Source: bustime.mta.info/

Source: bustime.mta.info/

THE COMMUTE: Bus Time was first rolled out in the Bronx and Staten Island. Later it was expanded to Manhattan and finally Brooklyn and Queens. It is a system that predicts bus arrival times using a computer, mobile device or by sending a text message via a cell phone. It is also available at a few selected bus stop locations with plans for expansion to additional bus stops. The ability to predict arrival times at bus stops was first promised by the MTA 35 years ago, so you can understand my skepticism why, after three failed attempts and tens of millions of dollars wasted, I thought it would never happen.

Still knowing when a bus will arrive is only half the battle, because if published schedules were accurate, there would not even be a need for BusTime. The biggest problem the bus rider faces isn’t not knowing when the bus will arrive, but the bus arriving on schedule. BusTime was also supposed to help in that regard, along with its companion system Bus Trek, which, as far as I know, is still in the testing phase. We have not heard anything recently about its status.

Bus Time Has Its Limitations

It does not work all the time. Not only does it not tell you how long you will have to wait for a bus, but instead, the number of bus stops or miles away a bus is. The number of stops does not matter if a layover is involved since you are usually not told the length of the layover, which could be anywhere from three to 30 minutes, if it includes the operator’s break. I discovered this a few weeks ago when I had to spend considerable time in bed due to a back problem. I decided to check various routes using Bus Time, continually checking back at the same intersection for a two-hour continuous period.

Here Is What I Noticed

If you see the next bus is three miles away, you can’t assume it is safe to grab a coffee. Consider what happened on Avenue Z and Ocean Avenue if you were waiting for the B49 going north. BusTime was actually misleading. The display said next bus was 3.2 miles away. Two minutes later, a bus was inserted at East 15th Street (probably turned around at Sheepshead Bay) and the display changed to “2 stops away.” So, if you left the bus stop to grab a cup of coffee, for example, chances are that you would have missed the next bus. The only way to protect yourself would have been to repeatedly send text messages.

Also, if the operator does not have the “Next Bus Please” sign displayed — in which case the bus is temporarily removed from the BusTime display — and the bus is crowded, there is no guarantee that the bus will stop for you anyway, although BusTime might tell you the bus is a short distance away.

MTA Is Working On A Real Time Display

Since Bus Time debuted, customers have asked for displays in minutes, as many other cities such as Chicago, already have — not miles and number of stops away. The MTA is responding.

At a presentation of new methods of fare payment and bus time on May 20, the MTA announced that they are developing a system that would provide the bus rider with a system that would provide minutes instead of miles. Initially, the MTA rejected providing that information, because they did not want to pay NextBus royalties for the use of their algorithm, used in other cities, so they are developing their own.

Even better news is that, for the technologically impaired, two Manhattan councilmen and one Queens councilman have allocated a total of $720,000 from their discretionary budges, once the budget is finalized in June, to install real time bus information at 32 bus stops mainly at selected Manhattan crosstown bus stops and at four stops in Queens. Let us hope that some City Council members from Brooklyn also join in. However, at $20,000 per sign, technology does not come cheap.

This, however, may actually be a two-edged sword lowering bus usage rather than increasing it. The reason being that if Bus Time can’t make service more reliable, more people will walk to their destination if they know the next bus will not arrive for 15 or 30 minutes and they can reach their destination quicker by walking. Revenue may not be much affected if this happens at transferring stops where riders have already paid their fare or will do so at another bus or the subway. However, if the MTA reduces bus service based on lower bus usage, as they have done in the past, this will result in even lower reliability due to bus bunching.

CEMUSA

According to a Subchat post, during a City Council hearing two weeks ago, a question was posed as to why Bus Time countdown displays cannot be placed into the existing space intended for them in the newly replaced bus shelters operated by CEMUSA. The MTA stated that CEMUSA is charging too much money, and they don’t believe it is a good deal. I am not questioning the MTA’s judgment and will take them at their word.

However, I do have critical words for NYC DOT and CEMUSA. I wonder what type of open-ended contract NYC DOT signed with CEMUSA that allows them to decide now how much they will charge for utilizing the space that was intended for real time information, without any upper limit placed into the contract. One would think that using an existing display would be much cheaper than constructing a completely new one. Apparently not.

I have criticized CEMUSA before, for the removal of Guide-A-Ride strip map information once provided at bus shelters and required by the contract, which were lit up and easy to read at night, as were the bus number designations, which are also being removed from bus shelters. Why was this allowed without any protest from the city or MTA? If the contract was renegotiated, why?

Conclusion

BusTime is helpful to many, though it is far from perfect. Expanding it to bus stops is a good idea, but very expensive if done all over the city. It would seem wise to somehow combine displays with advertisements to reduce the costs. Also, legal attempts to get CEMUSA involved should be investigated since the original contract did require them to provide bus information, which they are not doing.

Most importantly, BusTime must be used to monitor and regulate buses so they adhere more to their schedule. This is not being done. This past Friday, May 30, I spent another two hours watching BusTime on the B69 route primarily in Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights because of a discussion I was having in the comments of a past article. This route, which is supposed to operate every 16 to 24 minutes between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. southbound at Fulton Street, actually arrived at 5:35, 6:09, 7:04, 7:22, and 7:36. Those are gaps of 34 minutes, 55 minutes, 18 minutes and 14 minutes. Note that the 14-minute spacing occurred when buses were scheduled at every 24 minutes. Arrival times bared absolutely no relation to scheduled times. Also, according to BusTime, Bus #711 stayed at the southern terminus for 53 minutes from 6:18 to 7:11 when he went out of service. That was enough time to make a complete one-way trip. If he was on his dinner break, he would have resumed operation and not have gone out of service. Clearly if this route was being managed at all, the operator could have made a partial trip to and from Grand Army Plaza in the time he was getting paid for standing still. There is absolutely no excuse for what happened now that we have BusTime, if management used it properly.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

    I usually avoid buses, but a few weeks ago I began using BusTime via the NYC MTA Bus Tracker app for Android. I have now taken two additional bus rides for trips I would have normally used the subway on. I credit BusTime entirely for that change in behavior, and I suspect I’ll take the bus more often for certain trips.

    Are there problems? Yes. My main annoyance is that there isn’t one MTA app to rule them all – bus, subway, this and that. It’s a minor problem that’ll be fixed in time, I’m sure.

    That said, I think you’re overly critical of the program. I won’t comment on whether it took too long to roll out or issues with cost, but in terms of functionality, it’s a massive improvement. I don’t think saying “adhere to the schedule” is a solution, any more than saying “Let us all win the lottery” is a solution to global poverty. It’ll never happen, and I have serious doubts that it ever did happen. Tear down those schedules, they’re relics. And I’m sure that’s exactly what will happen when Bus Trek is rolled out.

    As for converting it to minutes, it’s just as vulnerable to the problems that you say ails BusTime. No computer algorithm will ever fully be able to account for all factors with traffic, bus break downs or even unexpected lunch breaks. Layovers and route adjustments/turnarounds make programming complicated. You want them to “manage” it – which really means task people with making these adjustments in real time. What a horrendous prospect, in terms of cost and labor.

    As for miles or minutes? It doesn’t matter. Either works. Miles, I think, will be more accurate, but I get that it limits its accessibility. I would just think anyone who reads it in minutes will know to take it with a grain of salt (and, I’m sure, will learn to either way).

    • Allan Rosen

      I really don’t see how I am overly critical. Of course BusTime is a massive improvement over nothing. No one said that it wasn’t. As for minutes over time, 45 minutes is much more useful than 3.5 mlies. Many seem to agree with that and the MTA recognizes that fact. However, you still need schedules and take actions to help buses run on schedule. 45 minute or one hour gaps in service are just not acceptable in NYC. Yes, when the subway is an option you can take that instead of waiting for the bus. That is a big advantage of BusTime. However, for most trips at is not a choice.

      As far a lunch breaks being “unexpected.” That is just not true. All lunch breaks are planned and scheduled and certainly can be programmed in as can layovers, with a little more effort. Currently some layovers show up in BusTime and others do not. As far as buses breaking down, BusTie handles that quite fine. It is just removed from the roster when the operator shuts off the destination sign and waiting times are updated.

      There is still the problem of the technologically challenged. I can’t use it from my home computer because of the layover issue and crowded buses showing up on BusTime but not stopping. However, yesterday my friend and I tried to use it from our phones for the first time. Neither of us could and it wasn’t the fault of BusTimeeither.

      • Allan Rosen

        My friend was doing something wrong which she finally figured out. And I couldn’t figure out how to shift from the alphabet to the numeric key pad. I will have to check my phone manual. We were futzing around for about five minutes, then looked up and saw the bus. Hopefully next time will be easier.

  • http://secondavenuesagas.com Benjamin Kabak

    ” It is a system that predicts bus arrival times using a computer, mobile
    device or by sending a text message via a cell phone. It is also
    available at a few selected bus stop locations with plans for expansion
    to additional bus stops.”

    This isn’t right. BusTime shows distance between your stop and the next bus. As currently rolled out to the public, there is no “countdown” or time element (which is a separately issue with it entirely). Additionally, BusTime is currently available on every bus at every stop in the city right now, and it has been since early this spring.

    What BusTime does do through its web interface is allow anyone to see how problematic bunching is across the city. Is anyone at operations doing anything about it? So far, the answer is no.

    • sonicboy678

      Of course no one at Operations is doing anything about it. For some reason, they don’t really care…unless maybe we’re talking about the Q22.
      Flatbush Depot sends out many buses for the day and they often experience bunching. By the looks of it, they’ve lessened the issue for B44 SBS once they stopped the split-route thing they had going and changed it to full route with short route supplements. (I’m not really sure how to describe it better.)

    • Allan Rosen

      You are correct. I will ask that the correction be made. It currently does not predict times, but as the article states, the MTA is working on that because that is what the public wants. I stated that BusTime was now in effect in all five boroughs so I don’t understand your comment that it has been at every stop since Spring. I said nothing to the contrary.

      I didn’t go as far as saying that the data is not being used to lessen bus bunching, There is no reason or a bus to sit in one place for an hour with its destination sign on. If the bus had broken down, the driver houd hae removed it from BusTime by turning off the sign. Only that I haven’t seen any instances where it is being used in that manner. I hope that changes soon since the MTA is promising they will use the data to better regulate buses.

    • fdtutf

      When Allan said this: “[i]t is also available at a few selected bus stop locations with plans for expansion
      to additional bus stops,” I’m pretty sure he was referring to the availability of the information on displays at bus stops. I don’t think he meant to imply that BusTime wasn’t available on the Web for all bus routes now.

      Allan, please correct me if I’m wrong.

      • Allan Rosen

        You are correct. That is what I meant. Ben must have misinterpreted it. Thanks. Now I understand his comment.

  • Ken Schmier

    NextBus has been doing a damned good job of predicting buses for more than 14 years in San Francisco oand other cities world wide. It is very cheap. Why, one wonders did MTA go this direction?

    • Allan Rosen

      The MTA claims that NextBus is too expensive.

      • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

        It’s hard to say without knowing NextBus’ quote, but it’s unlikely that the MTA considered all the ongoing costs of developing their own algorithm and still came to this conclusion. My guess is they’re going to spend a bunch of money to do it themselves, go into ridiculous cost overruns, and put forth an infuriating product – like so many other recent tech ventures the city has pursued.

        Allan, do you have a link to a source about the MTA’s decision to pursue alternatives to NextBus?

        • Allan Rosen

          I don’t have a link. I believe I read it on Subchat. But I shouldn’t have said they intend to develop their own algorithm. Under Jay Walder, they realized that others can do this much better than they can do it in-house which is why Walder decided to make the MTA data open to developers. That’s how I believe BusTime was done, through open data for developers. I believe they are now trying to use developers’ knowledge to convert distance to time. I don’t know what it will cost but most likely it will be cheaper than NextBus.

          That was Walder’s greatest accomplishment to end the paranoia that the world will end if the MTA made its internal data public. Before him, the MTA kept all data top secret, although the MTA is still far from transparent.