Justice is now involved, defending the post office against ArrivalStar's claims by saying the patents are invalid and that no infringement occurred. Advocates and attorneys are trying to persuade the feds to broaden their interest in ArrivalStar from just USPS to all the transit agencies that have been affected.

After all, the transit agencies, by and large, bought the GPS tracking devices with federal dollars, in pursuit of federal transportation goals. Publicly available real-time transit informationon smartphone apps, transit agency websites, or on screens in bus stops and train stationsmakes transit a more attractive option, with the potential to reduce congestion and pollution. SAFETEA-LU, the transportation authorization the country is still (amazingly) working under, specifically requires states to identify ways to deliver real-time transit information to the public.

Georgetown Climate Center Director Vicki Arroyo told Streetsblog that she's had some "early but hopeful discussions" with senior USDOT officials.

"Earlier, some of the more junior people within the federal government were not keen to take this on, saying they didn't have a dog in the fight. Now they do," she said, referring to the suit against the postal service. "We're hoping they won't just look at this as a one-off matter. There's a much higher public stake here."

A version of this article was originally posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Editor's note: The MBTA's response brief to ArrivalStar rebuts the company's actions with powerful rhetoric that's unusual for a legal filing:

This lawsuit offends any notion of justice. The mission of Defendant Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority ("MBTA") is to transport its 1.1 million riders safely and on time every day. As a service to the riding public, the MBTA alterts riders via its website, text message or email whether one of its vehicles is running late or has otherwise encountered some difficulty or delay. Though the MBTA is a cash-strapped public entity, its notification service is free of charge to anyone who wishes to subscribe. The MBTA makes no money from this service. The service provides a benefit to the riding public, by whom it has been well received.

Plaintiffs ArrivalStar S.A. and Melvino Technologies Limited (collectively, "Plaintiffs" or "Arrivalstar"), two offshore companies, allege, in a conclusory and unspecified manner, that the technology underpinning the MBTA's alert system infringes on two patents that they claim to own. Plaintiffs do not allege they produce or manufacture anything. They do not allege they sell anything. The primary, if not sole, purpose of Arrivalstar is to exact tribute from any person that Arrivalstar asserts is using inventions claimed in patents that they purport to own, either in the form of royalties or a strike suit such as this one. The Court may take notice of the fifteen suits Plaintiffs, or a related entity, have brought in federal district courts involving the same two patents at issue in this dispute. ...

In any event, the practice of monetizing patents through serial litigation by "non-practicing entities" or "NPEs," as they are euphemistically known, is unseemly and inimical to the fundamental purpose of United States patent laws of encouraging innovation and its introduction into the economy. The business model of Plaintiffs is no less obvious than the patents themselves, and shakedowns such as this one should be outlawed.


Frequency and real-time info help transit riders most

How can transit agencies and app developers best help people use transit, at a lower cost than adding new transit service? Two new studies suggest that real-time information, for simple trips, and service frequencies, for complex trips, can best help riders.

Photo by DCMatt on Flickr.

A study of Seattle's OneBusAway mobile app, just released at the Transportation Research Board meeting, shows that real-time information decreases wait time by almost 20%, and decreases the amount of time riders think they are waiting by about 30%.

However, for trips involving one or more transfers, real-time information is less useful because riders don't know exactly when they will get to the transfer point. For these trips, another study found that both novice and experienced riders benefit most from having data on the frequency of service for each line they can take.

In the DC region, travelers often can choose among many transit routes and modes. To help travelers, maps and apps display a variety of information, like the routes in a geographically accurate or diagram form, vehicle arrival times or positions, and more.

It would be extremely useful to transit users, transit agencies, and app designers to understand exactly what displayed information is really helping travelers make better choices. Fortunately, Hartwig Hochmair, now a professor at the University of Florida, designed a clever web experiment (PDF) that helps answer this very question.

For simplicity, let's assume that travelers want to find the fastest route. Not all do; some prefer a trip where they can get a seat, or prefer the smooth ride of rails over a bus. But many do want to minimize overall travel time.

However, it's not always simple to figure out the fastest route. Maps can't contain all the information to decide this perfectly, and the rider usually has limited time to make a choice. So travelers quickly pick a subset of information, one of several "proxy variables," and use it to choose a route, such as:

  • Shortest total distance
  • Fewest number of stops traveled
  • Most linear route, heading straight toward the destination
  • Fewest transfers, for less total waiting time
  • Most transfer options at each station, allowing a switch to the first train in the direction of the destination
Do people choose different proxy criteria depending on how a map displays the information? Hochmair asked experiment participants to plan trips on the metro system in Vienna, Austria. That system has many interconnected lines, giving riders many choices among complex routes.

The geographic map of the Vienna U- and S-Bahn used in the experiment.

Hochmair's participants saw 5 different displays:

  • A geographically accurate map
  • A diagrammatic map based on the official map
  • A map showing the real-time positions of vehicles
  • A map with service frequencies, showing the time between arrivals per line
  • A map showing the next departure time for all lines from the starting point
He tested 35 people with varying levels of Vienna metro experience by giving them 40 route-finding problems apiece. Based on the routes chosen, he was able to use a statistical model to conclude that while people used distance information in every map, the different maps also caused people to use different proxy criteria for planning their route:
  • The geographically accurate map led people to pay attention to the number of stops traveled.
  • The diagrammatic map, and the map showing next departures, led people to pay more attention to the total number of transfers.
  • The map showing service frequencies caused people to pay more attention to the number of transfer options at each stop.
Which of these maps is the best to help people minimize travel time? For the complex trips in Hochmair's study, inexperienced users benefited most from having service frequencies. Meanwhile, for experienced users, service frequencies also turned out to be best, with vehicle positions second.

The study still concludes that a map with real-time information is better than a plain map. But the usefulness of real-time information decreases as the number of transfers increases, because a traveler doesn't know exactly when they will arrive at each transfer point. For trips with more transfers, most travelers would be better off following a route where service is most frequent.

Most transit maps do not contain this information. Bus maps like WMATA's standard map (PDF), for instance, show every line the same size and weight whether it runs once an hour or every 3-5 minutes. WMATA's planning department did put together a map of routes with buses more frequent than 4 times per hour, and the agency should actively promote this clear and helpful tool.

Central DC section of 15-minute Metrobus map. Click for full map. Image from WMATA.

A final lesson of this study is that, between different traveler preferences and the different ways travelers use information, agencies and app designers must keep the needs of different users in mind. But all can take fairly low-cost steps to help riders by making service frequency information more prominent.


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


Transportation contracts should always require open data

Governments often hire private contractors to operate transportation services or build technology tools. When those projects provide open data as part of the program, customers can benefit at little or no cost. When open data is left out, governments are throwing money out the window.

Governments benefit from apps like Transit Near Me.

Capital Bikeshare, Zipcar, and many of the region's local bus systems and vanpools are all operated by private companies with varying contractual relationships with local governments. It's an efficient and flexible way to provide transportation services.

Generally, when a private company is hired to provide some kind of transportation service, the contract includes building a website and maybe a mobile app. That's fine, but those contracts should also require the vendor to create open data feeds, which let other people build applications that give users information about the transit service.

Capital Bikeshare is a successful example of how to do this right. CaBi has its own website, which is perfectly nice. But it doesn't do everything. It doesn't tell you if show visibly on the map which stations are empty or full, and it's not on your smartphone. Nor is it on a digital screen on the wall of your neighborhood bar.

A company called 8D has a relationship with CaBi and other Bixi-based bike sharing systems to create an app, SpotCycle, which provides many useful functions, but one app can't do everything either. What if someone else can do better, or do more than just that app can do?

Fortunately, there's a computer-readable XML file for Capital Bikeshare (and all other Bixi-based systems) which lists the real-time status of all stations in the system. The availability of that data allowed Daniel Gohlke to create CaBi Tracker, arguably a better system map than the official one. Many other mobile apps exist using the same data, each trying to be better than the next.

At the Mobility Lab, we're creating real-time digital displays that show buses, rail, and Capital Bikeshare all on one screen at the same time. That's never going to be something Capital Bikeshare funds itself, but it's potentially a very useful tool, and it's possible thanks to the feed.

It's great that Capital Bikeshare offers this, but not every service does.

As one of many examples, the USDOT and local governments have funded a research project at the University of Maryland to create a real-time traffic information site for the I-95 corridor. It's a good start, but very limited.

UMD could evaluate even more ways to assist travelers if someone could make an app, screen, or site that showed this information in even more ways. Unfortunately there appears to be no feed. The utility of this project is therefore drastically limited, and its funding is not going as far as it could.

Montgomery County spent a bunch of money for a web tool that lets riders to see the location and predictions for Ride On buses, but didn't include a feed or API (Application Programming Interface). The MARCTracker tool to see the location of MARC trains doesn't appear to have an API, either.

Now, no other apps can integrate the information and present it to more users. We can't put Ride On or MARC on the real-time screens, and mobile app developers can't add it to their tools. Plus, the Ride On tracking website already looks clunky and out of date, and it's still in a beta test phase. The county put their money into buying something that's already behind the curve and which can't accommodate future improvements.

Meanwhile, WMATA, DC Circulator, and ART all have feeds or APIs that allow apps and other services to retrieve their real-time information and show it to riders. This has all sorts of advantages, not the least of which is that their data can all be combined into a single website. For example, Transit Near Me, Mobility Lab's recent transit app, is only possible with the data from these transit services, but can't include Ride On.

These transit services are run by public agencies, but open data is equally important when the public is paying a private company for a transportation service. Governments should require open data in every contract with private providers.

For example, the one-way car sharing company car2go offers an API for integrating with other apps, but Zipcar and many other car sharing companies do not. When the city dedicates on-street parking spaces to car sharing companies, they are giving away a valuable resource. In exchange for that resource, the city should demand the company open its data, and require that feeds or APIs remain public in the future.

Open data offers absolutely tremendous opportunity for transportation providers to improve their service to users, and it is essentially free. All they have to do is put their data out there, and someone will take advantage of it to produce a useful tool.

Disclosure: I am leading a team at the Mobility Lab that is building Transit Near Me, real-time screens, and potentially other tools which take advantage of feeds from transportation providers.


Suburban buses needn't baffle inexperienced riders

In many suburban jurisdictions, bus systems feel like an afterthought, with tiny bus flags at the side of a road and confusing or even nonexistent information about which bus to take.

Image by mikebot on Flickr.

Most suburban routes run less frequently than Metrobus routes in DC, making them harder to use. But it would cost a lot of money to increase frequency. Meanwhile, for a very small investment, jurisdictions like Fairfax County could make buses much easier to use with simple wayfinding improvements.

Bus stop flags should identify the routes that stop there; believe it or not, at least in Fairfax, they don't today. And buses should add automated announcements of the next stop.

Since the buses are so infrequent, better wayfinding is even more critical. If a rider misses a stop or misses a bus while waiting at the wrong stop, he or she could end up waiting an hour for the next bus, or have to take a very long walk to the destination.

Fairfax's county government offices are difficult to access by public transit. Only two Fairfax Connector routes serve them. But not all residents can afford to or want to own a car, and those who can't or won't drive are at a decided disadvantage in being able to fully participate in society.

I had to visit the county seat two years ago to register to vote in Virginia; my permanent address was then my parents' house in Kingstowne. I had to register in person during office hours, but my parents both worked. Living in the District and lacking access to a car, I took the Metro to Vienna and then took a Fairfax Connector to the county office.

I had never been to the county offices before and I wasn't familiar with the area. The stops weren't announced, so I had to be extra careful about when to get off. I ended up getting off the bus too early and had to walk the rest of the way.

When I left the office, I walked to what I thought was the stop for the bus back to the Metro. The bus stop sign didn't have the route number. Suburban streets also aren't marked as clearly as city streets, so finding the intersection where my bus stopped wasn't as easy.

It turns out I was at the wrong bus stop, but as the bus approached, I was able to hustle to the correct stop, which luckily was nearby. If the stop flag had been marked, I would have known at which stop I should wait. If I had missed the bus, I would have had to wait at least 30 minutes for the next one.

When traveling after dark, it can be hard to identify bus stops while on the bus. Announcing the stops would make it easier for riders to know where they are. Stop announcements don't always work, but having them fail sometimes is better than not having them at all.

Adding route numbers to bus stops signs would require a minimal investment, but would make it much easier for riders to know if they are in the right place. Fairfax Connector route numbers are often shown on shelters, where they exist, but not on stop flags. Metrobus, Montgomery's Ride On and Arlington's ART, on the other hand, show route numbers on almost all stop flags. Ride On's even show the route's ultimate destination, so you don't find yourself on the correct route but going the wrong way.

Automated stop announcements require that buses be equipped with GPS, which is a bigger investment. Ride On is piloting real-time tracking, which would be useful for the Connector. GPS tracking could also bring NextBus' ability to predict how many minutes until the bus arrives to Fairfax Connector riders.

More attractive, easier to understand bus service can make suburban communities easier to navigate and reduce the need for driving. These two wayfinding improvements won't suddenly bring residents out of their cars. But they can make life easier for current bus riders and make buses a better option for those hesitant to ride.


Real-time data enables amazing Boston bus art

Two self-described "cartography geeks" took publicly available real-time position data for Boston buses and created this image that's part map, part piece of art:

Image from Bostonography.

The image color-codes bus trips by their average speed. Buses are fastest on freeway segments, slower on most city streets, slowest in the dense neighborhood cores. Some of this is road speed, but buses also move more slowly in areas where there are more stops and more people boarding and alighting.

Since buses only report their location every few minutes and can't report inside tunnels, the bluest lines show up as fuzzier sets of spread-out lines.

WMATA created a similar, but more diagrammatic and less artistic, set of maps for DC buses:

Image from WMATA.

This is just one of the many applications people can create on their own, thanks to having open data publicly available. The more transit agencies provide, the more useful tools people can create, whether very practical mobile apps or beautiful and informative visualizations like this one.


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.

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