Timing Next Bus's Arrival Won't Be Guesswork
Metro Brings Back Tracking System For Phone and Web

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Metro is relaunching a long-awaited real-time bus arrival system that is supposed to tell riders when the next Metrobus will arrive at their stop. The system could make the area's largest regional bus service a more viable option for thousands of people who now shun it because of its unreliability.

Starting July 1, Metrobus customers should be able to find out approximately when the next bus will pull up to any one of about 12,000 bus stops across the Washington region. Riders can get the information by phone, online or via electronic signs at several high-volume bus terminals, including the Pentagon, Anacostia and Friendship Heights Metrorail stations.

Political pressure to improve bus reliability led Metro to run a pilot almost two years ago, before the system was ready. The test, on 32 routes, was suspended because of internal communication and dispatch problems that made the system only 80 percent accurate. Even so, riders on those routes said the information was a huge improvement over printed schedules, which they say bear no resemblance to reality.

NextBus technology will cover all 355 Metrobus routes and all of the more than 1,500 buses in the fleet. The goal is 90 percent accuracy.

Transit advocates said the real-time information could transform the bus-riding experience.

Many regular Metrorail riders, who can usually rely on electronic platform displays that show when the next three trains are arriving at a station, don't take the bus because there is no way to predict when it will arrive.

"This is a really big deal," Metro Board member Chris Zimmerman said. "This will give people some idea of whether it pays to wait for the bus and, if so, for how long. Time management is one of the key facts of our lives, and in the Washington area, the transportation schedule is one of the biggest challenges for most people."

As traffic worsens and Metrorail nears capacity, many transit planners view buses as key to relieving congestion. Improving reliability could turn a transportation system of last resort into one that is a feasible option. Many bus systems across the country are using systems similar to NextBus. In the Washington region, buses operated by Fairfax City, Arlington County and Prince George's County use bus arrival prediction systems.

But Metrobus, with an average of 460,000 weekday boardings, has the largest ridership by far, plus the capacity to carry many more. More riders would also increase much-needed bus revenue, officials said.

The system uses the global positioning system and computer modeling to track buses on their routes every two minutes. That information is relayed to passengers every 60 seconds via the Internet. Customers would call a telephone number, provide the number of their NextBus stop and get information on their cellphone or other hand-held wireless device telling them how long it will be before their ride arrives.

The computer modeling factors in time of day, day of the week and time of year as well as many other factors, including whether school is in session, said Rob Kramer, the Metro information technology manager responsible for NextBus. "It's a dramatic boost for our customers."

Accuracy will be thrown off, however, by major weather situations, such as snowstorms, and road closures and detours, such as during the July 4th holiday.

Kramer said the system's rollout was delayed two years ago because of inadequate computer capacity at Metro, obsolete databases that didn't include accurate bus stop locations and buses with failing GPS antenna batteries. Bus drivers were also not logging on properly. Since then, log-on procedures have been greatly simplified, Metro has added computer capacity and scrubbed the databases, and is identifying dying batteries and replacing them.

The agency has spent about $3 million in capital costs to roll out the system. Officials renegotiated a contract with NextBus to pay $223,000 in annual operating costs, Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said.

Some local bus officials contend that NextBus is not cost-effective and that Metro should work with the manufacturer of the computer-aided dispatch and tracking software, which Metro already owns, to customize a similar prediction system. "Then there is no operating cost, because Metro already owns it," said Howard Benn, who oversees Montgomery County's Ride On bus, which is expected to introduce a similar system at the end of the year.

Kramer said that Metro considered other options that but none had a "production ready" product. Changing in mid-stream, he said, would have added to delays and cost Metro annual license fees.

Members of the Metro-appointed Riders' Advisory Council have been testing the NextBus system since May.

Panel member Frank DeBernardo, who lives in Greenbelt, rides two Metrobuses and the Green Line each way to his job in Mount Rainier.

In the past, he would guess every morning whether to take the T17 bus, which runs a circuitous route to the Greenbelt Metro station, or gamble and hope that the R12, which takes a more direct route, would arrive soon after.

"On the schedule, there's only supposed to be a minute difference, but in real life, it's anywhere from a minute to 10, sometimes 15 minutes," he said. He has been testing NextBus online.

"I don't have to gamble," he said, explaining how he checks the bus arrivals online before leaving. What's more, the system might even allow him to cut out the subway and save $5 a day. "You feel like you're more in control. You're not at the mercy of the system."

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