by DR. KARI WATKINS

Hello Seattle Transit Community – 

For more than a decade you have loved and supported OneBusAway. As many of you know, Brian Ferris and I created OBA as two PhD students thinking that we could make transit information better in the Seattle area. Since then, the app and backend have expanded to hundreds of thousands of users in multiple cities as well as providing real-time info in Seattle for a very long time. A few years ago, our longtime mentor Alan Borning helped the OneBusAway community create a non-profit called Open Software Transit Foundation to govern the project. However, we are a meagerly funded non-profit that exists primarily based on the blood, sweat and tears of a few dedicated volunteers on our board. 

Recently, we reached a crossroads. We still powerfully believe that having a transit-agency-controlled, open-source-coded way to get your transit information remains a good thing, even in a world with Googles and Transit Apps and contractors helping agencies spend millions to create their own dedicated app.  Yet it is getting harder and harder to exist as a volunteer-only organization and we feel the need to finally hire a dedicated developer who would work for us on the project to keep the apps up-to-date while trying to increase our reach. 

To do this, we need an influx of cash. We have long had an account set up for you to make donations, but have only used it when people asked us. We are now working on revising the apps to make a plea for donations more prominent. We’re looking at a wikimedia version of taking donations. Every once in a while, we make a plea that if you rely on us to get your info, show us the love. 

We know that Seattle Transit Blog was with us from the very beginning (earliest I can find is 2009), encouraging Brian and I back in the day, so we thought we would start here to make our first plea. Think of this as a way for us to gauge if this is going to work. And if you have funding ideas for us, feel free to reach out at info@onebusaway.org

Thanks for your support all these years,

Kari

Kari Watkins is an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Davis.

32 Replies to “OneBusAway Needs Help”

  1. I continue to use OneBusAway, as I find the UI much easier to use and understand than competitors, such as Google Maps and the Transit app. I use other apps only when visiting other cities that OneBusAway doesn’t support.

    I really hope OneBusAway remains functional.

  2. Start charging users 99 cents to download the app. If people believe your app provides them value or convenience, they will pay for it. If not, they won’t.

    1. To provide convenience you first make it inconvenient up front? That inconvenience is a barrier to adoption. I have no paid apps on my phone; I have few apps at all. To install a paid app, I’d first have to decide to, then I’d have to be willing to give my credit card information to the app store, then I’d have to trust the app publisher. All those are barriers, that may affect some people more than others. Most people who would use One Bus Away already have it. There will always be new people, but just trickle, not enough to fund a nonprofit at 99 cents per new person.

      Several large tech companies have found a successful business model in offering a basic service for free, and then after users are committed to the program, upselling higher-level or business services to them. I’m not sure if that could apply to One Bus Away, but it avoids the initial barrier.

      I do find One Bus Away valuable and am willing to donate to them more than 99 cents. So there’s also that model. Maybe it needs a Patreon, for those who are inclined to donate on that platform.

    2. No.

      onebusaway should become the owned product of the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services.

  3. I rely on OBA as it is superior to the government website and Google, et al. Please provide more opportunities for donations and fund-raising. Thank you.

  4. I enjoy the OneBusAway app. I regularly use it and I think it definitely adds value over google maps and the like.

    Raising money is not easy of course. Charging for downloads is costly, after the apple or google take, and credit card / Paypal processing fees you are left with about 65 cents on the dollar. And it creates barriers for using the app.

    I think the better way to go is to ask the transit agencies for (more) money. You only have the deal with a few. Important is to have a business case for them. What is the added value compared to just for free sharing the data with google and the like. I could imagine that Transit agencies can get their “own” app using OneBusAway technology. Benefit is that they have their “own” app.

    Another thought is to see if you can do deals with last-mile providers. Having their data in the app as well/

  5. In Pierce County I would love to use OBA, but have found the Transit App to be much more accurate, and therefore useful. Do they have a better, direct feed to the GPS or Transponder info, or however it works?

    1. My understanding is that all of the transit related apps get their data from the same source, so the choice between apps is strictly a matter of the UI. I personally like the OneBusAway UI best.

    2. Transit App is the official provider for Pierce County so I’m not surprised it’d be more accurate as Pierce Transit actively works together with that app maker.

      > Today Pierce Transit introduced Transit as the agency’s official mobility app. Transit counts millions of active users in more than 200 cities worldwide. Pierce Transit is now making the leading transport app in North America its official mobile app for customers to track their bus in real-time and get information from the agency.

      https://www.piercetransit.org/news-releases?id=474

      > Do they have a better, direct feed to the GPS or Transponder info, or however it works?

      The generalized api is actually sent from onebusaway throughout the Seattle area. Well to be more exact it’s Bus data from agency -> onebusaway api -> ui (could be either Transit App/Google Maps/One bus away). Though considering Pierce County is working directly with Transit App might have direct access to the GPS /transponder, I’m not really sure.

      https://www.soundtransit.org/help-contacts/business-information/open-transit-data-otd/otd-downloads

    3. The data has persistent errors in it, which is why all the apps and Metro’s own next-arrival displays are unreliable. Each app company applies its own algorithm to try to guess what the real situation is and correct the errors. Some algorithms may be better than others. So that’s what you’re getting from a particular app, along with its user interface.

      The errors include buses that forget to turn on their transponders, have it set to the wrong route, the message gets lost along the way to the center, there was a spot of congestion after the last message, a wheelchair lift-raising makes the bus miss the next stoplight and then the ones after that, etc. I’ve been at stops (255, 40, 62, 131/132) where the display said the bus would come in 10 minutes, then 5 minutes, then it vanishes from the display and the bus doesn’t arrive. How is that possible? It thought the bus was definitely ten blocks away, and then it dematerializes? Gets caught in another dimension or abducted by aliens? This happened to me twice in a row with the 255 at UW station, so I turned around and postponed my trip.

      Link’s next-arrival displays have been similarly unreliable, so bad that ST turned them off. It had them on again for a couple periods this summer to quantify the reliability and trace where the errors were coming from. They came on again a few weeks ago, and they’ve been accurate for me ever since, so maybe ST fixed the problem with Link. The buses still probably aren’t fixed.

      1. I feel like ideally, to fix the first two sources of errors, the transponder should be linked to the destination screens on the outside of the bus. Are those still a limited set of pre-set options?

      2. TriMet’s web site features location information on all the buses and trains. I’ve noticed that if a bus has to go off route for even a block, it disappears from the map, and sometimes never reappears until it gets to the end of the route.

      3. “Each app company applies its own algorithm to try to guess what the real situation is and correct the errors.”

        Interesting. I used to (8 years ago in Lake City) be able to rely on OBA to be within a minute, 99% of the time. I’m not a software engineer, but how did it degrade to be nearly unusable? It doesn’t sound like there was a significant shift in the tech.

      4. You may have been lucky. It has always had errors that I’ve heard. I don’t want to overstate the case though. Often it is right, or right within “it may show up 2-3 minutes later due to last-mile congestion”. It’s just that it’s been wrong enough that I never know whether it’ll be trustworthy this time.

        There are also times when it says “scheduled”. That’s not technically wrong: it’s saying it doesn’t know where the bus is or whether it’s coming. But to me it’s just as untrustworthy, because I don’t know whether it will come then or later or earlier or not at all. There’s some reassurance that it should come then, but I could get the same from looking at the schedule at the bus stop.

        Then there’s holidays and snow days. It doesn’t know about those, so it assumes it’s a regular day.

  6. The to-me-obvious choice for a funding source is a grant from a federal agency such as DOT. Since you are an academic working in this field, where much funding comes from exactly that source, I’m going to guess that that’s been tried and failed, or possibly that the project can’t wait for the funding cycle.

    1. Grants are for a single project like an upgrade. And you never know until the decision is announced whether you’ll get it. This is for ongoing everyday funding, and there may be projects and fixes within it, but not necessarily large enough for a grant, or non-urgent enough to wait months for the application period and a decision.

  7. King county metro or sound Transit budget should pay the costs becuz Thier riders benefit from it

  8. Yeah I was kind of surprised, the current voluntary licensing fee of just 2000 dollars per year is way too low for the operators.

    > “we ask that our transit agency members contribute a $2000/year voluntary licensing fee for using the OneBusAway software” https://opentransitsoftwarefoundation.org/overview/voluntary-licensing-fee/

    You can probably get away with asking much much larger amounts that I doubt these transit agencies would not question considering you are providing them with a real time bus map that many users use. Aka like https://buseta.wmata.com/ and you say you have “100,000 unique daily users.” for Sound transit and “30,000 requests per minute.” for mta.

    Though I guess I am a bit confused, are these branded “OneBusAway” websites owned/considered the transit agencies’ websites. Or is it more you are hosting multiple websites and the transit agencies just hosts them.

  9. I don’t use OBA as much as Pantograph, but I’ve donated anyway. This is the kind of useful service that shouldn’t die. (And as many others have said, you should be charging people to download and upgrade. It might not feel right to do it, but would it feel better to let it die? Nope.)

  10. There should be a donation request paragraph once you open the app. Or maybe not the first time but after multiple trips. You can open a link, or choose “later” or close it. But at least you know they need some money and you do not have to pay to download the app. Now that I know I will donate.

    1. I missed the paragraph about the revised app the first time I read this article. I am sorry. I hope making donations more prominent on their site helps.

  11. This was a project off of the University of Washington ITS program.

    Originally it was so I and a few other hundred people with a desktop running mosaic and java could see where our bus was at.

    SDOT signs are broken up and down Rainier because of greedy people not wanting to keep a publicly-developed project going after graduation.

  12. Just change the free version to show ads, and offer a paid version without ads. Boom, two new revenue streams.

  13. I have a weather app that charges $5/year subscription (hello weather) and an air quality app that charges $12/year (paku).

    I know there’s another transit app called Pantograph that charges $10/year for “pro” features.

    Not sure if this is a viable option, but maybe something to consider. Personally I would be willing to subscribe up to around $15/year for OneBusAway and this might be more sustainable than random one-off pleas.

  14. I have no apps on my phone that charge anything, and have not linked any credit cards to the app store. About half of the apps I use are connected to a product that I have purchased (security camera, home appliance, etc), the others mostly all have banner ads at the top, bottom, or both, or get creative at building ads into the interface. (Here’s 8 emails, a “promotional item” and more emails.) OBA should consider running ads, just like all of the other apps. They could be super tailored, because the app will know where you travel to routinely. Having a banner that suggests beer, baby food, another app, the latest new gadget, or the most sensible new car doesn’t bother me.

  15. I think it’s worth taking a moment to explain why I like the OneBusAway UI so much better than the Transit App.

    In particular, I really like the fact that the main view has prominent, clickable buttons for every bus stop in the entire system, in the default view, without needing to zoom in or view a specific route information to make them show up. This makes it easy to quickly see the “zoomed out” view of the bus network in the area, compared to the Transit App, which will only let you view one route (and only one direction of that route) at a time.

    The Transit App also hides stops and routes completely that aren’t served at the particular moment you’re conducting the search, which is find if you’re looking for a ride in real time, not so good if you’re planning a trip you might take the next day. For example, as I type this comment at 9:30 at night, I can prominently see bus stop symbols in the middle of Mercer Island, click on any of them, and repeatedly click “show more arrivals” repeatedly until the 204 appears with trips scheduled for the next day. With the Transit App, there’s no obvious way to tell that the 204 even exists at all unless you happen to be using the app during the limited span that that bus is running.

    Really, the one and only one advantage to me that Transit App has that OneBusAway doesn’t is coverage of numerous cities and transit agencies around the world that OneBusAway simply doesn’t have. But, if you’re in a city where OneBusAway works, I find OneBusAway to be just better.

    1. This is helpful. I have only been using TransitApp for a few months, and definitely noticed it’s limitations, especially around planning a trip when you weren’t standing next to the actual stop you wanted to use. I wasn’t sure if that was just a learning curve thing or user error. I’ll do some more rigorous side-by-side of reliability of TA vs. OBA going forward.

  16. I haven’t been using OBA that much since the pandemic as I have been working from home. For the many years I used it for free without ads, I just donated some money. It made my life so much easier. I personally would hate to see the app interface ruined by ads. The fact that folks without the money to pay for the app, even if it were only a nominal amount, is nice. I know that means most or many that could donate won’t. Not sure if the annual fundraiser idea is sustainable, but I guess Wikipedia makes it work.

Comments are closed.