High tech for mass transit

By Philip Brewer on 5 August 2007 (Updated 18 August 2007) 6 comments

The local bus company where I live has started providing a bunch of high-tech aids to riders.

The coolest one is sophisticated trip planning. In a web browser, enter your starting point, desired destination, and departure time. Get back a list of possible bus routes. You can get them sorted by fewest transfers, quickest arrival, or least walking.

The results turn out to be fascinating, even if you already know how to reach the destination, as it finds all sorts of serendipitous routes:

  • There are two buses that go right past my office that will get me downtown with a transfer. This tool pointed out that I could walk three blocks and catch a bus that will take me right downtown.
  • I go to a weekly meeting at a coffee shop that's only five blocks from a bus that takes me home. This tool pointed out a bus that will take me those five block, which has been nice to know on rainy days.
  • I even found one place where I could get off a bus a few blocks from a major transfer point, walk a block, and then catch a bus that I would otherwise have just missed.

Besides the trip planner there are other new high-teach features:

Rerouting information by RSS feed. I get a short post every time there's a temporary change to a bus route due to something like construction or flooding. This is not only good for catching the bus, but is also handy if I'm driving or bicycling, because I'll face the same obstacles the bus faces.

Schedule updates by text message. Every bus stop has an ID. Send a text message with that ID, and receive back a text message with the next few buses coming to your stop. Very handy to make sure you didn't just miss your bus, and also useful when deciding whether to take one bus versus holding out for a more direct route.

Bus stop signage with current bus arrival info. LED signs at some bus stops show the next five or six buses and when they'll arrive.

Desktop widget with current buses for any stop. This is the same information as the LED signs, but available on your desktop. Handy for knowing when to head out to catch the bus.

Does your mass transit district offer high-tech features like these? I'd be interested to get an idea if this sort of thing is already common. If you know, post in the comments. If you don't know, it's probably worth your while to find out. Where I live we have a superior mass transit district, so maybe we're on the leading edge. I'd had no idea how good our bus service was, until I started riding it.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

OK, now that's cool. We live in the boondocks, so there's absolutely no mass transit system for several hours driving distance. But still, your post shows the power of what can be accomplished with a little planning. Most people avoid mass transit systems that are annoying. I frequently discuss / wish for the need for better public options in this country.

I'm glad it's working out for you in your location. For us, we just have to suck it up and plan for a major list of errands whenever we travel to civilization, which doesn't make for a very fun or relaxing outing. But I guess that's the trade off for getting to live in a relaxing location. Good post earlier, too. I've been meaning to comment on that one as well.

Philip Brewer's picture

I grew up in a suburb, then my folks moved to a rural area when I was in high school. I liked rural life, and eventually bought a house out in the country myself. After moving back to town a few years ago, though, I found to my surprise that I really like urban life.

"Urban" is perhaps an exageration for Champaign, but it's really nice to have things within walking distance: two grocery stores, a dozen restaurants (more than that, if you're into walking), a 24-hour pharmacy, multiple video rental places, etc.

The walkability is the best part. The great mass transit is notable mainly because it was such a surprise.

Thanks for the kind words! 

Myscha Theriault's picture

Hi Phillip.

I'm not ready to move to urban life permanently, but I can definitely see the power of having it at least a few months a year or as a second home. We lived in the city for a while after we sold our home in Arizona. We stayed with a friend for a few months before my husband retired. She had stayed with us during a life transition, so it was sort of a reciprocation. Anyway, we got to realize very quickly why urban life, which we had always resisted before, was appealing to so many people. Over all, we love being in nature. However, it was so nice to walk as you were mentioning to great restaurants, a vet, Target, etc. And if you did have to drive, it was not nearly as far as it was when we were further out of town. I can really see both sides of the issue, and why people put effort into a specific urban location. Depending on your situation, it can be the best thing, financially.

Guest's picture
jay

I've been using the Seattle bus system for a few months now and I can say that we already have most of the things you mentioned in the article plus a few additions. The trip planning feature on the King County metro planner page is extremely handy for me, especially when I am on the go and use the Treo to find the next bus. There are also pages where you get real time locations of the buses - the coolest being a Java applet that shows you where the buses are at on a map. I do like the text message idea, but I don't think we have it. The bus trips in downtown area is free. Another thing I really like is the way buses work with the Flexcar service. Since I don't own a car, I use Flexcar as my rental company when I want to make short trips. Buses take you to Flexcar locations so you can get off the bus and drive off with the car you reserved.

Philip Brewer's picture

I'm not surprised that other bus services are doing the same sorts of things.  Good to know.

Thanks for the mention of Flexcar as well--I don't think Wise Bread has done a piece on Flexcar so far, but we definitely should.

angelfast's picture

I am also a nature lover so I'm not yet ready contemplating on moving to an Urban place. Besides it will also be an additional expense for us, since it requires a higher standard of living there. I just bought some parts for my car lately,a saab catalytic converter,so I have to tighten my purse at this point. A car is very important for transo.here in our area, so I can't afford a defective ride, it would be such a lost...Anyway, I like this post...=)