Dude, Where’s my Bus?

Anyone who’s has ever ridden the bus has shown up on time to find no bus in sight. Was it early and you missed it? Is it late? When’s the next one? It’s the kind of experience that quickly drives commuters back to their cars, so it’s not surprising that every day I’m seeing another announcement about some city launching an app that lets people see where their bus or train is in real-time.

It’s an easy win as they can improve commuter satisfaction, show that they’re keeping up with new technology and increase ridership (which means revenues).  As one example of that last point, the city of Edmonton green lit a real-time tracking/information project based on an estimated increase in riders of just 0.5%, which to them is worth $600K in new revenue per year.

It’s pretty easy to put together such a system, too. All it takes is:

  • A low cost GPS and wireless sensor on each bus/train to supply the real-time location
  • Some simple back-end software to compare the real-time data with schedules
  • A mobile app or web site to display the information; ideally as an auto-refreshing map, similar to an experience like Uber

That’s pretty much all there is to it. As you might expect, there are multiple companies providing real-time public transit solutions as a turnkey offering such as TSO Mobile, RouteMatch and NextBus.

In just the last few months, a diverse selection of transit systems have introduced this service: Australia, Austin, Birmingham UK, Boston, Baltimore, Colorado Springs, Des Moines, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Nairobi, Toronto. Naturally there are companies (like Moovit or Transit App) aiming to aggregate this information so you don’t need a different app in each city – kind of like Yelp for bus schedules. That will make it easier for the data to show up on your Apple Watch or Google Map one day.

I’m sure soon enough commuters everywhere will wonder how they ever got along without knowing exactly where their bus was. This is just one “low hanging fruit” example of the real-time future that’s unfolding in every aspect of our lives.