Where’s my bus (arrival sign)?

NexTrip display at the Uptown Transit Station.

NexTrip display at the Uptown Transit Station.

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.

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9 Responses to Where’s my bus (arrival sign)?

  1. Andrew May 24, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    It frustrates me to no end that even the LRT signs don’t show due times. It’s a train for crying out loud! Your computers know exactly what section of track its on all the time – or else you’d have trains running into each other. How hard is that information to put on the signs already at the stations?

    A transit geek friend of mine sent me a pic of a subway in Belgium that had little lights on a board next to station names to show where the trains were. 1960s era tech that’s better than what we have.

  2. Brendon Slotterback
    Brendon Slotterback May 24, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    Marq2 serves “urban” express buses, as well as suburban, like my 135.

  3. Evan Roberts
    Evan May 24, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    It feels to me like they’ve been promising a more widespread deployment of the displays since 2008. Having watched a couple of other cities roll this out starting around the same time, the Twin Cities have really fallen behind. If you have a smartphone it’s fine, but really in winter, who wants to be taking their gloves off to operate their smartphone. And what about visitors or occasional transit users? Should you have to download an app just to check when the bus or train is coming? (NO!) Wouldn’t an indication that a bus or train was coming be more likely to get people to use it, i.e increase ridership.

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 25, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Does anyone know anyone at Metro Transit that could answer this seemingly simple question?

  5. Andrew Degerstrom May 26, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    There is a team of three technology systems analysts who work with the technology behind the NexTrip system. I worked closely with one of them last summer. However, they’re not the ones who decide how fast the technology gets rolled out system wide. I would get in touch with John Siqveland, Metro Transit’s PR guy.

  6. Matt May 26, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

    As an alternative to waiting on Metro Transit to implement these displays, it would be nice to see more local businesses that are at busy stops put these in the windows. They could display in both directions for the benefit of outside potential customers and inside ones who could decide whether to stay for a few more minutes based on the information displayed.

    • Matt May 27, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

      Agreed. I have to imagine there’s a way to build a digital display for under $200 with off-the-shelf technology if it doesn’t have to weather the elements. Seems like dual LCD screens and a low power fanless PC between the two would make a good inside/outside display solution for storefront glass at corner coffee shops etc. Mpls could even chip in free wifi to make this amenity happen. If someone knows how to make this happen, I would fund the hardware costs for a demonstration at my neighborhood coffee shop at the corner of two bus routes.

      • Matt May 27, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

        You could use an extremely basic version of Linux to run the computer (this one might be a good option: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webconverger I’ve never played with this type of thing, but it appears to basically just be an OS that runs Firefox) and if the computer doesn’t have two monitor inputs, you could get one of these http://www.amazon.com/Tripp-Lite-P516-001-Monitor-Splitter/dp/B00083Y4B0. The computer would require next to no hardware with such a stripped down OS. The only part that would cost much is the two monitors. I would think such a basic OS would also be very stable so you could likely leave the computer running for days or weeks (months?) with no maintenance. Have it display a NexTrip page like this one: http://metrotransit.org/NexTripBadge.aspx?stopnumber=13325 and make the font size big enough that it takes up most of the screen.

        • Matt Steele
          Matt Steele May 28, 2013 at 10:04 am #

          I’ve been thinking about how the UI could deal with multiple stops at an intersection. For example, one of my local streetcar nodes has four stop numbers for the four stations. These serve a total of four bus routes, a downtown route, crosstown route, downtown ltd stop via 35W and a U of M ltd stop. It would be useful to show some sort of map and some other info like local businesses.

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