Posts about Real-time Bus
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.
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
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
Many residents drove to a community forum in Ward 7 on improving bus service last Saturday, and those who took transit faced very long rides, which precisely illustrates the need for better bus service east of the Anacostia River.
Residents want to see more service on weekends and off-peak hours and want to improve safety and overcrowding on buses. But improvements could cost millions, which the District would be hard-pressed to fund in the current budget climate.
Residents met last Saturday with Councilmembers Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Yvette Alexander (Ward 7), as well as representatives of WMATA and DDOT, to discuss ways to improve bus service east of the Anacostia River. It was the first stop in Councilmember Wells's listening tour on bus enhancement.
Just getting to the event was a challenge for those who didn't drive. Veronica Davis, one of the forum's organizers, noted that to get from her home in Fairfax Village to the forum on Minnesota Avenue, she would have had to take two buses, each of which comes only every 30 minutes.
She considered taking one bus to Benning Road Metro and using Capital Bikeshare, but there is no bike sharing station at Benning Road. Instead, she and several others carpooled. Other residents faced similar situations.
Jim Hamre, Director of the Office of Bus Planning at WMATA, presented possible improvements to bus lines serving Ward 7. They would increase connections to downtown and increase frequency of buses during off-peak times. These improvements would cost $8.4 million annually and add 18 buses on 12 routes, the U2, U8, V5, V7, V8, X3, W4, 32, 34, 36, 39, and 97.
Some residents questioned the need for additional buses, saying WMATA should use money for new service to improve existing service first, such as repairing broken fareboxes and making it easier for people to purchase or reload SmarTrips.
Wells also pushed on the idea of priorities, asking whether WMATA should focus on improving access from Ward 7 to downtown, or trips within the ward.
Ward 7 comprises parts of northeast and southeast DC and has a population of over 70,000 residents. There are 55,000 bus trips in Ward 7 on an average weekday, 29,000 on Saturday and 20,000 on Sunday. This translates to approximately 16.9 million bus rides in Ward 7 annually, creating a huge demand for better service.
Many residents of Ward 7 find north-south travel extremely difficult and frequently wait over an hour for a bus to arrive. Others complained about buses that never arrive and about the unreliability of NextBus. These inconveniences ultimately make access to jobs, grocery stores, doctors, schools, friends and family, entertainment and community events extremely difficult.
One resident specifically mentioned the possible arrival of Wal-Mart. The store will create high demand for jobs and shopping, but many residents will find it difficult to get there.
The infrequent off-peak service can also create unsafe situations. Some residents work during off-peak travel hours and must wait for buses early in the morning or late at night. One woman said she felt safer walking the mile from the bus stop to her house than riding some of the buses at night.
In addition to discussing service increases, residents discussed ways to make the bus system easier to use. Wells spoke about adding electronic schedule displays at new bus shelters. A representative from DDOT said it costs the department approximately $10,000 per shelter to install electronic displays.
Others want to see better communication of route detours and improvements to bus scheduling. Hamre said WMATA recently put snow route information online but that the bus operations staff is too small to alert riders to smaller, construction-related route detours or similar delays.
On scheduling, Hamre addressed the difference between running buses on a schedule and on a headway. Currently, buses try to meet the scheduled arrival times at various stops along a route. On a headway system, a manager at either end of a line would send out a new bus on a given interval, such as every ten minutes, as the Circulator does.
WMATA used the headway system on a large scale during President Obama's inauguration in 2009 to much success. It plans to start running this system on the 90s route and, if successful, WMATA may extend this to other routes.
Residents also discussed making SmarTrip cards easier to use. Wells mentioned the possibility of installing SmarTrip machines at bus shelters to allow riders to load their cards before boarding the bus. This could cut down on boarding times, making buses run faster. Currently, 1/3 of weekly SmarTrip additions happen on the bus.
It is also more difficult to load SmarTrip cards at CVS or Giant because there are fewer of these stores east of the river. Though there are several Metro stations, most are in the western part of Ward 7, making the bus the only option for many people to reload cards.
On safety, one mother voiced a concern about overcrowding on some buses. She said her teenage daughter is often pushed against the back door and she's afraid of the doors opening while the bus is moving. Others said they often have to stand beyond the yellow line, which is unsafe for the driver and the passengers.
In response, one man suggested using audio recordings to inform riders about bus capacity. This way, riders would understand if a bus does not make a stop or refuse to let a passenger on the bus. He suggested buses could even have an external indicator when they reach capacity.
The forum also addressed ways to increase Capital Bikeshare usage east of the river. DDOT representatives said they are working with banks to help residents finance their memberships. DDOT also has performance metrics for every trip on Bikeshare and can relocate stations based on demand. Some residents followed up that Ward 7 needs better bike trails and bike lanes, particularly through much of the NPS-owned parkland.
Residents focused most on improving the reliability of current service, improving service to allow for better travel within the ward, and addressing safety issues related to off-peak service and overcrowding. The organizers of the forum are compiling the meeting minutes and resident questions into a report. They will submit this report to Councilmember Wells and make it available for residents online.
If you ride the Circulator, a new map tool for the web and smartphones by Jim Blakeslee from Geocentric can help you track buses and get arrival predictions.
The home page shows each line, including which ones are seasonally inactive (the Mall loop, right now). Clicking on any individual line gives you a screen with a link to a live map for that line, or the real-time predictions for every stop in one or the other direction.
There's also a full map (shown above), which gives a nice overall view of the system. For most individual riders' needs when taking a specific trip, the individual line pages and maps will most likely be the most useful.
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