Mass transit news rarely makes people ecstatic, but early last week, local Twitter erupted in exclamation points.
“Who says Mondays are awful? @mtamaryland Launched real time local bus tracking!”
The Maryland Transit Administration's new online tool allows riders to plug in a bus stop and see the next bus’ ETA and location on a map.
The enthusiasm is understandable. The MTA bus system's “on-time” rate has declined every year since 2010, from 87 percent to 81 percent, and for years the MTA has dangled the prospect of “next bus” technology in front of a ridership accustomed to squinting down the road, desperate for a glimpse of their tardy bus.
In March 2012, then-administrator Ralign Wells told WYPR’s Sheilah Kast that MTA's bus tracker “should be coming out at the end of this year.” Other estimates from capital budget documents and various MTA pronouncements include July 2014, “fall 2014,” the “last half of November” 2014, a “soft launch” at the end of 2014 or perhaps even sometime in 2015, and even “no definitive answer.” Just a few days before the official Feb. 9 release, the website for MTA's “Bus Network Improvement Project” was still promising a fall 2014 launch. (MTA did beat the July 2015 deadline from the most recent capital budget document, but not the July 2014 deadline given in the previous year’s budget document.)
The MTA was an early adopter of bus tracking for internal purposes such as keeping buses on schedule, says Kari Watkins, a Georgia Tech assistant engineering professor who studies and works with real-time bus information systems. However, Watkins says, it is a “later adopter” for making that data public. “Most of the largest 25 systems have real-time rider information in some format,” Watkins says.
What took real-time bus information so long to get to Maryland riders?
“There are immense challenges with the startup of these type of systems,” says MTA spokesperson Paul Shepard. MTA had to do more than just build software to show the public where the buses are. The agency also had to modify its existing “computer-aided dispatch” and “automatic vehicle location” (CAD-AVL) system so it could interact with the new software. When the Washington, D.C., region launched “next bus” technology, Shepard says, the transit authority had to take it offline twice before it got it right. At more than two decades old, Shepard says MTA’s internal tracking system is even more of a challenge.
“MTA didn’t want to launch something that they weren’t confident could do what we say it can do,” adds communications director Rick Binetti, saying that he thought MTA had been close to the fall 2014 deadline. “But the gubernatorial election shifted all of that. The priority for us at that point became to give the new administration the time they needed to come up to speed and understand the application.”
Binetti told The Sun last week that MTA has spent $2.7 million out of a budget of $3.2 million on the project. A look at capital budget documents reveals, however, that the $3.2 million figure includes a $1.5 million increase three years after the original budget came out in Fiscal Year 2010. About $800,000 of that increase was for the new software, says Binetti, because contractors’ bids came in higher than the MTA originally estimated. The other $700,000 was for the existing tracking system. “It couldn’t handle the software,” Binetti says. “So it needed to be enhanced.”
Stops with an "(s)" after Real Time are not being tracked and do not offer a map (below) to show their location.
Some observers attribute at least part of the delay to resistance from MTA employees. “My suspicion is a usable real-time map would provide authentic documentation of poor bus service,” wrote one commenter on a Baltimore Brew story. A participant in an MTA discussion forum wrote, “With trackers on the bus and someone monitoring them, MTA would know the moment a driver decided not to do their job.”
Rick Binetti says there “wasn’t any real pushback from operators.” (We called Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300 President David McClure several times with no response.)
Transportation researchers say bus-tracking systems across the country often encounter resistance when first implemented for internal use. “The sabotaging of CAD-AVL, there was a lot of that at the beginning, I’d say 15 years ago,” says Carol Schweiger, who, as a vice president with Boston’s TranSystems Corporation, helps transit agencies set up bus-tracking systems. “There was a lot of, ‘This is big brother, we don’t want anybody watching us every minute. This isn’t fair.’
“Now,” Schweiger says, “there’s a little less of that.”
In 2013, Georgia Tech’s Watkins published a study of bus operator attitudes toward real-time transit information. About nine out of 10 operators supported it. Drivers increasingly recognize that the system can work in their favor, says Schweiger. It can serve as “instant replay” if a customer complains a bus skipped their stop, it can locate a driver who is in danger, and it can monitor not just the driver but the traffic on the route they’ve been assigned. “The information tells the agency, ‘You’re expecting a driver to drive a route they can’t possibly make,’” Schweiger says.
Bus drivers are essential to the success of MTA’s bus tracker: If a driver is not logged into the CAD-AVL system, riders can’t follow that bus in real time. As far as those buses are concerned, as one snarkster with the Twitter handle @CityThatReads noted, “basically we waited forever to just get the bus schedule on a user experience nightmare mobile page.”
Phantom buses have been a thorn in riders’ sides since long before the bus tracker went public. Sue Carlin has ridden MTA since 1989 and commutes by bus from Upper Fells Point to downtown. “There were times when you would call [MTA’s customer service number],” Carlin says, and they’d say, “‘Tracking’s not working on that bus, we don’t know where it is.’”
Drivers can be disciplined if they don’t log on, says Binetti, and MTA calculates logon rates. “We are seeing percentages into the 80s at this point,” Binetti says. MTA has an internal marketing campaign that reminds drivers to log on.
Logoffs may not always be intentional, Binetti notes. There are spots where buses regularly lose communication with the system, and drivers must log back in to re-establish contact. And after a driver logs off at the end of a shift, a new driver may forget to log back in.
When buses aren’t logged in, the MTA’s new bus-tracking site loses its magic, with an “(s)” for “schedule” appearing next to arrival-time estimates. When I took the tracker for a spin, a majority of the time I received scheduled, not real-time, estimates. A trip from Hampden to Charles Village on the 27 bus the other day was no different than it had ever been. If the tracking system had given me real-time info, I could have watched the bus on the map and gone to the stop a few minutes before it arrived. But the tracker generated the dreaded “(s)” for both trips, and I had a 40-minute wait for one of the buses.
The bus tracker is in beta for about three months, and this is the kind of information MTA is hoping riders will share. So far, says Binetti, the bus tracker is already generating real-time data about three-quarters of the time. MTA hopes to replace the current internal tracking system in the next three years. The new system will generate data in a format easily digestible by outside app developers. The current public tracking site has essentially been patched together so riders can have something until the new system arrives.
Real-time bus information systems don’t necessarily improve on-time percentages. Carol Schweiger cites a study in London that gave customers real-time information and asked what they thought. “The first thing they said was, ‘Wow, you guys really improved service!’” Schweiger says. “Guess what—they didn’t improve service, the service was the same.”
An improvement in perception doesn’t necessarily translate to increased ridership. “Most riders are transit-dependent,” says Watkins. “It’s still difficult to pull those ‘choice’ riders out if you don’t have really frequent service and [service that] runs really great hours and service that treats people with respect . . . the kind of system you want to be riding.
“Real-time info is not going to do it,” Watkins says. “But it’s a huge piece of puzzle.”