Thursday, June 21, 2012

How NextBus changes transit

Someday, I imagine that people will wonder what it was like to be forced to use public transportation without real-time predictions and vehicle locations. Even in its current, imperfect implementation, it already feels completely essential. Some people have written that they dislike the time and money spent on such items, preferring the T to work on its core mission of providing frequent, reliable service; instead of electronic distractions. I think they are underestimating the revolutionary change it brings, and it's not that expensive or distracting. The T is already tracking its buses and some of its trains, why not make that data available to the public as well? I think most folks understand this and find it quite useful.

Here's some ways it helps: real-time predictions make long headways more manageable, at least at the origin of the trip, if not so much at connections. Although, even at connection points, if you know you've got awhile, you can at least step into a store without fear of missing your bus. Increasing frequency is very expensive; although nothing can really substitute for it, bus predictions do help ease anxiety.

Another way predictions can help is, if you know the network, you can use the predictions to choose from multiple routes when you have several options. This helps at the origin of a trip when you have to choose a bus stop to walk to, but it also helps with connections. Today, I opted to ride the 86 bus which is an infrequent route that connects to both the 57 and the Green Line, and it happened to arrive while I was waiting. Since I was headed inbound, ultimately, I knew that I could use either one of these to reach my destination. So, once we turned onto Market Street, I pulled out my phone and requested the nearest 57 stopping times. The prediction showed I would have 3-4 minutes to cross the street and catch the 57, so I opted for that. But supposing that I had just missed the 57, I could have easily stayed on the 86 until I reached the more frequent Green Line. It was nice to know I had those options, and I felt comfortable using the 86 like this. It proved to be much quicker to connect this way than to wait for the direct one-seat bus ride which was still far away. Of course, for this kind of unplanned travel, it is also critical to have a good network map with frequent service clearly indicated. And it's true that you could work something out using old fashioned schedules, but you wouldn't have the same certainty, especially given the T's unfortunate reputation for running behind or dropping trips.

One of my favorite ways to defeat the MBTA's inability to maintain proper headways is to note when bus bunching is occurring by glancing at the NextBus readout. For example, the other day I saw two buses that were a minute apart. Normally, that means the first bus is taking a long time to load and unload -- probably because of an excess of passengers. Sure enough, it pulled up completely full. The other waiting riders crammed themselves onboard, but I knew better. One minute later, a bus pulled up with several seats open. And we arrived at my destination stop only 30 seconds after the crush-loaded bus. Without the GPS tracking, it would still be possible to do this, but only if the buses were within line-of-sight.

Given proper, frequent service and some schedule discipline, the need for real-time bus predictions would be lessened. Sadly, we simply don't have that here, and for the time being, the NextBus system helps make up for that. In fact, it probably saves the MBTA money by making their poorly served routes more effective, and by increasing ridership without paying for more drivers and buses.

Anyone have any related tips or tricks they'd like to share?

1 comment:

  1. First I'd like to say that before living in Boston, I had lived in Minneapolis for 3 years. AT the time didn't have GPS tracking, but you didn't really need it. I had bus schedules for all the major routes around my apartment taped to the wall, and I would look at them while getting ready in the morning to determine when I had to leave. If the schedule says that the bus will be there at 8:10, it will be there at 8:10. This is just not possible in Boston. I could also rant how all the buses run at least 4 times an hour every hour during the day, not just peak hours, but I won't. I'm sure that relying on a scheduled bus that didn't actually follow the schedule pissed off a lot of riders waiting for buses to show up at scheduled times only for the bus to showup 20+ min later. I was fortunate enough to move to Boston after the implementation of the GPS tracking system, but I still hear many elderly riders complain to the drivers about the bus being late, something I've never experienced thanks to real-time tracking.

    They now have GPS tracking on buses just like the MBTA, but given how well managed the buses and traffic in Minneapolis are I don't think these apps are quite as needed there as they are here. Sure it's nice if you need a bus and don't have a schedule handy, but you can find the schedule posted at any bus stop you may use.

    I've also noticed the bunching of buses you mentioned in this app. I live between Sullivan and Davis Square and can take the 89 home from either location, but Sullivan also provides service to the 101. I will often check the times of both buses at Sullivan first and then look at Davis if neither of those are convenient. Another thing I've noticed is when no bus times are available. At least for the 89, it is pretty standard that if you catch the update from "no times available" to a scheduled time, it's generally about 25 minutes. I find that if I'm in the Back Bay and wait for a time to show, I could miss the bus depending on where I am but if I leave while there is no data, by the time I get service on my phone again there is generally 10-15 minutes until my bus will arrive.