Home Buses An elegy for the bus-tracking project

An elegy for the bus-tracking project

by Benjamin Kabak

One day, our GPS bus locator system will come.

In a way, the MTA’s on-going, never-fulfilled plan to equip the city’s bus system with a GPS-based locator system is the Second Ave. Subway of our generation. For 13 years now, the MTA has tried to get this system off the ground, and for 13 years, the agency has run up against a series of institutional and technological roadblocks. This plan — active in cities around the world — remains an elusive dream to New Yorkers who look for the next bus by walking through two lanes of traffic and peering down an avenue block.

The latest effort to implement a system that would alert riders of the time until the next bus came to a crashing halt at the end of January. At the time, MTA officials told the City Council that the tracking times for bus arrivals were inaccurate, and they were pulling the plug on the project yet again.

Yesterday, The City Section in Sunday’s Times eulogized the latest GPS attempt. Writes Sophia Hollander:

A blank electronic board at the M15 bus shelter was intended to avert just this situation by providing real-time updates to riders. Instead, it has become the latest failure in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s longstanding attempt to use GPS tracking to manage buses more efficiently and offer riders information about arrival times. Other cities, including Chicago and London, have successfully implemented the technology.

The M.T.A. issued its first contract for the system in 1996. Several companies and more than a decade later, there are no official plans on what to try next. James Anyansi, an M.T.A. spokesman, said the current project had been scuttled by technical problems, and in a dispiriting sign of its demise, all 15 electronic boards are to be dismantled by the end of next month.

Predictably, the reaction among bus riders and those who support the devices has been one of unhappiness. “The public is very unsympathetic to the saga that’s been bus tracking,” said Gene Russianoff, chief spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign, a rider advocacy group.

Anyansi told Hollander the MTA is “committed to developing a reliable system,” but when that will come online is anyone’s guess.

At this point, we don’t really know why this system failed. MTA officials have blamed the tall buildings for interfering with GPS-based technology. However, Google’s Latitude, a mobile phone-based locator program, seems to work fine in New York City. Others have suggested that bus officials are to blame. Still others wonder why a cellular-based system that uses each bus to transmit its location to receivers at stations further on down the land can’t be developed.

If Roosevelt Island can sustain a GPS-based tracking system, the rest of New York City should have one too. This is a funeral for an MTA technology that we just shouldn’t be having.

* * *

A Note on the Weather: Supposedly, New York City is in for up to a foot of snow by the time the morning rush hour kicks off on Monday. New York City Transit is well aware of the impending snow, and Paul Fleuranges, the corporate communications V.P. at Transit, sent out an e-mail this evening detailing the agency’s plans.

In a nutshell, NYCT is preparing for a full fleet of subways and buses right now, but they recognize that travel could be significantly slower than usual in the morning. They are station emergency crews near problem areas and plan to keep the above-ground switches as clear as possible. Keep your eye on the MTA’s website for weather-related service advisories.

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rhywun March 2, 2009 - 11:24 am

Chicago has a tall building or two. How’d they get it working?

Anyway I’m glad the Times found the “human interest” angle but could they not be bothered with doing a little more research to find out who’s responsible for this mess? First of all it’s a ton of wasted money–at a time when we’re about to get socked with another fare increase. Second, if it’s not the MTA’s fault I’d like to know that.

herenthere March 2, 2009 - 1:02 pm

NYC Taxis get GPS. And they’re not as tall as buses. Hello? Anyone?

Alfred Beech March 2, 2009 - 2:06 pm

I’d think it would be very difficult to accurately predict times for a vehicle in traffic. For busses, I’d think it would be more useful and accurate to list the current position (by street or ave), rather than give a time estimate.

And I agree with the GPS comments above. It can clearly be done, but not by the MTA.

Take Three: Bus arrival boards on tap for 34th St. :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 11, 2009 - 12:00 pm

[…] failed to bring a technology readily available throughout the world online in New York. In March, I eulogized the bus tracking plan as the MTA killed it for the second time. Now, though, agency and city officials claim they have […]


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