Home Buses The real-time bus tracking aspect of PayPass

The real-time bus tracking aspect of PayPass

by Benjamin Kabak

Until November, the MTA will be piloting a PayPass program, piloting a contactless fare payment method that involves using the chip inside most major credit cards to pay the fare. The authority is trying to move beyond a proprietary MetroCard system to something that allows for faster boarding and a more economically efficient fare collection effort. One benefit though — real-time tracking of bus locations — has flown below the radar.

The idea is, upon further reflection, both obvious and simple. The MTA will be collecting reams of instantaneous fare payment data as bus riders use their PayPass cards to swipe onto buses. (In fact, because the MTA has eschewed pre-boarding fare payment options for decades, they could collect this information now.) With the fare information comes the location and timing of the bus. If the bus knows it’s at, say, 104th St. and 5th Ave. and the fare processing system knows that people have just entered that bus, it’s possible to figure out how far away the bus is from any given point further on down the route.

According to Matthew Schuerman of WNYC, the MTA hopes to use that information to bring bus-tracking technology to its riders. While the MetroCard technology relies upon reading data off of a magnetic strip, the PayPass technology, says Schuerman, requires a modem and internet connection to function properly. He explains the authority’s plans:

Later this year, the MTA will begin taking the data from one of those routes and send it back to riders that request it, via text messages or the web browser on their cell phones. “If we are successful in implementing this program we will drastically reduce the cost and time needed to track our 6000-bus fleet,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said…

One drawback: the new approach will only tell riders where the bus is, in terms of distance or number of bus stops, but not when the bus will arrive. Ortiz says the MTA will open up its data so that software developers in the private sector can create smart phone apps.

“We will welcome the efforts of developers to help develop a robust prediction system that can deal with very difficult traffic and real world conditions associated with taking a bus throughout the city,” Ortiz said. “But right now we are not going to let the difficulty of making these predictions keep us from moving forward with what we can do now.”

The MTA, according to the report, views this as a cheaper alternative to the bus arrival boards currently in place at eight stops along 34th St. The MTA claims bringing that technology to bus shelters throughout the city could cost at least $140 million and would take a half a decade or more to roll out. Needless to say, the money isn’t there for such a project.

So the agency is looking for different solutions to a problem that has long since been solved around the globe. In a sense, the authority is taking Roadify’s bus-tracking approach and automating it with proprietary data. They’ll be doing the software development in conjunction with OpenPlans, the organization behind StreetsBlog that has been instrumental in pushing the MTA toward a policy of open information. It won the $265,000 contract to create a low-cost bus tracking solution.

Despite the promise of an upcoming pilot along one of the PayPass bus routes later this year, a few concerns circle the project. If the MTA is using credit card data to track buses, the authority will have to ensure that individuals’ privacy interests are protected. Furthermore, while this tracking program is low cost, it’s also low tech. OpenPlans will be making it available as a text message service with no mobile app component, and it will, as Schuerman noted, tell riders only how far away the bus is in terms of distance and not time. Still, for an agency known more for spinning its technological wheels than moving forward, this is a long-awaited step in the right direction.

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Scott E July 22, 2010 - 8:25 am

This doesn’t make much sense to me. The “always-on” data connection could be used for both fare-collection and location-tracking, but other than that, what does fare collection have to do with finding out where the bus is? And — trust me — fare collection is the most tightly sealed system that NYC Transit has. The won’t open up data from that information to anyone, for any reason, especially one unrelated to collection of money.

” The MTA will be collecting reams of instantaneous fare payment data as bus riders use their PayPass cards to swipe on and off buses.”
We’re swiping (or tapping. whatever) to get off of buses now?

Benjamin Kabak July 22, 2010 - 8:27 am

No, no. Sorry. That’s incorrect. We’re only swiping to get on.

I’m not really sure how this doesn’t make sense to you. The MTA entered into a contract with OpenPlans to develop this capability. I’m not making it up. It’s happening in conjunction with the PayPass trial, closely-guarded secrets of fare collection or not.

Boris July 22, 2010 - 12:39 pm

I share your confusion. The article made sense upon first reading, but then I realized, how does the bus know where it is? The clue is in the Transportation Nation article:

The authority has selected OpenPlans to develop the software for processing the GPS data

So indeed, the buses will be using GPS, perhaps coupled with cell tower triangulation for those moments when the GPS doesn’t work (the way the iPhone does it). Location data would piggyback on the payment data; otherwise payment data is not useful in routing (except perhaps for internal MTA metrics like how many people get on at each stop). This is such a boring, standard solution from the IT/telecom perspective that the MTA might actually pull it off.

Daniel Howard July 22, 2010 - 10:10 am

“One drawback: the new approach will only tell riders where the bus is, in terms of distance or number of bus stops, but not when the bus will arrive.”

“n minutes away” is the most intuitive but personally I like to know where the vehicle is. How many stops away? What happens when the vehicle is held up, due to traffic, technical glitch, passenger issue. It’ll stay a few stops away . . . a few stops away . . . a few stops away . . . and I’ll catch on that it has been delayed. In San Francisco I have seen that a vehicle is “a few minutes away . . . a few minutes away . . . a few minutes away . . . 43 minutes away!” (It seems that if the vehicle stops moving it “disappears” from the predictions, and in accordance with Murphy’s Law, it shows up a few minutes later. 🙂

Anyway, however its reported, the more intelligence the better.

I would also point out that you need to know where the bus IS. Got a modem? Okay, hook it up to a GPS unit, and now we can see the vehicle anywhere in the route, not just at stations where passengers board. (Hopefully if the comms link goes down the vehicle continues to accept payments for later processing rather than hold up the vehicle.)


bob July 22, 2010 - 10:14 am

If I understand this, the paypass will be doing instantaneous verification the credit card is enrolled in the program. What happens when the data connection is lost?

How does a bus know its location? The TA spent years trying GPS based systems but couldn’t make them work in Manhattan. (A transponder tag on the bus stop sign and a reader on the bus would be one way, but I haven’t heard of that being done.)

I hope this does lead to service improvements, but there are unanswered questions.

Roadify isn’t quite the same – it only works to the extent a lot of people decide to participate. I doubt that will happen to the extent it needs.

ferryboi July 22, 2010 - 10:25 am

These comments are hilarious. You can’t even get many bus drivers to actually press the 2 or 3 buttons it takes to change the electronic sign and have it post the correct destination. If I see one more westbound M42 with a sign reading “East Side-UN” I’ll scream. Same goes for signs on trains, never mind those damn stickers on subway signs, many of which are already peeling off (see Bryant Park on 6th Ave line, which once again shows the “V” train at this station). You really expect the MTA to track buses via satellite when they can’t even handle low-tech tasks such as these?

Brian Weinberg July 22, 2010 - 11:26 am

With the fare information comes the location and timing of the bus. If the bus knows it’s at, say, 104th St. and 5th Ave. and the fare processing system knows that people have just entered that bus, it’s possible to figure out how far away the bus is from any given point further on down the route.

Benjamin, I read this whole post, and, before reading any of the links, I could not figure out what in the world you were talking about. But after clicking on the link to transportationnation.org, I think I see where the miscommunication is.

The explanation you gave, as I quoted, does not seem to be correct. As I understand the link, all this bus tracking plan has to do with the PayPass Trial is that the PayPass fareboxes include a data modem. This tracking plan adds a GPS receiver to the bus, and then the GPS location info is sent to the processing server via the modem in the PayPass farebox. The processing server then uses the GPS location data to figure out which bus stop the bus is closest to and then that info is released to the public.

So unless the presence of instantaneous PayPass fare transactions are used to ascertain whether or not the bus is actually at a bus stop at that moment or still traveling to the next stop, it seems all this plan has to do with PayPass is the piggybacking onto the data modem connection. And I guess maybe it also uses the PayPass farebox’s possible knowledge of the bus’s number, route number, and direction.

But the PayPass farebox itself wouldn’t know the location of the bus just based on fare information, as you wrote.

Now it is also possible that the PayPass fareboxes already have built-in GPS receivers. But again use of that GPS data wouldn’t be dependent on people using PayPass to pay their fares.

Anyhow, thanks for bringing this story to our attention as it seems very interesting and very promising. I wonder though instead of just reporting how many stops away a bus is, why can’t this GPS location data simply be plotted onto a Google Map for viewing on any device capable of viewing Google Maps?

Boris July 22, 2010 - 12:42 pm


Looks like you posted your explanation while I was writing mine. And yours is much better 🙂

Joe July 22, 2010 - 2:46 pm

Agreed, I like this blog a lot, but this article was either inaccurate or poorly communicated. I spent a few minutes scratching my head too.

Alon Levy July 22, 2010 - 11:37 am

Ben, your explanation handwaves the bit about the bus knowing where it is. Once the bus knows where it is, bus tracking is trivial; the ability to know what time it is isn’t sophisticated technology.

Bear in mind, even knowing where the bus is isn’t very unusual. It’s standard on every system with a smartcard where the fare depends on distance, and on many more systems that have paper tickets or flat fares.

SEAN July 22, 2010 - 12:35 pm

Hmmm, all I can say is “priceless.”Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Joe July 22, 2010 - 2:48 pm

Chicago has the tallest buildings in the country and the entire city’s bus fleet has GPS tracking. Maybe MTA should ask the CTA how they did it.

Alon Levy July 22, 2010 - 3:56 pm

Is it just GPS or also RFID? I’ve read that in skyscraper-heavy environments, such as Hong Kong, pure GPS isn’t completely accurate, and needs RFID tracking to supplement it.

John July 22, 2010 - 4:10 pm

I don’t know if they supplement it with RFID or not, but I do know that I was just in Chicago and the bus-tracking they have is pretty sweet.

Joe July 23, 2010 - 11:20 am

AFAIK in Chicago it is entirely GPS. The buses even announce what stop you’re approaching, and it’s extremely accurate.

Kai B July 23, 2010 - 9:06 am

Man, I’m currently vacationing in Vienna, Austria and am using an iPhone app called Qando to see real time subway, tram, and bus data. Here’s a screenshot: http://yfrog.com/c96sgj

Since the service here is pretty amazing, I barely have a use for it except late at night.

This is obviously what we’re trying to get to in NYC. Shame it’s expensive and we can’t adequately fund transit like in Europe. 🙁

Alon Levy July 23, 2010 - 1:37 pm

Greater New York plans to have spent more than $20 billion on rail construction between about 2005 and 2017: $5 for SAS phase 1, $2 for the 7 extension, $8 for ARC, and another $8 for ESA. The trouble is that it buys an order of magnitude less transit in New York than in peer first-world cities.

Kai B July 24, 2010 - 9:13 am

True, there are s good number of expansion projects. The real lack is shown when looking at station renovation (ie. there should be a plan to make every station ADA accessible, even if the date is 30 years from now) and technology improvements.

BrooklynBus July 23, 2010 - 1:23 pm

I’m not a techno expert, so I’m not following any of this. In 1980 when the MTA successfully implemented its bus locator system at the then new Queens Village Depot, the purpose was to be able to track buses in an effort to get them to run on time. It was rather primitive, not GPS based, and only told the number of buses within a quarter-mile. It wasn’t perfect but did give central command a general idea if buses were spread out or bunched together on a route and with that information, actions could be taken to better regulate the routes. It was supposed to have been a model to be expanded to all bus depots. But after six months it was scrapped because the unions protested that “Big Brother” was watching them so the MTA backed off.

Three more studies, all GPS based, in the 1990s and following decade at great cost have lead to nothing. Somehow, and this is the part I don’t quite understand, the focus has shifted to being able to regulate the buses to minimize bus bunching, to providing information to the passengers when the bus will arrive. Who cares? Isn’t having the buses running on time more important than knowing your bus is delayed by 30 minutes? What’s going on?

Alon Levy July 23, 2010 - 1:45 pm

There are some studies showing that people perceive wait time as longer when they don’t know when the next train or bus will arrive.

BrooklynBus July 23, 2010 - 4:29 pm

I’m sure that’s correct and in a time when money is plentiful, it would be nice to have. But right now there are more important things to concentrate on.

Andrew July 25, 2010 - 11:26 pm

When service is cut, information about where the next bus is becomes even more important.


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