Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Real-time Bus


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:
    s=Clmba Rd Nw + 18th Nw
    d=Nrth->Mt Plsnt Va Adms Mrgn
    "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.


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.


New site lists open data apps, agencies

The folks behind WalkScore have launched a new service, City-Go-Round, which lists mobile and Web applications using open data sources to help people get around cities.

It includes the DC Circulator app, NextBus, various apps that use Metro's train schedules, and more. In addition to listing apps, City-Go-Round lists the agencies in the area and nationwide that don't provide open data.



DC on a roll with Circulator iPhone app

DC's Office of the Chief Technology Officer strikes again. In June, OCTO, DDOT, and the Office of Planning created Where's My Bus, a Web app that lets you find out real-time positions of all Circulator buses. Today, they announced an iPhone app ("DC Circulator") to make it even easier for iPhone users to find Circulator stops and track their buses.

Photos courtesy of DDOT.

Where's My Bus and the iPhone app don't predict how long it will take for a bus to arrive, but do let you know if a bus is close, and keep tabs on its progress toward your stop. The iPhone app adds a map of the Circulator system and a native interface. The screen shots label one of the features "find closest stop," but it's not clear if that uses your GPS location or just lets you pick a stop from a menu. I've emailed DDOT to follow up, or one of you with an iPhone can download the app for 99¢ and post in the comments. Update: Once you pick a route, the app will identify the closest stop on a particular route using the phone's GPS.

An even better app would plot the buses on a real-time display, as NextBus does, but OCTO got this application done in a short time and probably with a very small quantity of developer resources. That's what a good technology outfit should be doing: finding the "low-hanging fruit" and launching many useful tools in short periods of time.

Even better yet would be an app that combines NextBus and Circulator locations, so you don't need two apps just because you sometimes ride a Metrobus and sometimes the Circulator. Maybe NextBus Information Systems could upgrade their iPhone app to include Circulator as well. This is one example of why Metro should release the NextBus position data in an API; if they did, maybe OCTO would put it into their app, or someone else could build an integrated tool.

Update: OCTO will also be releasing the source code for the app, so that other developers can add features in the future. Great move.

Update 2: If you want to download the app, it's listed as "DC Circulator" in the App Store.



Zimmerman and Linton on innovation

At Thursday's Metro Board meeting, issues around open access to data arose twice, once around NextBus and once around schedule data and Google Transit. Both times, Board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington advocated for Metro to take an encouraging stance toward innovation, while alternate Board member Gordon Linton of Maryland suggested Metro should limit access to information until and unless they can work out legal contracts to protect potential future sources of revenue.

Zimmerman (left) and Linton (right). Image from WMATA.

This is a complex issue spanning two related but separate topics. First, should Metro do a deal with Google, a big company that might make some money from ads while riders use its service? Second, should Metro enable other, smaller developers to create applications, whether or not they make money? The issues are related and, more importantly, often get tangled up with each other. Today, I've transcribed the debates at the Metro board. In upcoming days, I'll boil down the key arguments and explain why Linton's point of view misses the forest for the trees.

First, Metro staff presented the NextBus summary we discussed last week. Zimmerman asked whether Metro can allow developers to build innovative tools using NextBus data. The exchange begins at 1:14:48 in this audio stream.

I'm told that there are bars in Portland, Oregon where they have digital displays, and you can be sitting there right up until the streetcar is coming so you can run and catch the streetcar. We heard sometime last year about something in Chicago, an application that can call your cell phone [when your bus is coming]. These were being done by outside third parties tapping into the information and making it more generally available. Can we do that here?
Staff replied that they weren't sure, but would look into the possibility. Zimmerman continued,
To the extent that we can leverage this to increase the communication out there, increase the accessibility of the system, that would increase awareness. All the people who aren't using the thing say "What's that?" and "That's cool!" and you could pick up customers that way.
Linton spoke up to point out that there might also be licensing issues. But should licensing issues prevent any progress?
While it's always good to be looking for how we can make any revenue we can to offset the cost of subsidies and fares, it would be a shame to get ourselves so tied up in what might not be a significant revenue stream that we miss the larger thing. Getting a customer on that pays a fare to fill a bus that's not full could be worth a lot more to us, potentially.

Many of of these kinds of applications aren't making a lot of money for anybody. One example that I heard of is some graduate student; basically it's a hobby. They do i for fun. Somebody sometimes money and a lot of them don't. Our fundamental biz is transportation, and to the extent that we can do that better and get more customers, that's where our emphasis ought to be.

Linton, a former FTA administrator and now private transportation consultant, didn't agree.
That is our fundamental business, but we don't have that business unless we have revenue to support it. My experience has always been that we tend to underestimate and overlook the revenue implications of this. When we were looking at the idea to have car rental services, I suggested that we explore it and what I heard was that this was a service that we provide to our users. Just by exploring it we found that there was revenue.

We always need to look and not assume that just because you provide a service that someobdy's not generating income. And since I am on the other side of this equation I know how people are out there generating income. Transit agencies I have supported for my entire career are always begging for money, but do not value their resources, and others do who are lining their pockets.

I would point out, though that your example is instructive. You're talking about car sharing. When we started that we just provided the space, and we didnt get any money back. More recently, we have been able to make arrangements that do provide us some money back, but when they first walked in here to do car sharing, there was no money to be made. Nobody was making anything. It was important to get it seeded and started to a point where someondey is making money and we can share in it.

If nobody is doing it then nobody is making any money on it. It's very important to protect our long-term interests. But again, if it doesn't get started, if it doesn't happen, then there's no value created. And I think we need to find a way to get these things started. In the long term if there is a flow of revenue that's significant, we should be tapping some of it. But this won't happen if we don't help stimulate it in the first place.

It's not a matter of not starting it, it's a matter of how you structure your deal. [It's fine if] the deal allows you to get the revenue that's generated, recognizing that for startups there's no revenue. I created public-private partnerships when I was at the FTA. They create a structure for innovation but at the same time recognize that at a point of innovation when we have a spinoff and rev starts to be generated, you should therefore start sharing in the revenues at that time.
Next: The debate over Google Transit, a few hours later.


NextBus a big success for Metro

Metro has delivered a quality benefit to riders with NextBus. If it's not a home run, it's at least a triple. From my own experience and anecdotal evidence from others, if NextBus says a bus is coming at a certain time, it's almost always there right then or a minute or two later. That's a very valuable service.

Photo from WMATA.

For example, I recently used it for a bus that runs only every 30 minutes middays and stops a block and a half from my house. Normally, I'd avoid this bus, or plan for a 10-20 minute wait at the bus stop. Instead, I monitored the prediction, then kept working until almost the exact moment I had to leave. Then I started running a bit late, so I knew to run to the bus. Sure enough, the bus pulled up just moments after I reached the stop.

NextBus's one significant flaw is the buses that don't appear, either because the operator didn't activate the transponder or because it's broken. In those cases, a bus rider might decide to walk across the street to buy a sandwich only to see a bus glide past from the windows of the store. Metro has been training drivers to activate the system, and anecdotally, these occurrences seem to have declined.

According to a Metro presentation for this Thursday's Board meeting, the Web site got 152,881 uses in July and 143,052 in August. The phone system's usage rose in August (from 69,242 calls to 87,197 calls) despite the traditionally slow month, probably because Metro rolled out more signs on more stops. Metro will continue to deal with vandalized signs and replace broken radios. They also plan some customized management tools for them to analyze bus performance using the data, and will "consolidate the bus stop data base," though it's not clear what that means.

Incorrect use of statistics in Metro NextBus presentation.
Metro only received 136 complaints in July and August. That's great, and it's a fine system. However, they use a very misleading pie chart comparing the numbers of complaints with the total number of people using the system, which gives the impression that every person who didn't complain must have liked their experience. That's obviously not true, even if the vast majority have been happy, as they probably were.

I'd encourage the Board to ask two questions:

What percentage of buses don't appear on NextBus? If an operator forgets to turn the transponder on, the bus doesn't show up in the system. Likewise, if the transponder is broken, it doesn't appear. According to the presentation, it appears Metro ran some QA on this. What did they find? What percentage of operators aren't turning it on, and what percentage are broken? Do they have a target standard for this? How quickly are broken transponders being replaced? How quickly does Metro find out that they're broken?

Can other application developers get the position data? Tom Lee, for example, wanted to try developing an application using the position information. However, Metro doesn't make it accessible via an API the way CTA does. Further, there's some ambiguity about whether Metro, NextBus, or NextBus's licensee "NextBus Information Systems," which developed the iPhone app, owns the rights to the location data. Can Metro clarify the legal status of this data? Are there any plans to create an API so that those interested in building other types of applications can use the same raw data that NextBus gets from Metro?



Nextbus IP, Metro data quality dissuades one developer

Tom Lee has decided to stop developing a NextBus-based application. The good NextBus iPhone application is one factor, but so is the way NextBus data is all wrapped up in royalties, deals, and intellectual property debates.

Image by urbanbohemian.

Metro generates bus location data with GPS devices, then sends that data to NextBus. They're paying NextBus a good amount of money to then run a service for users to access bus predictions. NextBus and "NextBus Information Systems," the licensee which developed the iPhone app, is willing to let others get access to the data, but only if they pay royalty fees. And NextBus Information Systems hasn't hesitated to demand removal of other applications that screen scrape NextBus data. Lee calls this "Nextbus's slightly dodgy inclination to charge Metro, then turn around and charge the people who fund Metro."

NextBus does use their own algorithms to generate predictions, so it's not unfair for them to ask for licensing fees. However, the raw data on the bus locations isn't NextBus's, it's Metro's. It'd be great if Metro took steps to make the raw GPS tracking data available to other developers as well, and to clarify the legal status. People could develop applications like the Circulator "Where's My Bus" which, while not quite as useful as NextBus and its predictions, is still useful.

People could also use the data for research, like Tom's idea to gather data on how often bus routes arrive on time. I once graphed on-time performance for the L2, and could generate more of these and other interesting visualizations with this data. People could compute how much bus bunching takes place, or where buses get delayed most often, and use that knowledge to lobby local jurisdictions to add signal priority and queue jumpers at key points.

Metro isn't making any money off NextBus. If their contract with NextBus gives NextBus exclusive rights to the data, then it's shortchanging riders. If not, Metro should empower others, like Tom Lee, to access bus location data and write valuable software.



NextBus DC iPhone app review

The key test for any new product is, "does this product perform the task that I bought it for?" If I buy a shirt, I ask if it fits right, looks good on me, and functions as clothing. The NextBus DC application, available on the iPhone app store, works. It's not quite perfect, but allows users to consistently access a good estimate of the wait time for a bus.

When you open the app, you will see six choices. The first three are self-explanatory: "Favorite Stops," "Favorite Routes," and "Nearby Stops." You can choose stops and routes to add to your Favorites while looking at the map for a route or the predictions for the wait time at a stop.

Nearby Stops uses the iPhone's built-in GPS to find bus stops within 1/16, 1/8, or 1/4 mile. This screen shows NextBus predictions for all bus lines that serve that stop. From that screen, you can press a button in the corner to display a map showing your location and the location of the bus stop. This feature is incredibly handy if you're lost or just don't know where to find the specific stop.

The second three choices on the opening screen correspond to bus systems in our region. WMATA's Metrobus, Prince George's County's The Bus, and the City of Fairfax's CUE are currently using NextBus technology. I don't ride the Prince George's or Fairfax systems, so only evaluated the WMATA area. (I live in Montgomery County and look forward to RideOn getting NextBus as well.) After tapping the WMATA MetroBus button, a list of all MetroBus routes pops up on the screen. A bar on the right makes it easy to skip to categories like "1-10," "80-97," or "S-V" rather than having to scroll through every route as you must on the NextBus mobile interface.

After finding your route, you can either select the name of the route itself, or either direction the route travels in. For example, your screen would look like:

S9 16th St. Express
North to Silver Spring Station
South to McPherson Square
Selecting "North to Silver Spring Station" or "South to McPherson Square" brings up a list of every bus stop that the S9 serves. After selecting a stop, a screen pops up that has NextBus predictions for every bus line that serves that stop.

On the other hand, if you select, "S9 16th St. Express," a scale map of the S9 appears on the screen. The map has red markers at each bus station. You can then zoom in and select one of the red markers to get to the screen that has NextBus predictions for all lines serving that stop.

Like most transit users, I know the bus routes that I regularly take, such as the Y5/7/8/9, the Q2, the 70/71/79, the S1/2/4/9, and the J2. I also am familiar with other major routes like the 30s, the X2, and the 16s. However, I don't really know bus lines in many other areas. In the past, I had to pull up WMATA's bus maps, zoom in, zoom out, and search around the PDF map to find a route and its path. It takes time to make sense of the map. The NextBus app's route map far more effective for learning this crucial information.

The app hooks into WMATA's NextBus webpage, so its predictions on bus wait times are the same as those on WMATA's website. During rush hour, the predictions were accurate within about two minutes. The largest deviations came when I could see bus down the street, but it was stuck in heavy car traffic or traffic lights. I found one anomaly when riding the Y line: I was tracking the bus I was riding from stop to stop, and it disappeared once. Thankfully, after hitting refresh, the bus reappeared at the next stop. In summary, the NextBus system works, and works even better if you refresh frequently.

The app could improve by letting the user switch from viewing predictions at a specific stop to the map for that line. Currently, you have to back up to the top to get the map. The app appears to be optimized for the new iPhone 3GS. I experienced slowdown with it on my iPhone 3G. At times it would slow down to a crawl and I'd have to just wait until it sorted itself out. The button presses were also less sensitive and responsive than in the iPhone OS itself. None of these small flaws killed the app's ability to accomplish its core task.

The NextBus DC app for the Apple iPhone is a breath of fresh air for bus users around our region. I found it useful and a great tool to better plan my time, since I have an accurate prediction of how much time I have until the next bus arrives. While it has its minor technical and design flaws, it most certainly does the job it was designed to do. I will be keeping it on my iPhone at all times and I recommend that you do the same. If you are a regular MetroBus, TheBus, or CUE rider (and I really hope that RideOn, ART, and the Circulator get NextBus installed soon) you won't go wrong with purchasing this app from the iPhone app store. It will make your life a little bit less stressful.

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