Friday, May 24, 2013

Where's my bus (arrival sign)?

A NexTrip arrival sign at the Uptown Transit Center in Minneapolis.

Real-time arrival information for buses in the Twin Cities area has been publicly available since 2008, when Metro Transit added NexTrip functionality to their website. It was updated a year later to include a mobile web version. Eventually the communication protocol used under the covers for both the mobile and desktop websites was simplified and made publicly available, and there are a number of computer programs and smartphone apps available to get at that information. For me, NexTrip ranks as a "killer app"—a program so useful that it could justify the purchase and continuing use of a cellular data plan and smartphone (or an Internet-enabled "feature phone") all by itself.

While anyone can access arrival times through a mobile device, the deployment of permanent digital signage at bus and light-rail stops has been maddeningly slow. While the Blue Line on Hiawatha Avenue has had LED panels in place since it opened in 2004, they have only been used for showing the current time and periodic admonitions to stay behind the yellow line, report suspicious activity, keep your belongings close, and so on and so forth. There have only been intermittent sightings of any schedule information going up on the boards.

A handful of busy bus stops have the signs. Transit centers at the Mall of America and in Uptown have them. There's a sign tucked away at the busiest single stop in the system at 7th and Nicollet. Along Interstate 35W, the 46th Street BRT stop also has some real-time displays.

The most ambitious deployment of NexTrip signage in the Twin Cities was in the "Marq2" project, an impressive system of doubled-up bus lanes in downtown Minneapolis on Marquette and 2nd Avenues that serves suburban express buses. Every stop along that project has a large LED panel to show arrivals—a pretty useful tool considering how many different routes are funneled down those lanes. Still, it seems there are only dozens to perhaps a hundred installations of real-time arrival boards across the region's network of 14,000 bus stops—probably less than 1% of the total, and not corresponding all that well to the busiest stops or routes.

It's hard to understand why this is still the case in an era when unlocked, unsubsidized smartphones can cost as little as $125. As a proof of concept, it would be easy to slap one of those into a weathertight box and attach a solar panel to recharge it. Within Minneapolis, such devices could make use of the city's municipal Wi-Fi network to receive data, minimizing or eliminating the need to pay for cellular network access. Some further engineering might probably be needed to handle the extreme depths of cold in the winter and heat in the summer that we get around here, but it's not insurmountable. Since a tiny smartphone screen would be hard to read at a distance or in direct sunlight, a real deployment would have to rely on larger LED panels (where costs for bulk quantities are measured in dollars per square meter). An interesting alternative might be an electronic paper display like that in the Amazon Kindle, potentially allowing printed paper schedules to be eliminated entirely.

Done right, it's likely that hundreds of displays could be built for the cost of a new bus, let alone a whole transit line, although operational costs would eat into that a bit. While informational displays don't seem to get much backing since they don't directly impact travel times, they do provide a huge psychological benefit to users of a transit system. Eliminating or reducing the worry that you've just missed the bus has a tremendous value and is certainly worth the investment now that the technology behind it has become so cheap and data accessibility is not the problem it once was.