GPS data may pay off for city bus riders

Catch the Bus iPhone app

Ben Resner created a sign that uses GPS technology to tell ice cream shop customers exactly when they should step outside to catch the bus.

Jared Egan shows off an app.


Kai Ryssdal: Today, the government gave airlines and private plane owners the specifications for some new equipment they're going to have to have on board by the end of the decade. Air traffic control's going to be GPS-based by 2020. It's going to save a whole lot of jet fuel because routes will be more precise. It'll reduce the risk of collisions, both in the air and on runways. But that's 10 years away. So if you're looking for a faster payoff from GPS in mass transit, look no further than the city bus.

Andrea Bernstein reports from WNYC.

Andrea Bernstein:It's a beautiful sunny afternoon in Boston and librarian Carolyn McIntosh is standing at a corner, looking for the number 39 bus.

Carolyn McIntosh: I just wait for it.

Bernstein: And it runs pretty close to schedule, does it?

McIntosh: Of course not! You know, you look at the schedule, read the time it's supposed to come. It doesn't show up that time. If you want the bus, you just wait.

That's pretty much the way it is for most bus commuters in this country. Massachusetts Department of Transportation wants that to change.

Chris Dempsey: We want to know when is the next bus actually going to show up. Not when is it scheduled to show up, but when is it actually going to show up. Where is it right now?

Chris Dempsey is director of innovation for the transit agency here. He wondered, why is it so hard to get accurate information about where the buses and trains are?

Dempsey: And the answer is because transit information at the MBTA and almost every other transit agency in the United States is closed.

Massachusetts began collecting GPS location data eight years ago. But Dempsey and his colleague Joshua Robin were bothered that the public couldn't see it.

Joshua Robin: Chris and I always kind of went nuts, because we would go into the operations center, and we'd see all the buses on the screen and we'd say, I ride the bus every day if only I knew that little piece of information. It would really change my life.

Robin says transit agencies aren't particularly good at developing software. So last November, he and Dempsey brought in 200 private software developers for an all-day meeting. As a pilot project they gave them all the GPS data for five bus lines. Then, they broke for lunch.

Robin: When we came back from lunch, someone had already built an application, a Google Earth Application. And by the end of the weekend, before Chris and I got back to work on Monday, someone had already put it on a simple website.

Ten days later, there was a smart phone app called "Catch The Bus."

A few blocks from Robin's office, we click through a couple of screens on his Android phone.

Robin: So it says the next bus is going to come in three or so minutes.

Soon after, a bus does pull up. We ride over to JP Licks, an ice cream store in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. Ben Resner is waiting for us there. He shows his creation: an LED sign perched above a display of ice cream cakes.

Ben Resner: So it says, "Next inbound 39 bus... 6 minutes." I don't have to guess, do I have time for another cup of coffee? Do I have time for a bagel? I know exactly when the bus going to come. It's very reassuring.

The store manager says he's noticed more customers lingering and buying ice cream since the LED sign went up. But the technology can be applied far beyond this shop.

Jared Egan: Here it comes, ta-da!

Jared Egan shows me yet another new app on his iPad.

Bernstein: Wow.

Egan: This is the live GPS position of all the buses.

Bernstein: And these are they actual buses, where they are right now?

Egan: That's right.

Bernstein: So, if we watch this, they're going to move around like kind of slow-moving ants?

Egan: Yeah.

And they do. Beginning next week, for 99 cents, Boston riders can download this app. Glen Harnish, a local teacher, says he doesn't take the bus much now, but this app could change his mind.

Glen Harnish: I find the bus to be a little bit hard to decipher and a little bit archaic in terms of it's not very transparent exactly how it works. Having that information, I think, would make me more inclined to take the bus.

That's why San Francisco, Portland and Chicago have already released their location data. And why New York and Washington want to. Because in this era of huge budget gaps, predictability is one new service transit agencies can offer.

In Boston, I'm Andrea Bernstein for Marketplace.

Ben Resner created a sign that uses GPS technology to tell ice cream shop customers exactly when they should step outside to catch the bus.

Jared Egan shows off an app.

Log in to post11 Comments


I live in Brooklyn, NY where a company called Roadify has created a way for bus riders to help make better ETA predictions for one another. People report the bus's location and Roadify can tell other riders of delays and give them a better idea of when its actually going to arrive at their stop. I asked the guys at Roadify about GPS and they said they look forward to incorporating GPS tracking, but until then, it's Brooklyn's best option.

Accurate information about when the bus will arrive at the bus stop is useful only if the bus will actually STOP and pick up passengers at the bus stop. When the bus just flies past the bus stop, or stops half a block away to let off passengers and accelerate before people on foot can reach it, that is called a "pass-up". The reason may be that the bus is so crowded that adding more people is illegal or impossible. The reason may be that the bus operator has fallen behind his/her timepoints and trying to hurry to catch up.

Well, the phone app and the LED display at bus stop play different roles. LED display is more or less just for reducing the anxiety of the riders waiting at bus stop. While with a web or phone app showing real-time transit info, user could figure out when to leave home. That makes a big difference.

A stumbling block for US companies were the holding companies that held 'idea/concept' patents. Simply, the holders were greedy.
Overseas companies ignored the threats since they knew that companies like
Nokia had this 'idea' in service for their local bus system more than a decade ago. Japan was equally not hampered by the troll.

We're so behind in this country. Back when I lived in the UK (I'm a British software engineer living in Boston) five years ago, I consulted with a company that makes bus information systems of the kind that track every bus and use 3G wireless at every bus stop to display real-time schedules. The system also supported traffic signal pre-emption (changing lights to green) if the bus was running late, etc. etc. That was *5* years ago. We have a lot more we need to invest in US infrastructure if we're not going to continue to be laughed at by the outside world. I want us to succeed, but let's not beat around the bush about how far behind we really are.

Portland,OR has had an app available for iPhone about 2 years now- PDXBUS uses the open feed from the city bus as well as from other public transport to show real-time locations. Google up PDXBUS and read up on it.

One Bus Away for the Ipod Touch is a transit rider's best friend! If you don't have iPhone, iPod, Android, you can also call on your mobile. The audible info is the same as the graphical info on your app.

Dear Marketplace Folks:

The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) has had GPS prediction on some of our lines for about 5 years. It is provided by NextBus. It is available from displays in our bus shelters and on the web. Within about a year we will have GPS prediction on all our lines. We just approved a policy to make our data available over the web for Geeks to work with.

AC Transit is the largest bus-only transit district in the country with 600 buses serving 1.4 million people in 360 square miles on the Eastern side of the San Francisco Bay.

-- Chris Peeples --

H. E. Christian (Chris) Peeples
At-Large Director
Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District
1600 Franklin Street, 10th Floor
Oakland, California 94612-2800

This report on accessing GPS data for buses made me laugh, as it's yet another example of how the US is woefully behind other countries in providing reasonable public transportation.

I lived in Brussels in the 1990's and the bus stops there already had solar-powered signs above the bus stops to tell you when the next buses were due, based on such transportation. 15 years later, I'm not surprised to hear that we (Americans) think we've (re)invented the wheel - in this case a bus wheel - yet again.

Each bus stop in Paris, France, has had for a while a panel that tells the exact time when the next bus (for each line that stops at the particular stop) will show up, using GPS. No need to have a cell phone or buy an app, so lower-income citizens are on an equal footing with the rest. Couldn't US cities provide the same service to ALL the people who use public transport?


With Generous Support From...