While services like OneBusAway might seam to be a nicety a 2006 study commissioned by the Federal Transit Administration shows that real-time arrival information systems produce significant and quantifiable benefits that exceed project costs. The paper, Real-time Bus Arrival Information Systems Return-on-Investment Study (I highlighted and added notes to the interesting parts), documents how a comprehensive Return on Investment (ROI) study should analyzes the costs and benefits of real-time information systems. For demonstration purposes part of the ROI study was applied to Portland’s Transit Tracker system. Not all benefits were quantified and extremely conservative user rates were assumed (ex. Transit Tracker usage for MAX trips were not included).

Less Wait TIme
ROI assuming shorter wait times only

To summarize the results of the paper see the graph above. The white area show when the annualized cost of the system exceeds the annualized user benefits of the system. In contrast, all non-white areas indicate where the system pays off. The horizontal axis shows the average reduction in wait times and the vertical axis shows the annual number of trips that Transit Trackers is used for. The darker the shading the large the ROI. By finding the intersection point of reduced wait time and annual transit tracker usage you can see when it yields benefits. As you can see the report conservatively estimates that as long as users of the system on average save 30 seconds a trip this system pays off.

This ROI graph assumes that all riders that use Transit Tracker get their information before they leave for their bus stop. The paper next looked at what would happen if no one actually had a reduced wait time, but their perceived wait times were shorter. It has been well documented that one minute of waiting for a bus feels like the equivalent of riding on the bus for twice as long. It has also been shown that transit riders significantly overestimate their wait times but when real-time information is provided their estimates become closer to their actual wait times. To account for this effect the cost of time was discounted to varying degrees (5%, 15%, 25%, 50%).

Better Wait Time
ROI assuming reduced perceived wait times only

Again the real-time information systems have a good ROI even with very conservative assumptions. The lightest gray shading assumes that 50% of the additional cost of time is created by arrival time uncertainty.

I point this out because Metro need to look at budget cuts from a users perspective. While quality of service is mostly related to headway and reliability, real-time information can help to negate the effects of reduced service quality. It reduces the user’s wait time because they don’t have to “pad” their arrival at the bus stop and reduces the perceived wait time once they are there. Also for those that use notoriously unreliable routes like the 48 this information is the difference between waiting 3 minute or 15+ minutes. So what should Metro do?

  • Acknowledge that Metro’s Tracker is completely outmoded by OneBusAway. Stop promoting Tracker and focus on OneBusAway.
  • Have a significant PR campaign to better inform the public of OneBusAway, with existing transit users specifically targeted.
  • View real-time information as a cost effective and cheap way to mitigate the affects that service cuts will have on riders.
  • Also view this as the only effective way of mitigating increased unreliability of buses as layover times are reduced.
  • Use some of the extra money from the bus replacement fund to do this.
  • Actually use the digital message boards in the transit tunnel and display both Link and bus arrival time.

This is the absolute least Metro can do to redress its historical underutilization of real-time information.

46 Replies to “Real-Time Arrival Information: It Really Pays Off”

  1. Uh, excuse me for asking, but how does this system “pay off” when the rider reduces their wait time by 30 seconds? For that matter, how do you reduce your wait time by 30 seconds just by knowing when the bus is coming?

    Show me that ridership rises or people pay higher fares with this extra knowledge and I’ll be all for it.

    With the evidence to date, however, I’m left with the impression of a ridership that has the attention span of a fruit fly.

    1. This is exactly why I wrote this post. Because people have too narrow of a view of what public investments should do. Public investments should have a positive social and economic benefit. That doesn’t mean Metro will make more money off it, but society as a whole will be better off. That is what government is for.

      I said an average of 30 seconds. So one time a week (or more often) your bus is late 5 minutes works out to something close to 30 seconds. Those 5 minutes can be spent doing something else, and that affect multiplied millions of times over a year adds up.

      If you have time to read the paper do (its only ~70 pages). It explains it all but I had to boil it down a lot.

      1. Serial Catowner:
        In fairness to Adam, he did not answer your question. He suggested you’d need to read the 70 page paper, where it is explained. We all want a simple eight-word answer to our questions, but transportation (and most other things) are just not that trivial.

      2. Well, so far, you’ve implied that I take “too narrow a view”, that I want “an 8-word answer”, and that (amazingly enough, considering how narrow-minded and simple you seem to think I am) reading a 70-page paper will convince me that this system “can” increase ridership and make people “more likely” to ride.

        Or at least that they will feel better- which is presumably cheaper than giving everyone a pony, but not explicitly stated.

        Presumably this is a situation analogous to the automobile, which gets about the same worse mileage than a 1959 Morris Minor, costs ten times as much, but is, I am assured by young people, ever so much better.

        And to that judgement I will defer, and even stand in awe of somebody who can fashion anything meaningful out of five minutes of time that would otherwise be wasted. I can do that when I’m at work in my chosen profession, which involves a lot of multi-tasking, but doing it in response to learning the bus will be late- that’s amazing.

      3. serial catowner:
        I use OneBusAway for real-time info, and I make use of the extra few minutes. It’s nice, but I don’t think my adaptability is ‘amazing’ or unusual.

        In the mornings, if my bus is late, I use that time to clean up a bit of my apartment or make some tea. While not super-productive, it’s better than waiting…

        And, using your example, in the afternoon, I check on my bus while at work. If it’s late, I make use of that time to send an email or do a bit of work on one of my tasks. That’s productivity and is an economic benefit.

        Finally, don’t you think that there is a correlation between people ‘feel[ing] better’ about using transit and people using more transit? Honestly, I find your argument to be ‘one of the least persuasive’ that I’ve ever heard against real-time information.

      4. Well, if a matter involves considerable expense and complexity, seems to me it’s the people who want to do it that need to make the argument.

        However, in this case I assume real-time information is (or should be) free, just sitting around waiting for someone to use it, as a result of GPS systems and more sophisticated scheduling tools. Considering how long the over-the-road truckers have been using these tools (and more!) my only real question here is why it’s taking so long.

        However, I would sympathize with the transit system if they had a nightmare where people complain about buses that are one or two minutes late- because they can. After all, this is a system that makes it appear that every minute counts. Maybe people will be happy to learn exactly how late the bus is, maybe they’ll be angry.

        Time for another survey.

    2. Oh and btw most studies show that real-time information can increase ridership at least 5% or so. This affect is especially noticeable with discretionary, non-commuting trips. That is the market that transit does the worst in and has a large growth potential.

    3. We’re still crunching the numbers from our survey from two weeks back, but something like 30% of users of OneBusAway are more likely to make additional transit trips because of the availability of the system.

  2. It’s a big deal for a couple of reasons. First off if you’re looking at transfers a bus that’s 3 minutes late can turn into a 30 minute wait if you miss the connection. Second, you have some assurance of which bus will get you there on time. Say that according to the schedule the one after 9:09 will get you to the church on time. You go out five minutes early, just miss the previous bus, wait twenty minutes and arrive 15 minutes late. If you knew the buses were running 15 minutes late you could have gone out a couple of minutes earlier, had virtually no wait and arrived five minutes early.

  3. It’s also extremely helpful in deciding alternative routes. As noted, the 48 is notoriously late. If it’s running late, opting for Link is a better option. If it’s not, then saving myself the transfer gets me to my destination quicker. (All moot in a couple of weeks when the 48 ends at Mt. Baker. But you get the general idea.)

  4. Melbourne has an electronic display showing next arrival times for trams and buses at many stops throughout the city. I wish we could be like Melbourne. One Bus Away is great and I use it all the time, but I wish that same information could be displayed at bus stops too. Even Denver displays next arrivals at its main regional bus transit station downtown.

  5. There are tons of other cities that do this! There is even an existing display screen in the hub at UW. The technology exists right now! If my house faced a bus stop I’d hook up an extra TV and point it out the window with OneBusAway displayed just because I think it’s so pathetic that Metro can’t even try at a few stops to do it themselves.

    1. They do – at the Northgate transit center, with some tv screens. I haven’t seen any others, but I feel like there might be some at other transit centers

      1. Overlake had one for a while, but these things are bottom priority for repair, so they tend to break and never get fixed.

      2. Yet another reason to maybe partner with a private company who gets the right to display some advertising and who will maintain the screens.

        We might be able to get some modern large flat panel displays mounted where more than one person can read them too.

    2. Agreed. Metro displays information at Bellevue TC and Northgate too. but the displays almost seem to be hidden. At these major transit centers the displays should be large and prominent like an airport display. At other stops there could be an electronic display on the bus stop posts, like in Melbourne.

      1. Haven’t been to Bellevue TC in a long time, but when I used to work in DT Bellevue, I think I saw them operational 20% of the time. They were turned off so frequently that I was in utter amazement when I saw them on. Not very helpful if they do not work most of the time.

    3. there used to be some on Aurora where metro put up small led readers on the bus stops and used the avl data to provide bus arrival times.

      they killed the pilot eventually for some unknown reason – i think there was the usual contention that it was either too hard or too expensive or both. virtually every other major city i’ve been to recently has had them – sf, boston (yeah, they had some hiccups initially), nyc (some of it is spotty, yes, in the downtown areas), etc.

      nextbus (http://www.nextbus.com/predictor/agencySelector.jsp) is used in a lot of places. not sure why it is so unbelievably hard to get metro to move on this.

      1. I think that they were using cell phones for communication and that data costs were too high. I could be totally wrong but that I what I think happened.

      2. It seems to me that Metro could find a cheaper solution than using the cellular network. For that matter the cost of using cell networks for data transmission has come way down in the past few years.

      3. For RapidRide, Metro is deploying a 4.9 GHz 802.11 (Wi-Fi) + Fiber network for real-time communication between buses, traffic signals, bus stops (ORCA readers and reader boards), transit control center, and bases.

      4. That is all good and dandy for Rapidride but that model makes it necessary to built a fiber network everywhere that they want to have real-time information. That is never going to happen.

  6. So, does anyone want to take a crack at designing a small flyer (maybe fitting two on an 8.5 x 11 sheet)? Then perhaps we could post it somewhere — like transitriders.org — and folks could print out a few at a time and hand them out while waiting at the bus stop or traveling on the bus.

    1. Just stand at the stop with your phone on speaker repeating the arrival information. Have already been asked about it a few times.

  7. Metro has been planning to get Nextbus info up and running for a while now. The first step is completing the radio systems upgrades, which should be done next year. Then all that’s left is the display tech, which will cost a lot of money that Metro doesn’t have. It will be running in the tunnel and major transfer stations though. At least, that’s what I hear.

    Hopefully Metro will support onebusaway officially, because Metro is clearly unable to provide quality tools for riders. The trip planner also needs to be completely redone with maps, etc.

    1. we need to get metro into “can-do” mode (e.g. “can-do this decade”). i know they’re doing a lot of work on upgrading systems, etc. but seriously, they’ve been studying this since 2001. it’s time for them to move on this – if onebusaway works, the data is there even if slightly imperfect. riders are out there and have been waiting for this for a long time. it’s getting embarrassing.

      1. Perhaps a private company would be willing to provide the displays in public locations like bus stops and other suitable spots in exchange for the ability to use the displays for advertising.

    2. Hey already have system wide tracking of vehicles as well as arrival calculation software. That is what support OneBusAway. I believe metro will be using nextbus for RapidRide because the UW developed algorithm can’t work for headway based operations.

      Note that real-time information can easily and cheaply provided online, via cell phone and SMS.

    1. It seems like a first step in getting upgraded bus stops with modern information displays would be to allow advertising at bus stops and use the revenue to pay for them. I don’t have a problem with advertising at bus stops if it is not overdone. A lot of cities allow it and it doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on the streetscape. Maybe the income could go towards implementing off-board fare payment machines too.

    2. The answer is that the county council and upper management need to pushed to do this. I don’t believe that Metro will do it on its own because it has been sitting on this information for the past ten years and hasn’t done so before.

    3. The perfect place for that to happen would be in Columbia City’s “downtown” area for Link. You would be able to know whether you had time to grab a cup of coffee or if you had to hightail it to the station.

  8. Here’s an update from Metro on the status of the new radio and GPS system:

    “New radio system passes milestone — The new transit radio system is a step closer to reality after factory acceptance testing was completed in March at the Motorola facility in Schaumburg, Ill. The radio system was then shipped to Seattle in April, and Motorola began installing the new equipment at seven remote tower sites, in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, and in the Transit Control Center. System testing will continue through 2009. The first new radios will be installed in Metro buses starting in March 2010, and it will take about a year to complete the installation in all buses. A parallel project will fully integrate the new voice and data radio system with the Driver Display Unit and ORCA systems. These integrated systems will provide improved automatic vehicle location using GPS, automatic trip and fare-set changes for ORCA, automatic stop announcements and internal information signs for passenger information, canned text messages for commonly repeated radio calls, and improved transit signal priority operation in designated corridors.”

      1. It’s from the quarterly Metro employees newsletter “In Transit”. I can’t seem to find a link to it right now, but I read the same thing.

  9. After using One Bus Away for a few minutes, sorry but I’m going back to using the Metro Tracker. First, it works a lot better on my computer. I’m an old fella and can’t afford a new PC, and that One Bus Away thing is very slow on mine. It’s only a 4 year old PC.

    Also, Tracker is much easier to understand. It took me lots of head scratching to figure out how to use One Bus Away and I still only have it partly figured out. Finally, by accident, a little white box thing popped up when I dragged the mouse around one of the tiny green dots. But the dots aren’t labeled as to which dot is which bus stop so it was trial and error. It wasn’t the right stop so I clicked on the “look for other stop” thing and it took me to an overview of the Puget Sound area, instead of back to the bus I was looking for. So I hit the back button a few times and after it stood there thinking for a while, it went back to more or less where I was. But this thing is not only slow as molasses but confusing to boot.

    The kicker was that I only noticed that it said in “Nbound” in the fine print after I wrote down the schedule time. But I was going southbound. Why can’t it say both of the times, or at least let you (i.e. remind you) to pick which direction first? Or at least say which direction in big black bold type. Which direction it’s going is VERY important! My memory isn’t what it used to be which is one reason I ride the bus. It’s too easy to make “little” mistakes like that without noticing it with this program, or get confused about the different pages. I just find it much easier to use Tracker. Further, I think the people who made Tracker actually thought about things like that, and whoever made One Bus Away didn’t. Tracker is much less confusing and it helps me to be less error prone compared to this. Maybe you don’t sympathize but you’re young yet.

  10. Try the text-only or iPhone version from your computer. I use the iPhone version for everything and I don’t even have an iPhone.

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