Home Buses Bus tracking project killed for the second time

Bus tracking project killed for the second time

by Benjamin Kabak

If London can do it, why can’t New York?

A top this post sits a picture from London, England. Our brethren in the United Kingdom have long managed to figure out this whole bus tracking thing. They use a few technologies above ground to display arrival times for buses at street level (and below ground for the Tubes). When last I was in London, I found those boards to be notably accurate.

Alas, in New York, it is not meant to be for the MTA is yet again killing the bus tracking project. Somehow, someway, the MTA just can’t get it to work, and the cost of this failed project could be as high as $14 million. NY1’s Bobby Cuza has more:

It’s a project that was supposed to revolutionize bus travel, telling riders exactly how long until the next bus, and allowing them to see the exact location of buses in real time, whether on the Internet or on a handheld device.

But at a City Council oversight hearing Thursday, MTA officials said “forget about it” and have officially abandoned the project, to the disbelief of lawmakers. “It’s just incredible that in this day and age, we’re nowhere closer to being able to know where the buses are at any given point,” said Queens Councilman John Liu.

Under a contract awarded in 2005, tracking equipment was installed onboard 185 Manhattan buses. In August of 2007, screens began operating in test mode, but were turned off a few months later because the times were inaccurate. They’ve been dark ever since.

The MTA scrapped a similar project in 1996 because, Cuza reports, “satellite signals were lost in the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan — just one of many issues, the MTA says, that makes it difficult to predict arrival times.”

“It’s not just the urban canyons, but the schedules, the tight schedules, the headways, the traffic. The operating environment I think is the most challenging of any city’s,” said Sassan Davoodi, Co-Project Manager, NYC Transit.

Of course, it’s challenging. Of course, it may not be perfect. But as the MTA gears up to remove the trial boards from the already-outfitted stations, I have to wonder what went wrong. Why can’t Davoodi pick up the phone and call his counterpart at Transport for London? Why can’t the people in charge put two and two together to come up with a viable tracking plan for New York? GPS-based navigation works in the city; this should do.

John Liu, long a councilman I’ve regarded with a wary eye, summed it all up. “After nearly 20 years, there’s been zero progress,” he said. “And that’s pathetic.”

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rhywun January 30, 2009 - 1:20 pm

Public contracts require an agency to select the cheapest bid. I bet the company with the cheapest bid simply wasn’t up to the task. Surely we don’t have to pay for this??

Streetsblog » Real-Time Bus Info: There’s Always Next Year January 30, 2009 - 4:53 pm

[…] information would be a godsend for bus riders whose trips are all-too unpredictable. London has it. Hamburg has it. Paris and Bogota have it. Why has it taken the MTA twelve years and […]

Darryl Mitteldorf, LCSW January 30, 2009 - 7:03 pm

There is also the matter of subway tracking. London and Washington subways do this…why cant we? Subway and Bus tracking reduces stress and, could well lead to a lessening of street crime. Imagine how more relaxed Bus and Subway customers would feel, knowing when and if there is a next bus or train.
Indeed, crime reduction may ensue, as there would be less stress and agony among waiting customers, and, the finding of alternate routes for those who see that their next transport is dozens of minutes away. New York should be the leader, here. Maybe we need someone with ego and dollars (dare I recall trump and the Central Park skating ring) to make this thing work, as the MTA surely is laggard and failing.

Roosevelt Islander January 31, 2009 - 11:34 am

FYI – Roosevelt Island is in the process of installing a GPS tracking system for the little Red Bus that runs up and down the Island.

matt January 31, 2009 - 4:05 pm

i might be ignorant to this since i don’t really look at the driver’s gadgets, but in san antonio and houston, there’s a system that tells the bus driver if he’s late or early on the route. does NYC have that same type of system?

Marc February 2, 2009 - 5:56 am

Just as was noted in the post, there is a significant problem with GPS dropping or being incredibly inaccurate due to interference by skyscrapers, an operating environment London’s transit system doesn’t have to deal with. I often walk through NYC when I’m actually there and my iPhone can barely get a GPS lock, let a lone tell me where I am within 5 blocks of my actual location.

I’ve never investigated this myself, but from what I understand, there are two methods by which buses can determine their location along the route, which drives the automated stop announcement systems installed on most buses: GPS and mileage. It’s also feasible for the location of buses to be triangulated using WiFi, lasers, or, to a lesser degree of accuracy, cellular signals. In such a dense area as Manhattan, any one of these technologies can be used in conjunction to actually determine the location of buses and can be installed on bus shelters, poles, etc. And since there aren’t skyscrapers everywhere in the City, a mix of the technologies can be used. Now, how expensive it is to actually implement these is one thing.

Another issue, other than the technology to track the buses, is the math used to predict the impending arrival time. At my school, we’ve implemented a tracking system to track the shuttles that operate without a schedule. The most difficult part of getting the shuttle tracking system off the ground was predicting arrival times. So I can understand why they’d have a problem…I just don’t see why they wouldn’t hand it off as a math or computer science problem.

As for the subways, there’s absolutely no reason why all the lines should already have the same convenience as the (L). Absolutely none, other than perhaps the fact that the fleet first needs to be converted to NT, location-aware equipment.

MAL February 3, 2009 - 4:17 pm

Buses aside, what about the digital apparatuses they have set up in all sorts of stations (110th St. on the 1 comes to mind)? Have any of those started working yet, and if so, are they identical to those used on the L?

p February 3, 2009 - 7:13 pm

GPS? Who needs GPS? What, your buying from Best Buy?

Each bus stop will need electronics, put a radio transmitter on each bus stop, use triangulation, end of story. If bus not in range of radio transmitter of current bus stop, look up where the bus is over the network/data backhaul from a bus stop that does know where the bus is. Simple as pie.

dwight February 5, 2009 - 12:08 pm

don’t leave technology related decisions up to ill informed city officials and overpriced contractors! i say we involve programs such as ITP (NYU) or SENSEable City (MIT) to brainstorm creative and cheap methods of implementing solutions to these issues. those involved with these programs have a broader knowledge of existing/developing technologies as well as methods of execution. they aren’t an end all for these issues but they’re a better starting point.

dfssfd February 6, 2009 - 12:07 am

They have the same system in Paris. It is very convenient. It is even possible to see on your cell phone and internet were the bus is.

You can see a picture here : http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/F....._et_88.JPG

They have that also on metro platforms.
It is a shame that NY doesn’t have this.

Dave February 8, 2009 - 2:15 pm

NYC was also late to get Enhanced 911 – the ability to know where callers are calling from when they dial 9-1-1. It’s a daunting paradox that a lead society is the least adaptive to new technology. But that’s how it is. It’s very difficult to retrofit new things into the core and mantle of stuff that was built up decades ago when nobody could have imagined such things as GPS.

Many cities introducing all this neat stuff have relatively smaller transit budgets and smaller operating scope. It’s just easier to figure out.

Coming from a transit-poor part of the country prior to this, however, I will say that the density and headway of trains and buses does not *quite* make knowing where everything is at a given moment the same handy idea it might be in, say, Austin Texas. To be honest, and I realize I say this as a new resident, I haven’t had to uncomfortably wait for a bus or train all that long at any time yet. There’s always a bus or train “next” in 10 minutes when I want one, with few exceptions. I don’t even think of schedules here in NYC, I just show up and wait – and everything takes care of itself.

I’d still like to see live tracking though, don’t get me wrong. It’s a sort of “universal enhancement” no matter where it’s used, and I’m shocked the best anyone can do after all this is shrug and give up.

– D

commutertech February 21, 2009 - 12:23 pm

A few facts:

1. The problem for the NYCT Bus AVL (automatic vehicle location) system wasn’t the accuracy of the locations. The system uses beside GPS also dead reckoning information (turn rate sensor + odometer) and the street map (mapmatching). The location accuracy was pretty good.

2. The company that delivered the system is THE SAME as delivered the system for TfL (Transport for London). London’s offcials are very happy with the overall system (which serves by the way approx. 9’000 Buses!!!).

3. The problem is simple incompetent people on the NYCT side – e.g. former bus drivers managing a multi-million dollar contract – isn’t that unbelievable?

And believe me – I’ve spoken to insiders.

Good night New Yorkmapmatching)

An elegy for the bus-tracking project :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog March 2, 2009 - 12:02 am

[…] 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 […]

jean April 19, 2009 - 10:44 am

Why can;t it be done in a city like New-York, that’s incredible??
Anyway, as far as france is concerned, they started implementing a real time bus tracking system, where you can track on the internet and through a vocal server your bus and its approximated time of arrival.
The sytem is based on GPS.
So why not enquiring to the company that developped the system to build it in New-York, or ask their counter part in London?
Here’s the link to the article:

Take Three: Bus arrival boards debut along 34th St. :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 11, 2009 - 1:50 pm

[…] 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 found the winning combination. So will the […]

Carlos November 1, 2009 - 5:33 pm

The efforts have nothing to do with the problems with electronic tracking of the buses, at the very least here in Brooklyn. What the bus drivers do here to keep on time, when they have either gone off to the bank or gone to eat or chatted with someone, or taken a longer smoke break than needed, they put up the NEXT BUS PLEASE or NOT IN SERVICE signs and then skip a lot of stops to put themselves on time. Here in Greenpoint, there have been some who take the number of the bus and the route number and tried to complaint. So what do the bus drivers do to foil that? They go to the end of the line and then when they pull out, they take back streets or avenues where they can travel fast and not be reported because no one is waiting for a bus on those streets and therefore report them for that. A GPS system would mess up their traveling through back streets to go unnoticed when they are late, and then get back on the regular route when they have caught up, leaving a lot of straphangers waiting on the street. That would be a political and union embarrassment and its not surprising that they have been trying to cover that up


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