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Online, Smart Phone Technology Eliminates Public Transit Guesswork

May 20, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
When Metro Transit introduced its NexTrip real-time bus departure information system two years ago, an anonymous blogger predicted that it would attract no more than a dozen rider-users a day. Well, the results have come in a tad higher than that--more than 40,000 hits a day by phone, wireless or online, not to mention the 30,000 additional riders who can see or hear real-time updates on message boards along the Marquette-2nd Avenues transit corridor in downtown Minneapolis.

So much for the reliability of anonymous bloggers. (You'll always know where Minnesota 2020's blogs come from.)

What is vastly more reliable than before is the actual time a Metro Transit bus will get to your stop. That eliminates one of the chief obstacles to transit patronage: uncertainty about how long you'll have to wait in the rain or cold to get picked up. Estimated departure times are updated every 30 seconds.

Metro Transit buses, at the mercy of bad weather and traffic jams, run behind schedule at least 10 percent of the time. That's less of a problem now that Northstar commuter trains and all 897 MT buses are equipped with global positioning hardware linked to the NexTrip system. "It takes the guesswork out of the minds of our customers," said Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons.

It spares the managers of Metro Transit's far-flung system a lot of guesswork, too. Now they can automatically plot the progress of every bus on every route to make printed schedules more accurate. They can smooth out service glitches in real time, as well. If three buses are bunched together, one can be ordered to switch to drop-off mode only, putting the spacing back in order.

And knowing within feet where every bus is at all times also improves safety and security. "Our drivers have silent alarms for emergencies," Gibbons said. "NexTrip is very useful to our transit police that way."

 Metro Transit spent $12 million on the GPS infrastructure in 2003 and used it only for internal functions for the first five years. NexTrip, launched in July 2008, was developed in-house off that platform, Gibbons said, and can be continually customized to meet changing needs of Metro Transit and its patrons. It costs riders nothing to access it, and neither are they distracted by the advertising that accompanies some private transit information portals.
NexTrip, at, is Metro Transit's second-most-visited web location, behind only the home page, which offers a NexTrip button.

Several other wireless transit information applications are available from private developers who have free access to Metro Transit's schedules via

RouteShout, a free download with schedules for more than 100 transit agencies nationwide, including some in the Twin Cities suburbs, gives real-place transit information on GPS-enabled wireless PDAs. Just point it at a street corner and nearby route schedules pop up. That can be especially helpful at Metro Transit's 12,000 pickup locations that have no bus shelter with a schedule on display, but it doesn't offer real-time departure information.

Neither does Train Brain, a $1.99 smartphone application that displays schedules for Metro Transit's Hiawatha light rail and Northstar commuter rail lines. Hiawatha trains are not GPS-equipped, but they run on schedule 97 percent of the time, Gibbons said.

There are more: Twin Cities Transit Mobile, TopStop and UniBus, both available through iTunes, plus transit lookups on Google Maps. "Feedback is awesome," reports Twin Cities Transit Mobile developer Paul Wenzel.

In order to grow ridership, transit agencies need to focus on customer service that breaks down people's objections to traveling anyway but by private car. Metro Transit has moved in that direction with NexTrip, file sharing for private apps and another big barrier-buster, guaranteed free taxi rides home for transit users' emergencies.

The Metropolitan Council aims to increase annual transit ridership in the seven-county area to 110 million by 2020 and 147 million by 2030. The 2009 figure was 88.8 million, 76.3 million of them on the council's Metro Transit buses and trains. Independent suburban fixed-route and dial-a-ride services, the University of Minnesota's intercampus buses and Metro Mobility for the disabled provided most of the rest.

It's only when riding a bus or train becomes virtually as convenient and reliable as driving--at a significantly lower cost--that the Met Council's goal will be reached, with benefits in access, mobility and congestion reduction for all of us.

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