Monday, September 17, 2007

The potential for GPS at Metro

Christof mentioned to me recently that Metro is planning on adding GPS units to all the buses, so they know where they are in real-time. It got me thinking about potential services they might offer with that information. Maybe display them in real-time on a web site map. But here's what I think would be most useful to everyday riders:
  1. Give every stop in the city a unique number
  2. Let people send a text message to Metro from their cell phone with that number
  3. Metro's systems would automatically send a reply text message giving the next few bus route-numbers arriving at that stop and their estimated time of arrival
I think this would help less frequent routes get a whole lot more use. Rather than sitting and waiting in the open weather at a stop, people could relax wherever they are (home, work, store, cafe, etc.) until the last minute, then head down to the stop to arrive just-in-time for the bus.

It could even be helpful with transfers between lines, because you can find out if you have time to walk across the street to Starbucks or pop into a convenience store before your transfer bus arrives.

One tricky part would be software that would learn traffic conditions over time to make good estimates. Routes may average different speeds at different times of the day. It would also need to learn in real-time: if the last bus down a stretch took 15 minutes, that's probably a better indicator than a historical average that predicts 5 minutes.

Another nice feature would be to set notification text messages to be sent when a specific bus number is a certain number of minutes from a specific stop. That would be complicated to input from a cell phone, but wouldn't be much trouble on the web. If you know it takes you five minutes to get from your office to your stop, at the end of the work day you could fill out a web page asking for a text msg alert when your bus is five minutes out. People could even have personal web site accounts to store their regularly used alerts or set recurring ones.

It's relatively simple and inexpensive services like this that could go a long way towards attracting more discretionary riders to transit.

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At 10:49 PM, September 17, 2007, Blogger Clarence said...

Muni in San Francisco has their NextMuni GPS system available in a number of ways (though not officially through text message -- of course, being that it's SF, there's a hack available using the public data feed):

1) An online google maps mashup that shows the location of each bus on a line

2) A text-based system for mobile phone browsers that gives a simple "next bus arriving in..."

3) LED displays on bus shelters

4) Live operators at a citywide non-emergency number

5) A lot of other widgets and hacks using the public data feed (including an iphone online widget)

I'm sure Metro's looking at SF's program and its shortcomings, but the big takehome message is to provide as much information using as many methods as (financially and feasibly) possible. The one thing that's a total no-brainer is providing some kind of public data feed for hackers and widget makers to work with.

At 8:17 AM, September 18, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Yeah, if GPS is used correctly, it could absolutely transform Houston's transit system. I'm at a junction in Eastwood that is served by several bus lines, and I've made a concerted effort to take the bus on shorter trips -- and I can't remember how many times my efforts have been thwarted by buses that never appear. When I have time, I wait --20 minutes? 30 minutes? (Either would be far too long for someone with a more normal affinity for transit!) But more frequently, I have some kind of deadline, such as a movie at the Angelika or an art show at the Museum of Fine Arts. With the buses as unreliable as I've found them, I'm loathe to attempt taking one again when I'm on a schedule. Knowing when my bus is expected to arrive would completely change the dynamics of the situation. Screw the time chart with its unrealistic arrival times -- give me a real time GPS system!

At 8:30 AM, September 18, 2007, Blogger John said...

I'm pretty sure I read of something like this for trolleys - in a Scandinavian country, I think. It's a good idea.

The LED idea is actually already fairly common; in DC they've got them in the Metro stops to tell you when the next train is coming.

At 9:51 AM, September 18, 2007, Blogger C Neal said...

I believe that Portland, Oregon's TriMet recently made their buses' GPS data open-source, and a number of transit users are now developing their own transit tools and applications with the data.

for a few examples.

At 10:07 AM, September 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Adding a GPS system for agency buses has been something I have thought of suggesting to the agency for a long time. The private sector implemented GPS tracking devices on 18 wheeler trucks which haul freight around on the Interstates years ago.

What might be an add on to being able to get text messages would be passengers would be to have an electronic board at bus stops which would have messages on them posting estimated times for the next bus arrival. This would be much more costly to implement however since the agency has several thousand stops in its service area.

It does not help that many bus stops in Metro's service area do not even have a shelter at them, nor do they have panels nearby which show route information or system maps. These are fairly low cost items which could be implemented, but it says much that they have not been implemented despite the fact that the agency has been in existence for 30 years now. In London, where bus companies are privately operated, there are maps and shelters at nearly all bus stops.


At 11:51 AM, September 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of the stops used to have shelters on them, until Metro had to dismantle them to thwart vandalism and bums. I'm thinking in particular of the eastbound 82 Westheimer stop at Montrose. It used to be a normal bench with shelter, then it was a sheltered bench interspersed with iron arms so the bums couldn't stretch out, then it was a pole with four single-seat-sized bench seats (one facing each direction) and a small square shelter over the top. Finally they took even that away, and now there's no shelter, nowhere to sit, and nothing there but a bus stop sign and four or five bums who seem to live at that corner.

At 11:55 AM, September 18, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yeah, I've seen the displays before in DC. Absolutely helpful, but you still have to hang out at the bus stop. I think the cell phone system would be much more helpful, and certainly cheaper for Metro: no displays to install and maintain.

At 7:38 PM, September 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, I am starting to wonder if you might be turning into a closet Portlander.

1. You quoted Kotkin on the need for cities to invest in infrastructure. Portland's Burnside Bridge renovation project (see today's is just the latest in a long string of "not sexy" infrastructure investments in that city.

2. You wrote about saving trees on Kirby. No Northwest treehugger could have said it better, ha ha!

3. And now you write a concise and compelling case for text-message transit schedules. It's a great idea, though I have the nagging feeling I've heard it somewhere before. (*cough* Portland! *cough*)

I could go on, but I don't want to damage your street cred with the "libertarian" fundamentalists who, like the communists of the 19th century, are so right up to a point and then so very wrong beyond that.

Some tongue-in-cheek suggestions for future posts: public-private partnerships to redevelop the railyards next to downtown (Portland!), a private concession to extend rail to the airport in exchange for development rights along the route (Portland!), opening Metro up to Google Transit (Portland! and Austin!), and a reform of Texas' entrepreneur-unfriendly liquor laws so that we could have enjoy a brewpub scene in keeping with Texas' rich history of local breweries.

In all seriousness, thanks for sharing your viewpoint! A. V.

At 2:57 AM, September 20, 2007, Blogger Clarence said...

A couple of extra points:

It seems like a total no-brainer to add a predicted time of arrival of the next train for the Main Street LRT since there's already LED signs on every stop. I'm sure that there's going to be LED signs for Metro Solutions LRT/GRT lines as well.

Text messaging would be a very nice service, though I'm not quite sure it would be as successful as info LED signs. Not everyone understands how to use a info-related text messaging system; everyone knows how to read (or at least 99% of Americans do). This is how it's done in San Francisco:

That having been said, it's much cheaper to rollout a text messaging and/or internet based nextbus-type system than any sort of physical LED signs. (I believe that there are some official text messaging systems in Singapore and the UK for comparison's sake.)

Quick question for you, Tory: does Houston bid out advertising on bus shelters in exchange for cash and maintainance (to Clear Channel, JC Decaux or Cemusa)? I don't remember seeing ads on bus shelters during my time at Rice. Is there no interest on the part of outdoor advertisers in Houston, or is it just something that Metro's never really thought about?

At 9:09 AM, September 20, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

To be honest, I really don't know. I would imagine the ad market is stronger in cities where more of the the middle class rides transit, like NYC, Boston, DC, SF, etc. Maybe the hassles aren't worth the relatively small $? It does cheapen the overall look and feel of transit to have ads on everything, so I think it would only be worthwhile if it brought in substantial money.

Anybody else know Metro's history with advertising?

At 10:23 AM, September 20, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

METRO has an explicit board-level policy against advertising that's been around for years. The basic objection is that it creates visual clutter in the cityscape and that it dilutes METRO's branding. They could make a decent amount of money by selling ads -- transit ads are common even in systems with much lower ridership than METRO.

Something along the lines of the "next bus" times you talk about is in the works. I've heard the cell phone idea specifically from METRO.

At 9:15 AM, September 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The link below is a story about DC's bus notification system (includes cell phone contact too).

So the system does exist.


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