Real-time transit data in demand

By Robbie Webber

A recent study has shown that real-time arrival data for buses does indeed boost transit usage. And several cities have discovered that they don’t have to do all the work of getting the information into riders’ hands.

Although regular transit riders love the convenience of real-time transit information—allowing them to know when the bus will really arrive, not just when it is scheduled to arrive—transit agencies have wondered whether development of publicly-available data and apps is worth their time and investment.

The answer is that transit users really want real-time data, but the app development might be better handled by others.

A study of New York City bus ridership in Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Research reported that real-time arrival data had a measurable impact on ridership and revenues, although mostly on high-traffic routes. The researchers evaluated bus trips over a three year period, during which real-time data was introduced across the city, while controlling for changes in transit service, fares, local socioeconomic conditions, weather, and other factors. They found a 1.7 percent increase attributable to real-time data.

They conclude that although the increase may seem small, “on aggregate these increases exert a substantial positive effect on farebox revenue.” A previous study in the same journal reached similar conclusions when the CTA introduced real-time data via its Bus Tracker system in Chicago.

Both New York and Chicago developed their own web-based system to allow riders to access real-time data, and this is often the first step for transit agencies offering live data. But app developers are quick to make this same information accessible in more mobile-friendly formats.

The Maryland Transit Administration recently began making bus arrival data available on its website but initial reviews were harsh, claiming that the interface was barely better than a printed schedule. When app developers asked for access, MTA claimed that the system wasn’t truly ready and converting the data into the standard format that is used by most apps would cost $600,000.

However citizen hacker Chris Whong decided that he could crack the puzzle himself. After about two weeks, he was able to make the data available in the right format. It took Montreal-based Transit App—which has transit data for 90 metropolitan areas, mostly in North America—just one day to add Baltimore’s real-time data to its app.

Although MTA disputes the frequentlyrepeated claim that Whong and Transit App saved taxpayers $600,000, they certainly got the information out considerably faster than MTA’s estimated schedule of “a few years.”

Baltimore isn’t the only metropolitan area to have its transit data hacked and added to Transit App. The Edmonton [Alberta] Transit System was also delaying release of live data, but Transit App scraped the information from the city website and now has ETS arrival data available. ETS says that Transit App didn’t contact them in advance, but also did not breach any security to get the data.

Transit agencies across the world are racing to make real-time information available to their riders. While some are focusing on completing the installation of GPS equipment on all buses and testing the accuracy, app developers say that making the data available as quickly as possible is more important. But there is a place for both official, web-based data sources and nimble apps that use that data.

Official transit websites have been called clunky and difficult to use, a complaint in both Baltimore and Edmonton. Smart phone users seem to prefer apps that open quickly, use GPS to show the closest transit stops, and display data in easy-to-read formats. However, agency-hosted websites and information services still have their place since not all riders have phones that can run apps. City-based services may also give the option of a phone call or text message with arrival times, adding a reminder when it’s time to walk to the stop.

Whether via web-based sites or apps, real-time data has been shown to be popular and to increase ridership. Riders just want to know when they should go look for the bus and how long they have to wait.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.