Washington Commuters Get GPS-Enabled Bus Information

Two new applications provide information to smartphone and PC users on the whereabouts of city buses.
Residents of Washington, D.C., now have access to GPS data that gives them the real-time location of city buses and, in some cases, when buses are scheduled to arrive.

"When you think about the level of problems in the city, it might not be as big as things like fixing the schools, but when you think about the things that effect your day to day life, this matters," said Washington's interim CTO Chris Willey.

On July 1, the D.C. government launched a mobile and Web application called Where's My Bus? that shows a user the distance of the next bus approaching on its downtown Circulator system. On July 17, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority launched its own application, NextBus, which tells commuters not only how far away the next bus is on the citywide Metrobus system, but also when it will likely arrive.

Suzanne Peck, CIO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, called NextBus "probably the single most substantial advance in the service to our bus riders that Metro has given in terms of customer service in the history of buses in Washington, D.C."

NextBus launched as a pilot program more than two years ago, but problems with equipment logon, scheduling, and bus-stop data caused errors in predicted bus arrival times, and WMATA spent 19 months making sure the system was reliable and accurate.

The system now tracks 1,500 city buses at 12,000 bus stops via a combination of GPS and computer modeling. Algorithms calculating bus arrival times take into account variables such as bus locations, stop locations, traffic patterns, local speed limits, time of day and time of year, and whether school is in session.

Commuters can access NextBus via phone, a Web site or mobile Web. At several dozen of the city's busiest bus stops, LED signs also show when the next bus is expected to arrive. System information is updated every two minutes, and the system is integrated with Google Maps to show locations of all buses along a route.

The NextBus system cost WMATA approximately $3 million, significantly more than the Where's My Bus? application, which was built by city employees using mostly open source software. Where's My Bus? runs in Google's App Engine service, stores the GPS data in an Oracle database, and is available over the Web for PCs and smartphones.

The city chose open source as a way of including citizens in future development of the application. "We built it intentionally open so somebody else could make it better," Willey said. "If you want to find out when is the next bus, we left it open for the community to figure that out. It's really about creating a community of developers who are creating applications for government."

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