A March 9 rollout for Queens, Brooklyn BusTime as advocates press for countdown clocks


The Riders Alliance wants more bus countdown clocks installed throughout the city, but they carry a hefty price tag.

For bus riders in Brooklyn and Queens, “soon” now has a set date. BusTime — the MTA’s real-time bus tracking service — will go live for the city’s most populous boroughs on Sunday, March 9. Bus riders in those two boroughs will now know, via text message, smart phone apps or the the web where their buses are and how far away that next bus is. It will be a huge boost for riders long accustomed to spotty service and maddeningly inconsistent waits.

“MTA Bus Time is yet another way we are trying to improve service for our customers,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said in a press release. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway, customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”

With the addition of Brooklyn and Queens bus routes, including express bus service, the entire city will have access to bus tracking information, and the MTA has met its self-imposed deadline for bringing the service online. This last installation adds 9000 bus stops to the system as well. What it doesn’t include yet are countdown clocks — or, more accurately, station countdowns — at each station, and transit advocates hope to change that.

At a rally hosted by the Riders Alliance (of which I am a board member), bus riders and other transit advocates called upon politicians to help fund a NYCDOT initiative that would see digital countdown timers installed at key bus stations throughout the city. The timers — similar to the one atop this post — would be a big help to those who aren’t aware of BusTime or are not otherwise comfortable with the technology that makes the bus location information readily available.

“Countdown clocks have been a huge hit on subway platforms,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “Now it’s time to bring them to bus stops. We have the technology and we have the interest from riders.”

What is missing from Raskin’s equation is, of course, money. A 2012 study by Brad Lander noted that countdown clocks at bus stops would cost around $4000-$6000 to install, but the solar-powered free-standing signs in place as part of the Staten Island pilot would cost up to $20,000 each. That’s a prohibitive cost and an insane one. Ridership doesn’t warrant installing one at every bus stop, but for key bus stations, these simple timers that countdown stops shouldn’t cost that much.

“The best way to get where I’m going is the bus. I try to time it using printed schedules but most of the time the bus doesn’t follow the schedule,” Thomasin Bentley, a Riders Alliance member, said. “I want to use the bus. It’s clean and affordable. Bus countdown clocks would allow me to make the most of an otherwise great system. The text messaging service is a good start but I find it difficult to understand, and I’m a real tech person. I can imagine that it’s hard for other people to figure out as well.”

49 Responses to “A March 9 rollout for Queens, Brooklyn BusTime as advocates press for countdown clocks”

  1. Phillip Roncoroni says:

    The text messaging service is a good start but I find it difficult to understand, and I’m a real tech person. I can imagine that it’s hard for other people to figure out as well.”

    Really? On each bus stop schedule, there’s a stop code and the number to text it to. How is that difficult to understand?

    • It’s even easier just to go to http://bustime.mta.info from a mobile web browser, but I guess a good chunk of people don’t get it?

      • SEAN says:

        Sometimes it’s just simpler to look at the bus stop sign like the one at the top of this post as aposed to sending a text every time one needs to find out when the next bus will show up.

      • SEAN says:

        Sometimes it’s easier just to look at the display like the one in the photo as aposed to sending a text.

      • Tien says:

        That’s exactly what I’m doing. That works even better than any other apps I downloaded by far.

    • Epson45 says:

      A lot of “other” people who don’t use text or QR codes everyday.

      NJ Transit has a phone number for bus riders to call and get automatic info on bus arrival by dial the bus stop # id…. WHY MTA does not do it?

    • Thomasin says:

      The text service gives you information in miles, not stops – at least in Brooklyn, which is confusing unless you’ve clocked how long it takes a bus to go the distance between each stop, in miles, along your route. Measuring by number of stops or ideally in minutes would make much more sense, and the technology exists to do so. “3 stops away” is more user friendly than “1.7 miles”. I’ve used the text service on both the b61 and the b63 and a couple of times, I got a code of “@ term” and a departure time, which means a user has to figure out in their head the amount of time it will take the bus to travel from the terminal to their stop after it departs, based on their pre-existing knowledge of the distance between the terminal and their current location. Again its better than nothing, but it could be a lot better and more user friendly.

  2. Epson45 says:

    The electronic LED boards cost way way less. Im surprise the solar power cost $20K, who manufactures that piece of low tech?

    Why don’t they use LCD displays to put in major bus stops using real time bus arrivals and some advertising and MTA announcements at the same time?

    • Nathanael says:

      FWIW solar power installs can be kind of expensive upfront. You usually recover the money by the savings on power costs, or by reselling the excess power to the grid. Has this been figured into the price or is the situation too diffuse to meter?

    • Tien says:

      LCD consumes more electricity and less brightness. You could barely identify the screen if you stands at 45-degree angle or more due to the brightness level. LCD might be great for indoor use, but not the perfect solution for outdoor signs.

  3. Chris C says:

    What use is knowing how many stops away a bus is? Surely it is better to know how long someone has to wait.

    Those 18 stops could mean a wait of nine minutes (30 seconds average between stops), 18 minutes (1 minute per stop) or 54 minutes (3 minutes per stop).

    The clocks we have here in London show in minutes when buses are expected and they rotate through the next 10 or so buses where a stop is used by multiple routes.

    • The MTA stance is that traffic is too variable to offer a minute countdown clock. I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to get a rough estimate of wait times based on distance after only a few trials.

      • Tower18 says:

        Which is nonsense, as if traffic doesn’t exist in Chicago, San Francisco, etc.

        • BrooklynBus says:

          I agree. Number of stops away when it says 18 stops is totally ridiculous. All it means is “a very long time.” they need to do it in minutes.

          • ajedrez says:

            Actually, in that area, it’s not that long. 18 stops away would (off the top of my head) probably means it’s on its way out of the greenbelt, which means it should be there in about 10-12 minutes, assuming no traffic.

            Of course, it doesn’t make a difference because that point is only a few stops from the terminal.

            • BrooklynBus says:

              Is that without making any stops? If so, how would non-regular riders know that? Can’t. Do it in 10 minutes with stops.

        • Chris C says:

          We have a fair bit of traffic here in London too. A lot of it quite variable too. We have accidents and breakdowns and road works. Yet we still have countdown clocks

          All they give is an indication of time to wait for the next bus.

          And a visitor to the city won’t have any idea how long that 18 stops will actually take – they have no experience of previous bus wait times.

          The ‘too hard’ was given as an excuse here too but the technology exists to post times in minutes.

          Or is this another example of ‘If we didn’t think of it in NYC then it doesn’t happen’?

          • I laugh at the idea that visitors to NYC are taking the bus, but maybe some are.

            • Allan Rosen says:

              Why shouldn’t they? That was the reason I suggested the MTA renumber their crosstown lines to correspond with the street name to take the mystery out of where the buses go for tourists. Its easier to understand M42 than M106, its previous number. They also told me the idea was stupid but did it three weeks after I suggested it. (I also suggested they renumber the Avenue routes also, but they didn’t listen to that.)

              • sonicboy678 says:

                I think it might be just a bit harder to rename the Avenue routes, anyway. Maybe at one time it was feasible, but it would be too difficult now because many Avenue routes duplicate each other for certain parts and don’t for others. The M5 is an example of such. Still, I’m glad you suggested the renaming of the routes. (M19 on 96th and 106th Streets? Seriously?)

                • Allan Rosen says:

                  I figured the avenues could be done also since the highest avenue is 12 and the lowest major street number is 14. First Aenue would be M1 and Second Avenue woud have been M2 although it is the same route,Third Avenue would be M3, etc. On Fifth Avenue you could have done 5, 5A, 5B, and 5C (or 5, 5PB, 5SN and 5PS for Powell Blvd, St Nicholas, Penn Station). Makes more sense than the numbering of over 100 on 3rd Avenue, which indicates the routes are operated by a different company which hasn’t existed for 50 years.

            • Chris C says:

              Perhaps a lot more take the bus than you think!

              And most of the museums etc etc list the bus routes in their ‘how to get here’ sections on their websites.

    • Alex says:

      The answer is simple: this system is much cheaper. I live along one of the trial routes in Brooklyn and I can honestly say I use the bus more now than I did before it was installed. You learn how to time the stops. Obviously harder on a route you don’t know as well, but it’s better than what we had before, which was nothing. The data is open source, too, so someone could theoretically create an algorithm to estimate the times based on traffic conditions and distance. It’s never 100% though.

  4. Anon says:

    …the bus doesn’t follow the schedule,”

    Wouldn’t it then be better to invest this money in improving on-time performance?

    • Jeff says:

      And how do you propose to do that when bus routes are subjected to traffic and road conditions, passenger loading times, and other factors outside of the MTA’s control?

    • Phillip Roncoroni says:

      Wouldn’t it then be better to invest this money in improving on-time performance?

      Sure. First we need a new fare payment system, so proof of payment and multi-door ingress/egress is standard, along with dedicated bus lanes for every route to mitigate traffic.

      • sonicboy678 says:

        Oh wait, the lanes may actually worsen problems (Nostrand Avenue, anyone?). Fare cops suck because they’re almost nonexistent, so we would probably have another HBLR (many people just ride for free). What if all the machines are broken and the on-board fareboxes have already been ripped out?

        Going back to traffic, what if there’s an accident? Stops may be missed and it would be too hard to just reprogram stuff due to the vast number of machines.

        What about dispatching? Some routes are dispatched pretty well while others are sorely lacking. To add to this, what if one driver is faster than another? Will that really make dispatching easier?

        • BrooklynBus says:

          Very few routes have any stationary dispatchers anymore. When I was a kid, every route had a dispatcher at each end. The heavier routes had 4 or 6 or more dispatchers.

          And contrary to the way some think on time performance is not totally outside MTA’s control. Things can be done to improve performance.

  5. Larry Littlefield says:

    The over-estimation of how much money advertising can bring in has been discussed on this board.

    I would think it possible, however, that private companies would be willing to install small screens with ads across most them and Bustime scrolling along the bottom, for nothing.

    • Epson45 says:

      It is possible. MTA already has LCD displays at Eltingville Transit Center in Staten Island. They could use some space for ads for very small audience.

  6. Jeff says:

    Countdown clocks should, at a minimum, be a standard feature of SBS.

  7. Spendmor Wastemor says:

    People already have a countdown clock: it’s called their phone. You can get an iphone 5C free at contract renewal, or a larger, fancier android for the same zero $ upfront.

    If a ten year old has enough patience to text a message, or QR, or tap/speak http://www.wheresmybus etc, so can they.

    Oh, forgot the audience we’re dealing with here.

    Yes, of course, the MTA should send a uniformed concierge to each stop to personally inform riders when the arrival of the next bus might be. It’s free money, you know.

    • sonicboy678 says:

      What if someone doesn’t have a phone? After all, it’s not like bus stops just have free Wi-Fi for laptops.

      • Eric says:

        Then ask the person waiting next to you who does have a phone. There is a limit to how many resources we can invest to slightly help a small and shrinking segment of the population.

    • Nathanael says:

      Smartphones are stupidly expensive. Until they’re given out free by the government (which they aren’t)…

      • Joseph Steindam says:

        But you don’t need a smart phone to use the texting system the MTA has set up. If you are certain kinds of welfare, you are eligible for a free phone with a text message package included. By all estimates, there are more active cell phone subscriptions than there are people in the US, so I don’t buy this argument that the service being limited to cell phones is a barrier to its usage. It’s just not properly advertised as broadly as it should be. It wouldn’t hurt to have a group of employees doing demonstrations of the system, so people get more comfortable using it.

        That said, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to invest in countdown clocks at major bus stops, particularly those with high ridership and at transfer points with subways and other bus lines. It’s just those prices are obscene when you consider the breadth of our bus system. Maybe we can encourage businesses near major stops to post a screen displaying the NextBus information, with the purpose being that if people know when the next bus is coming, they know if they have the time to go into a business (a deli or coffee shop) and do some shopping before their bus arrives.

        • Nathanael says:

          Unlimited-texting contracts are expensive. Per-text texting contracts are *more* expensive. The working poor often get dumbphones with limited minutes.

          Seriously, the nickel-and-diming of the cellphone companies is a major problem. Not really the MTA’s problem to solve.

      • Eric says:

        Not really. Here’s one for $90, unlocked and no contract needed. I bought it a year ago when it was selling for $80. It’s worked great for me since then.

    • Epson45 says:

      Yet you pay a monthly rate plan that some people just can’t AFFORD. Even pre-paid phone you can’t even text the bus stop id into the phone.

      • ajedrez says:

        I use a pre-paid phone and I’m able to text the ID to the stop. You just send the message to 511123, and the body of the message is simply the bus stop ID. (Of course, I try to avoid it, since I’m using a pre-paid phone).

  8. bob5 says:

    There’s no way to reasonably pay for countdown clocks at each bus stop. Besides having the information available via the web or via texting is more useful so that one knows how far away the bus is BEFORE heading outdoors.

  9. Duke says:

    The benefit of the countdown clock (be it in minutes or stops away) is that it presents you with information that can be viewed at a glance. It’s nice to say “you can check the app on your phone”, but looking at a sign as you’re walking takes less effort. This is especially useful in circumstances where usually the next bus is too far away to be worth waiting for (so I might not even bother checking my phone), but occasionally will happen to be close when you are.

    That said, the static schedules already posted at a lot of bus stops perform this same function in a lower-tech and less sophisticated manner.

    And saying how long it is until the next bus comes by any means is still no substitute for them coming often enough that it doesn’t matter.

  10. SubwayNut says:

    This only solves a tiny problem but for SBS Routes MetroCard Machine Readers that already have displays saying push to start you think could be rigged to show BusTime when not in use. The screen savers of the NJT TVMs do something similar in a useful way, rotating through showing Departure Vision for the station as of the screen savers.

  11. Jacob says:

    I’d be willing to bet that if the MTA held a competition, some college student could figure out a way to make countdown clocks for a fraction of the cost that the MTA is quoting.

  12. Seth R says:

    I really don’t think it makes sense for the MTA to foot the bill to put these signs in at stations. At busier stops, it probably makes sense to put in display screens to be used for advertising, and advertising value is driven up by putting bustime information on the same display. It seems like you could easily support installation of countdown clocks at busy stations entirely with advertising income.

    • Nathanael says:

      London (UK) thought it was worth paying for. But then they take public transportation seriously, and their “cars uber alles” lobby is much weaker than anywhere in the US, even NY.

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