By LYLE KENDRICK
Return to Stuck in Transit main page
BALTIMORE — When Elliott Plack, a geographic information systems specialist, began riding the Baltimore bus system, the bus would regularly fail to show up on time. Plack would wait at the stop without any way of determining when the next bus would arrive.
“Get used to it, honey,” bus system veterans would tell him.
In cities like Portland, Ore., and Denver, smartphone apps, such as NextBus, use GPS information to let riders with smartphones know when the next bus is coming. Transit users in Portland have 56 apps to choose from.
But without a system like NextBus in greater Baltimore, Plack said, bus users surrender to a schedule that most bus drivers can’t even keep up with.
Now members of the tech community and the Maryland Transportation Administration are trying to create a real-time bus tracking system that would let riders know by checking their phones how much time they should plan to wait for a ride.
A real-time tracking system would reduce residents’ annoyance with late buses and help them gauge when they can to get to work or school.
“The lack of a modern system makes riding a bus so unpredictable,” Plack said.
Some of these tech advances would do more than serve smartphone users. The projects could help the MTA improve its routes — by giving the agency data added by users and enabling the MTA to better see underused routes or routes with the right number of buses.
Last April, Betamore, an incubator center in Baltimore that aims to stimulate tech-based startup companies through collaboration, held a weekend-long event called Reinvent Transit, which brought together technology designers and developers from around the area.
The event, which was a partnership with the Baltimore City Department of
Transportation, addressed how the MTA lacks a true bus-tracking system that riders waiting at stops can easily use.
The MTA is a state agency, which means the city and private organizations cannot make direct changes to the system.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who attended the Reinvent Transit event, said recently she was pleased that the tech community was getting the MTA’s attention.
For the city government to best achieve its goals of job and population growth, local bus services should adjust to what its riders need, the mayor said.
“I know how much improving transit benefits everybody,” she said.
Today the information Baltimore bus riders can find on their phones is based on a simple list of times that does not change when a bus is delayed.
Mobile users can plan trips using Google Maps by inputting their route. But Google Maps is not accurate when weather, traffic and other conditions throw the set schedule off.
“It’s not real-time, so if the bus is delayed for any reason, then the Google information is not going to give you any active information,” said Mike Brenner, CEO of Betamore.
One project to emerge from Reinvent Transit was MRLN (pronounced “Merlin”), a single map of transit systems in the region.
The digital project integrates routes from the light rail, the Charm City Circulator, MTA buses, MARC trains and the subway system so that users can be as efficient as possible when routing their public transportation trips.
With an integrated map, a bus passenger could know the quickest route to get from the Inner Harbor to Johns Hopkins University using city and state-run systems.
“The systems all need to talk to one another,” said Jill Sorensen, the executive director at the Baltimore-Washington Electric Vehicle Initiative, a nonprofit public-private partnership that promotes zero-emission electric vehicles and is the current home of MRLN.
But MRLN’s goals are more than just data compilation that could help the tech-savvy.
Sorensen said that with many users adding information about their routes to the system, MRLN data could give feedback to the transit authority.
The MTA could then use data that MLRN users add to see if, for example, ridership is down on one route or if another does not have enough buses.
“More data is better for everybody,” said Payal Patnaik, project developer for MRLN.
Users would help the MTA adjust its system, and the app for MRLN would enable riders with Smartphones to know where the bus actually is, as opposed to where the schedule says it should be.
Sorensen said MRLN is still working to find additional funding, building their network of supporters and developing an app.
Brenner said that while the MTA has been receptive to ideas from Reinvent Transit, implementing tech ideas through the administration is difficult because MTA is run through the state and has to go through a long approval process.
Brenner said using the smartphone to tackle the issue does not just serve a wealthy demographic because the number of Americans across economic levels using smartphones is growing.
A study by the Pew Research Center found that in May, 56 percent of Americans, across all income groups, now own a smartphone, which is up from 35 percent in May 2011.
According to the study, 77 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who make less than $30,000 use a smartphone.
MTA’s Real-Time Development
The MTA is not directly collaborating with MRLN, but MTA representatives attended Reinvent Transit and many in the MTA encourage start-up initiatives.
The MTA is working with the Trapeze Group, an IT company, to create better bus information, said Michael Walk, director of service development at MTA.
Walk said he hopes by the beginning of 2014 riders will be able to text message their stop number to a phone number that will tell them when the bus is expected to arrive.
He also said there will be a web-based portion that has a map, trip planner and alert function that will communicate with riders by email.
“We’re trying to cover all different avenues for riders,” he said.
Walk said he wants to make the data related to buses, such as the data the Trapeze Group will be using, available to developers so that somebody could then use that data to create their own application.