Transportation Nation

GPS data may pay off for city bus riders

Marketplace Staff May 27, 2010
Transportation Nation

GPS data may pay off for city bus riders

Marketplace Staff May 27, 2010


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.

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