Feature Story

The Bus Stops Here: The Network Makes City Life Easier

by John Carey

How can we make America's cities more livable? We could redesign the urban landscape by putting homes closer to workplaces, adding parks and town squares, and making it possible to live without hopping in a car for every commute and errand.

But there's a simpler way: Just make it easier for people to get around without their cars. As a kid I lived in Paris, and was just so blown away that you could get anywhere within 20 to 30 minutes, on what seemed like this magical network," says software developer ReeD Martin.

Few U.S. cities have a Metro like Paris, of course. And while cities have buses, "buses are perceived as 2nd tier transit," says Joshua Robin, director of innovation and special projects at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.  It's hard enough to figure out the routes. It's even more discouraging to stand on a cold, dark street corner, wondering if the bus will ever come. Even mass transit advocates like Martin give up. "In the winter, if the bus is not there in five minutes, I'm calling a cab," he says.

So Martin, Robin and other inventive souls have plotted what they see as a transportation revolution, starting with buses. "I want to make buses sexier," explains Robin. Their weapon? Information technology.

As a kid I lived in Paris, and was just so blown away that you could get anywhere within 20 to 30 minutes, on what seemed like this magical network,"

— says software developer ReeD Martin

As a 21-year old student working with MassDOT, Robin realized that Boston's buses were already being equipped with GPS units. The challenge was getting that real-time information into the hands of riders—and potential riders. So Robin pushed MassDOT and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) to make the raw data available. In November 2009, the agencies hosted a conference for software developers, handing out real-time data feed for five of the MBTA's most popular routes. Within an hour, one of the developers had written an app showing bus locations on Google Earth. That was "a little faster than our standard procurement," says Robin.

Now, the GPS data for all of MBTA's routes are available. Developers have written dozens of apps to use the data. And similar systems are in place in more than 90 cities. Here's how they work: GPS data from every bus is radioed to the transit agencies' computer centers. In Boston and many other cities, a company called NextBus then integrates the data with information on routes and locations of stops, and adds historical information about traffic flows to predict how fast each bus can move. The crunched data are  then beamed from NextBus' San Jose servers to everything from LED signs at bus stops to smart phones equipped with clever apps. Suddenly, the once mysterious bus systems become crystal clear.

One app written by Martin, a former Apple software engineer who is now a research associate at MIT, shows routes and stops, and when each bus will arrive, on an interactive map. BostInnovation calls it: "The holy grail."  Martin's other app uses a smart phone's GPS to calculate the distance and walking time to a desired bus stop and tells you when it's time to get going to catch your bus.

Such systems are relatively cheap. For Los Angeles' 3,000 buses, the price tag for installing the network and running it for three years is $1.6 million, says Michael Smith, director of engineering at NextBus. Anecdotal reports suggest that providing this real-time information makes passengers much happier than the far more expensive step of adding more buses would—and it induces people who previously wouldn't consider taking the bus to hop aboard.

"It has literally changed my life," reports Washington area resident Eyder Peralta. "It means an extra 10 minutes playing with my baby in the morning. It means finishing off my cup of coffee, when in the past I'd drop it off in the sink completely full. It means that I don't have to curse under my breath when a bus — 30 minutes delayed — finally arrives with three others right behind it."

Developers are dreaming bigger. "We are still learning what we can do with this data," says Martin. One next step is adding real-time information from commuter rail, taxis, car-sharing services, bike-share programs, and parking meters to bring smart phone owners a complete guide to getting from point A to point B.

Martin even envisions leveraging the data to help people interact and meet, say for coffee or for brainstorming sessions, thus making the often cold and impersonal city a friendlier and more creative place.  "I really believe this can be essential to our urban experience and quality of life," he says.

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