Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Real-time Bus

Transit


Why doesn't Metro post the police phone number?

Periodic announcements on Metro buses urge riders to contact authorities if they see something suspicious, but how many people know the phone number for the Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD)?

This is a sign that was developed in 2007 at the urging of the Riders' Advisory Council, says Dennis Jaffe in a letter from the Sierra Club yesterday. However, the sign was never posted in trains or buses.

Jaffe notes that in several recent incidents, riders didn't know how to contact MTPD. When two riders were recently trapped in Cheverly Metro after the station manager mistakenly closed up before the last train of the night, they called 911 and the county police, not MTPD. They originally tried the Metro phone number, but got trapped in a phone tree and ended up at a recording telling them to call back during the day.

At a December 2006 meeting of the RAC, Jaffe recounts, "Metro Transit Police Department Lt. Brian Heanue indicated that the vast majority of reports received by the police department come from Metro staff to whom the public submits information, rather than from the public directly. Lt. Heanue also indicated that the Department would welcome receiving more reports directly from the public."

After that meeting, WMATA developed the above sign, but it didn't get posted. Why? Jaffe speculates, "One possible reason for Metro's inaction is the ongoing debate over how many phone numbers Metro should provide for the public to contact the agency."

Currently, WMATA's policy is that there should be only a single phone number for riders to contact it about anything. That centralizes the process, which is an understandable impulse from an administrative standpoint, but it reduces the value to riders.


Photo from WMATA.
For example, the NextBus discs give the general customer service phone number, not a NextBus-specific phone. The first time I called, it said "say the service you want," so I named the bus line, not realizing that this was a general phone number. You have to say "NextBus." Why force people to go to that extra work? When I give a link to a page on wmata.com, I can link right to it. I don't have to tell people how to navigate from the home page.

Maybe some people will call the NextBus number, or the MTPD number, really wanting something else. But if all the numbers go to the same IVR system, just with different starting points, the initial prompt could easily say something like, "Welcome to NextBus for Metrobus. Say the name of the route or enter a stop number. If you want other Metro services, say 'main menu.'" The MTPD number could do something similar.

As Dennis has noted, it's not just on the phone where WMATA over-centralizes customer service in a way that makes it difficult for riders to report problems. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to presentations touting the lack of complaints as evidence that things are working well when they actually reflect the difficulty of giving feedback. Accurate information might lead to a short-term uptick in reported problems, but that will only better reflect reality, and better help WMATA staff do their jobs and prioritize resources.

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Transit


NextBus doesn't handle station bus bays properly

Metro's reintroduction of NextBus several months ago last year has proven popular with riders, despite a few hiccups. However, it still has some usability issues which haven't gotten fixed very quickly. One of those issues has to do with bus bays at Metro stations.

At many stations, especially those in suburban locations, each bus route calls at an exclusive bay at the station. For riders who have multiple routes to chose from to get to the station, NextBus's webpage has a glitch. Because each bus bay has its own individual NextBus stop ID, the stops are not considered to be the same destination.

In my case, for example, I can choose from the R12 or T16/17 Metrobuses to get to Greenbelt Station from my apartment. But the R12 stops in bus bay F. The T16/17 stops in bus bay E. These are adjacent stalls. They're less than the length of a Metro railcar from each other. But as far as NextBus is concerned, they might as well be 50 miles apart.

I generally don't care which bus I take to get to the Metro. The R12 is slightly faster, but I'll take the T16/17 if it's coming sooner. NextBus won't give me predictions for both routes, though, if I select "Greenbelt Station" as my destination because it only lists buses that stop at whichever bus bay I pick.


Left: Selecting a bus bay as the destination, only the R12 appears.
Right: Selecting an intermediate stop, both bus lines have predictions.

Now, it is true that the "destination" field is optional on the NextBus website. However, it would seem to some that providing as much data as possible would result in better information from the system. Because of this hiccup, though, that's not the case.

For the reverse trip, the problem is worse. Because the buses are leaving from different stops at the station, it is not possible to get predictions for both routes through the web interface. And for the phone system, one would have to navigate the menu each time for every potential bus route that stops at a different bay in order to get predictions for all routes.

With my non-internet-capable phone, that means memorizing the stop IDs for 3 different bus bays at Greenbelt Station. A helpful feature would be the ability to say the name of each major transit center in the region and get estimated departure times for any given routes.

But as the system is set up currently, saying "Greenbelt Station" is not acceptable. The only responses the system recognizes are strings of numbers like "3003302" (Bay F) and "3003354" (Bay E). To make things even more difficult to remember, the stop IDs for these adjacent bus bays aren't even close to each other numerically.

WMATA and NextBus should work to resolve these issues. At places where there are multiple bus bays, patrons should be able to select the transit center as a whole and not be limited to a specific bus bay. Increasing the usability of NextBus will increase the usability of Metrobus, and that's a positive for everyone.

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Transit


WMATA will open up real-time data to developers

Responding to our requests, WMATA is creating a comprehensive system for web, mobile, and other software applications to access a wide variety of transit information, including bus positions, rail arrival predictions, schedules, elevator outages, rail disruptions, and more.

According to a presentation for Thursday's WMATA Board meeting, the $30,000 "Transparent Metro Data Sets" project will open up data to third-party developers, including Google and anyone else interested.

On the bus system, that data will include real-time bus locations, "shape files" and data for routes, stop locations, and schedules. (The bus arrival predictions are NextBus's IP, calculated by their proprietary algorithms, but the bus locations are not).

On rail, Metro will release station locations and information, "line summary" and "line detail" (not sure what those are), the rail routes, real-time arrival predictions, service disruptions and elevator and escalator outages.

According to the presentation, they will conduct a "phased rollout" including the first services by "end of summer," and work with developers including an application contest like Boston's.

The presentation specifically mentions how many people have requested this data, including "regionally-focused websites and bloggers" as well as merchants, retailers, and tourism and hospitality groups, which hope to put bus and rail arrival displays, similar to the one in the Arlington County office lobby, into hotels and other places.

It doesn't give any specific update about the state of supposedly-ongoing contract negotiations with Google, and I hope Board members can ask about this on Thursday. As before, the legal terms under which WMATA releases the data for third parties will also be crucial to driving or hindering adoption.

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Transit


NextBus accuracy slips, "ghost buses" explained

WMATA released NextBus accuracy statistics last week, and frequent users will not be surprised to find out that accuracy is not where it could be.


Photo from {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester}.

NextBus only has predictions for 78% of buses, far below the 92% accuracy target. The buses themselves are also not keeping to schedules particularly well, being "on time" only about 75% of the time even with a generous on time standard of up to 2 minutes early (which buses exceed almost 7% of the time) and 7 minutes late (which they exceed 18% of the time).

Bus manager Jack Requa provided some explanation for the "ghost buses" that riders widely reported: if a bus stands still for 2 minutes, the NextBus system stops showing that bus at all. It also removes the bus if it deviates more than 160 meters from the typical route, meaning that any bus reroutes generally result in disappearing buses.

The Examiner's Kytja Weir noted that this accuracy is lower than the 80% present when Metro "paused" the program for two years. That doesn't mean Metro should take NextBus down again (and they don't plan to), but does suggest some folly in taking it down in the first place, or keeping it under wraps until it was extremely accurate.

Still, when NextBus does work, it is very useful. When predictions do exist, they are usually correct (but not always), and make it possible to leave home or work just in time to catch a bus. Weir quotes Arlington Board member Chris Zimmerman saying, "NextBus has been one of the best things ... It's greatly improved the quality of my life. ... That said, it has to work with a fair amount of accuracy."

Overall, all riders are better off having an imperfect NextBus than no NextBus at all. However, the accuracy needs to improve. It would help for WMATA to detail its specific plans for what can be improved and at what cost.


Chart from WMATA.
The presentation misleads about customer satisfaction with its use of statistics. Requa's presentation shows a large pie chart of the total number of uses and a very tiny slice of the number of complaints. That makes it appear that every person not complaining is happy, which we know not to be necessarily the case. Requa said, "With 1.5 billion million uses [there were] only 148 complaints. The important thing is, there are very few complaints, and customers are happy."

But many customers don't complain because it's very difficult to complain. The online complaint form is very complex, and there aren't easy links to give feedback from the NextBus interface on the Web or on the phone. If Metro made it easier to complain, they would have more information about problems, but under the "customers are happy because there are few complaints" standard, it would make things seem worse. I hope that's not deterring the IT staff from making it easier to report problems.

It's terrific that Metro is tracking the accuracy for each bus garage and division, giving managers inside the bus system direct feedback about how well their groups are doing. The "dashboard" statistics we see do not reveal the causes of this inaccuracy, however. Are operators not signing on? Are the transponders breaking down? It would be helpful to see what percentage of the inaccuracies creep in at each stage. Zimmerman asked for this as well at the meeting. It looks like the dashboard listed on the Board presentation has the bottom cut off, so perhaps this information is on the full charts.

Accuracy seems to have slipped since January. The previous presentation showed log-on performance of 89.46% for the week ending January 23, 2010. Showing overall predictability instead of log-on performance is a better number, though it would be nice to show both. Bus performance also dropped, from almost 80% in that January week to 75% today.

Metro staff said that they are working on the problems, but gave few details beyond assurances that they were "doing everything that they can" and that "a lot of manpower and resources is needed." It'd be helpful to hear a roadmap for what Metro staff or the NextBus company itself is going to do to improve things. Ultimately, though, the proof will be in the numbers.

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Budget


WMATA Board discussing budget, NextBus, and more today

I'll be live-Tweeting today's WMATA Board meeting.

This morning, the Finance and Administration Committee will debate the operating budget and next Metro Matters agreement. There will then be an executive session followed by a special full Board meeting (PDF) to announce an executive search firm for the General Manager search and discuss the recent near-miss on the Red Line.

Finally, this afternoon the Customer Service, Operations and Safety Committee will discuss safety, NextBus performance, the bus and rail fleets, and issues with bus fareboxes.

Below are tweets from the meeting. If you aren't familiar with the individual members, here's a list.

#WMATA now discussing budget

Hudgins recommending finance committee decide on fare hike today, but service levels and rest of budget in June #WMATA

Graham: Board has never voted on fares in a vacuum without knowing about other parts of budget, like service, subsidies #WMATA

Graham asks why 15% increased max fare not on the list because he asked for it last time (and also emailed earlier this week) #WMATA

#WMATA Board now discussing peak of the peak. Balances spreading out load and also revenue gain

#WMATA's Tom Harrington calls peak of the peak "to and through" an "added benefit" to WMATA because it hits more people.

Hitting more people is not the point, though - want to only hit people where trains are most crowded #WMATA

Zimmerman: Should look at narrower peak of the peak time period and higher peak of the peak charge to offset #WMATA

McKay: Service ramifications of peak of the peak? Kubicek: Will probably even out load #WMATA

Sarles: AM peak has enough service to accommodate shift; evening, could shift some people later to when people also going to events, #WMATA

Graham asking "what's the gap" in the budget. But that assumes parking increases taken out. He's rhetorically caving on it. #WMATA

There's no "gap" if you start with the GM's previous budget. That should be the starting point. #WMATA

Zimmerman wants to increase bus SmarTrip-cash difference. Graham says it would hurt the poorest of the poor. #WMATA

Benjamin: But the lower the income, the more careful people seem to be, most likely to get passes, SmarTrip, etc. #WMATA

Staff going to go research requests around max fare, narrower peak of the peak and try to get something by Board meeting later #WMATA

Graham again questions why #WMATA can't implement fare systems, then plug in final fare numbers at last minute.

Kissal says can do that, but increases "risk" of getting it right July 1, which is high ridership weekend #WMATA

RT @wbjsarah: Graham on incr. bus, but not Circulator fares: Going to lose revenue on routes where Circ parallels busy routes #WMATA

Kissal: Part of this is about updating signs, etc. as well - not just about typing fare number into the computer #WMATA

#WMATA board committee leaning toward now picking one of the options from the peak of the peak chart to give guidance to staff

Graham now un-caving on parking? Saying "was willing to see what could be done" to cover removing parking. #WMATA

But instead, we just took it off the table ("between the cup and the lip"). Willing to consider taking pkg off, if revenue from elsewhere

Benjamin: Thinks narrower options are "interesting from a philosophical point of view", but thinks too complex

Albert: DC not ready to increase jurisdictional subsidy beyond $12M increase from last time #WMATA

Benjamin: Maryland WILL cover increase of $16.something million. Great news. #WMATA

Zimmerman: Now parking increase is off the table, but has largest fare increase ever, and still cuts bus and rail service #WMATA

Zimmerman: Would vote against this budget. If parking fee went back, could take away all service cuts, or other options #WMATA

Zimmerman: As soon as anyone on committee started talking about anything, it just got dropped, but those were ad hoc decisions #WMATA

McKay: Anyone who thinks a parking increase is not a fare increase is not paying attention #WMATA

McKay: Parking is a fare increase in people who are most fundamentally impacted by this budget already. #WMATA

Does McKay realize that Fairfax has people who take the bus to the rail? #WMATA

McKay now attacking subsidy for bus ride vs. subsidy for a rail ride. #WMATA

McKay: "I take personal exception to the idea of raising the parking rate"

Graham: How about reducing parking impact by only increasing at lots that fill early #WMATA

Graham: Late night change (DC request) was $3.6M, parking (Ffx request) was $6.5M.

Benjamin saying by including peak of the peak in max fare, it is going up close to 15%. #WMATA

Yeah, but then min rail fare going up MUCH more than 15%. #WMATA

Graham: Committee is going to be giving guidance to staff without full Board approval, and which wouldn't pass full Board bc of veto #WMATA

Graham: Want special meeting of full Board to review & approve guidance #WMATA

Motion clarified to say that this is just committee report, not "guidance". #WMATA

Passes with Graham voting no, all MD & VA members (on the committee) voting yes #WMATA

Now on to capital. Asking Board to distribute draft of new Metro Matters agreement, agree upon framework #WMATA

Downey: New capital agreement should include requirement that governor request funds. #WMATA

Zimmerman: Should separate out federal funds, which are supposed to be "extra", from rest of funds #WMATA

#WMATA going to have hearing on capital budget 1st week of June, same night as RAC meeting

#WMATA says they think NextBus customers are happy because there are few complaints.

However, there's no easy way to make a complaint from NextBus if you aren't happy. #WMATA

If everything working properly, if bus doesn't move for 2 mins, NextBus stops predicting that bus #WMATA

Giancola on behalf of @DDOTDC: Can NextBus tell rider if there's an unpredicted bus not moving? #WMATA: Working on that

Also working on informing rider if bus route not running at this time of day or day of week #WMATA

Giancola: Poor quality of IVR system? #WMATA: Background noise makes that a problem

#WMATA announces that there was no unsafe situation in recent Red Line emergency braking: http://bit.ly/9bkJ3q

RT @wbjsarah: Metro says it uses NextBus to mk sure buses don't bunch, but regular clumps of S2 and S4 buses I see tell a different story

#WMATA says NextBus performance is increasing in all garages

#WMATA: Predictability just means 78% of buses have predictions? Trying to make sure I understand here

Bus is considered on time as long as it's less than 2 mins early and 7 mins late. Zimmerman: That's a lot. #WMATA

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Transit


iPhone App Review: Find A Metro DC

Between maps, trip planning, bus and train predictions, and more, it takes a number of apps to bring the full range of transit information to an iPhone user's fingertips. Find A Metro DC aims to correct this by bringing everything together in one place.


Too many transit apps.

I currently use DC Metro for the system map and next train info, HopStop for trip planning, NextBus mobile site for MetroBus info, circulator.dc.gov for Circulator bus info, and the WMATA mobile site to fill any gaps. Clearly this is not an ideal situation; all my mobility apps and bookmarks take up a full quarter of my home screen.

My hope was that Find a Metro DC might finally be the app that could aggregate all these functions into one. Certainly the screen shots in the iTunes App Store looked promising.

The verdict: It has many rough edges and some features that are more incomplete than useful, and I'll be hanging on to a few other apps, but a number of great features and potential for improvement make Find a Metro DC worth the 99¢ investment.

When you open Find A Metro DC, you are greeted by a utilitarian home screen menu with 10 options. The map, 5 closest stations, alerts, and points of interest provide very useful functionality, while others, such as the trip planner and Metrobus and Circulator arrivals, currently more accurately represent a potential for useful features in future versions. You can view all of the screenshots here.

Map: Clicking on Map brings up a slightly zoomed view of the standard WMATA Metrorail map. Though there is no indication, I quickly discovered the map to be clickable: touching a station circle (and in apparently random cases the station name) will give you a screen with the standard Next Train display.

Two nice features in Find A Metro, are the buttons Show on Map and Get Directions. The first opens an in-app Google Map showing the station location. The second leaves Find A Metro DC and opens Maps with the station address in the destination field.

The most frustrating thing about the map is how difficult it is to tell where you've clicked. As mentioned above, some station names are clickable, others aren't, with apparently no rhyme or reason: you can click "Branch Ave" but not "Suitland" or "King Street" but not "Braddock Road." In this case I prefer how the DC Metro App handles map clicks: a gray box appears covering the station and name you have clicked.


5 Closest Stations
5 Closest Stations: This is the best feature on this app by far. Click this menu item and it will use your iPhone's location to list the closest stations, including an icon showing which lines serve them and exactly how far away each is.

The only improvement I could suggest here would be a button, like the one on a station's Next Train page, to show all of them on a map. Groupon's app has something similar where you can view the location of all the deals you've purchased as Google maps pins in relation to your current location.

Favorite Stations: You can create a list of your favorite stations so that you don't have to resort to the map or the complete list every time. Again the list has a nice icon next to each name indicating which lines serve that station.

The most frustrating thing on this screen is that when you go to add a station to the list, you have to scroll through the entire list of Metro stations. It's only 86 stations, but a search box, or the alphabet on the right like in the DC Metro app, would help tremendously.

All Stations: The name says it all. This one is doesn't serve much useful purpose, but rather than removing it, I would put it at the bottom of the menu.

Metrorail Alerts: If there's one thing that Metro has plenty of that would be real handy to access on the go, it's alerts. Kudos to the app author for making the connection.

A colleague of mine who uses a mobility device, though, pointed out that only the rail alerts are displayed and incorporating elevator and escalator outages would be hugely helpful. I have to agree.

Trip Planner: This feature delivered by far the biggest disappointment of all. When I saw the screen shot in iTunes that showed a trip planner option, I was excited that I might not have to use the Metro mobile web version anymore.

Unfortunately, the Find A Metro DC trip planner only lets you query a trip from one Metro station to another. No addresses, no buses, no walking. On top of that, once again, you have to use a scroll wheel to scroll through all 86 stations.

The bottom 30% of the screen contains a scalable, movable metro map, but the amount of screen real estate devoted to it is so minimal it's more disorienting than helpful. This whole feature is not yet developed enough to be useful to a regular Metro rider or to any tourists with at least a passing familiarity with the system or how to read a transit map. If the map were clickable it might have more value, but even that's debatable. I'll be keeping Hop Stop until door-to-door trip planning is available through Find a Metro DC.


Metrobus Arrivals
Metrobus Arrivals: I had high hopes for this feature as well, billed as an integration of NextBus into a metro app.

The screen has three slots to enter a NextBus stop number, which confused me at first. On my second use, I realized that each slot saves the previously entered stop number. For your convenience there is also a box next to each stop number where you can assign a name to saved stops.

Again, compliments to the author for aggregating more disparate data into one place, but while the idea is good, the execution is not as good. The name box is so small that you can only fit about 8 characters in it—hardly enough for an intelligible name, especially if you use stops outside of the numbers and the first alphabet. For the two stops near my apartment I use most, I struggled to come up with short enough labels to fit, finally settling on "WB Pa/24" & "EB Pa/22."

Yet, with so much empty screen real estate, why not put the name boxes on the line above or below allowing for legitimate labels like "WB 30s Penn & 24th NW?" To make matters worse, the NextBus stop number box is 70% wider than the name box even though the bus stop numbers are a fixed number of digits! Still, it's a nice feature.

The biggest problem with the NextBus feature in Find a Metro DC is in searching for stops you haven't already saved or aren't currently standing at. To do that, you have to search a saved stop number, then go through the NextBus web system to choose another Route, then direction, then stop. At the very least the bottom of the main Metrobus Arrivals page could have a "Find a stop" link that takes you to the default NextBus homepage.

Circulator Arrivals: This is another good idea but with incomplete execution. The app uses your phone's current location and lists literally every Circulator within half a mile, regardless of what direction it's heading in. On the positive side, each Circulator location is color-coded to match the route color on the official Circulator maps, a version of which you can view in the app.


Newseum directions from Points of Interest
Points of Interest: This last feature, which started out as intriguing, has improved to become one of the best in the app over the last two updates since I've been using it. When I first downloaded the app, it was just a digitized version of Metro's official Places of Interest list on pocket maps and visitor's guides.

Since then, it has become a significantly more complete, interactive and best of all, location-based, list of things to see in DC and how to get there on the Metro. Like the 5 Closest Stations option, the list is generated in order of growing distance from your current location. Click on a site and a dialog box pops up listing the nearest Metro stop. Once you close the box, the app loads the Wikipedia page for the particular point of interest in a nice in-app browser with buttons to get directions to or show the place on a map.

While this feature is distinctly more useful for tourists, it adds something to the app that none others have, at least as far as I know.

All in all, Find a Metro DC still seems somewhat of a work in progress. A number of features are fundamentally based on outstanding ideas but are incomplete in their execution. Still, at $0.99, this app is worth it just for combining the functionality of several other apps and mobile sites into one. I've already deleted my DC Metro app, and my NextBus and Circulator icons.

On top of that, the recent rapid evolution of Points of Interest shows how one of these less useful sections could quickly turn into a star. If this app had a little bit more visual appeal and added the features I suggested, it would easily be worth $5.

Want to give the app a try yourself? We have ten free promo codes courtesy of the author; the first ten people to request them get one. Leave a comment below saying you'd like one, and we'll contact you using the email address you list in the email address field (which isn't visible to anyone but site administrators).

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Links


Breakfast links: Whee

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.


Image from HerrVebah with thanks to haglundc.

It'll be faster, too: Accepting a fiscal reality, Metro will stop trying to repair its down escalators. Instead, the agency will replace the escalators with Playskool™ slides. (Erik W.)

Boo: There's finally an explanation for "ghost buses" in the NextBus system, where buses are listed but don't actually show up: These are actual ghosts of eliminated routes and trips. Riders also report feeling a cold wind when they pass. Thanks to these buses, service on October 31 will be substantially increased. (Michael P.)

Get in the car lane: During his chat today on the Kojo Nnamdi show, DDOT Director Gabe Klein is expected to announce a new DDOT program to restripe all roads for bicyclists. A new 2-person "car program" will start planning a network of special lanes for cars to ensure drivers feel safe. At intersections, the walk signals will always be activated; drivers have to stop and find a small button on the pole to get a green light. The plans do not consider buses. (Matt', Michael P.)

New flock calls for inclusionary wiring: An organization for workforce birds is calling for an inclusionary wiring law that would mandate that 10% of downtown streets include overhead wires. The group's spokesman told the Post, "The burden on families can be severe. Many birds are forced to commute hundreds of thousands of miles each year. That's not right." (Neil)

Stronger preservation: The Historic Preservation Office will manufacture new plastic covers for historic areas. Similar your grandmother's sofa covers, these will guard against pop-ups, pastiche, and vinyl siding and will cost 5¢ each. Regular GGW commenter Lance expressed outrage at the cost. (Neil, Eric F.)

Unacceptable safety record: In a strongly-worded letter, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), David Vitter (R-LA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) are threatening a federal takeover of the National Mall if pedestrian safety conditions do not improve.

Great new blog: GGW contributors Jaime Fearer and Geoff Hatchard have spun off to launch their own blog, titled Greater Greater Greater Washington. Not to be outdone, Cavan Wilk recently bought the URL for Greatest Greatest Washington, and Matt Johnson and Michael Perkins plann to launch Really Wicked Greater Washington in May. (Steve O.)
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Transit


The Transit Ombudsman: Get the next bus by text message

You may have used the NextBus Web interface or the phone system at 202-637-7000, but there's another way to get NextBus arrival times: text message.

Here's what you do:

  1. Find your bus route, stop location, direction and stop number here or here and bookmark the page.
  2. Start composing a text message to 41411.
  3. In the message area, enter your request in this format:
    nbus wmata r[route#] [stop#]
    Example: nbus wmata r42 1001809
    Include spaces between each of the four pieces (nbus, wmata, the r for your route, and the stop number. Don't include the brackets or a space between the r and the route number.
  4. You'll receive a reply message like this:
    r=42 MOUNT PLEASANT
    s=Clmba Rd Nw + 18th Nw
    d=Nrth->Mt Plsnt Va Adms Mrgn
    4&6min
    "r" means route; "s" means bus stop location; "d" means direction. "->" means to, "Va" means via. "4&6min" means buses are arriving in 4 and 6 minutes.
The results usually come back within 1 minute. Your carrier may charge you for text messages depending on your plan. NextBus provides more details on using text messaging (also known as SMS).

The reply message will read at the end, "S)ave name." This lets you save a bus stop with a name that's easy to remember. You can use the name instead of the stop # in your next request, and omit wmata, too. I saved one like this: s home

Once you have a custom name set up, a request looks just like this:

nbus home
The reply also will read at the end "Rply: 1-30) for alert." This allows you to request that a text alert be sent to you when your bus is X minutes away. You enter a number from 1 to 30.

However, I couldn't get this feature to work. Can you? I'm looking into it.

You can use different formats to submit your request:

  • Enter the stop without the route #, like this:
    nbus wmata 1001809
    If more than one route serves your stop, it'll ask which route you want.
  • Instead of a bus stop #, enter an address or intersection, using "and" or "&." In DC, don't include quadrant.
  • Enter a landmark. Some work, some don't.

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Transit


WMATA allowed to release bus prediction API

Michael Perkins was able to get a copy of WMATA's NextBus contract, with financial information redacted. Tom Lee scrutinized the contract to try to answer a nagging question: Could WMATA release an open, free data feed of the NextBus predictions if it chose?


Arlington's monitors show real-time train info but only bus schedules currently.

Massachusetts has a trial real-time feed for select buses. That feed provides the locations of buses as well as NextBus's predictions. BART just launched a more extensive API with its real-time train predictions as well as trip planning results.

"NextBus Information Systems," the company that developed the iPhone NextBus app, has demanded removal of other apps that screen scraped NextBus to get the bus arrival times. They pay NextBus for access to the data, and NextBus can legally stop applications from screen scraping their site.

But what about the agencies themselves? They own the transponders on the buses, and are paying NextBus good money for its service ($15,000 a month for WMATA). Yet NextBus uses its own algorithms to make predictions of bus arrival times. DC released the raw locations for the Circulator instead of trying to predict arrival times on its own (since it doesn't contract with NextBus). Would WMATA have to do the same, or could it give developers the prediction data that NextBus computed?

The answer appears to be yes.

Tom writes,

It's possible that I'm missing something, but at this point I think my pre-contract understanding has been validated: WMATA has full rights to the data, which means it can give the data away if it wants to. Now we just need WMATA to give the all-clear! We may also need them to mirror the data or otherwise ensure that Nextbus can't complain that we're unfairly hammering their servers.
If Tom is right, WMATA could set up an API for anyone to pull down NextBus predictions and integrate them into video screens like the ones in the Arlington County offices, mobile apps, or other tools. That is, unless budget cuts force too many layoff in the IT department, one of the ones potentially targeted for reductions in the FY2011 budget.

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