In New York, open source data on bus location

MTA Bus Time brings real-time, open-source location information to riders of more than 6,000 buses in New York City by 2013.

Last night, as I tried (and failed) to duck around raindrops on my way down Manhattan's West 34th Street, I noticed something I hadn't before: on the curbside bus stop, in blazing orange LED bulbs, were the times for the next city buses to arrive.


Such electronic signaling has been present in New York City's subway system for more than two years, but the buses so far have gone unaddressed.

No longer.

Earlier this month, Cambridge Systematics and OpenPlans Transportation were selected by New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority to develop the software for what it calls "MTA Bus Time," a real-time information system.

Bus Time, or as I saw it on the sign, "BusTime," offers a few ways that straphangers can use to figure out when the next bus will arrive -- a handy feature when it's pouring record-breaking amounts of rain like it was last night. Riders can use text messages or a smartphone's mobile browser to find out how far the bus is from their stop. (Quick Response, or QR, codes on bus stop signs serve as digital shortcuts.)

The idea is that transit riders become less agitated when they know when the next bus or train will arrive. The information removes uncertainty and allows them to make decisions (like whether or not they're willing to stand in a downpour for the next bus).

The irony is that the technology is rolling out in New York, which in my experience has the most frequent public transit service around. (The nine million people in the city probably have something to do with that.) But while my 34th St. example may not be so critical, customers waiting at stops in the far-flung borough of Staten Island and others may find it more impactful.

Bus Time will launch in Staten Island next January and expand to the rest of the city by mid-2013. That's 6,000 buses, people.

Perhaps most interestingly, the Bus Time platform will allow third-party developers to build their own apps using real-time bus data. As you can imagine, an app won't be too far behind.

Cambridge Systematics and OpenPlans Transportation previously worked on open source transit data in Atlanta. The New York job follows a successful pilot project on the B63 line. (And later, the M34 Iine I spotted.)

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