Home Buses Web-based real-time bus tracking system now live

Web-based real-time bus tracking system now live

by Benjamin Kabak

A screenshot of the arrival site for the new MTA BusTime initiative.

Updated (6:32 p.m.): The bus system in New York City suffers from a reliability problem. Because buses don’t adhere to the schedule and are at the whims of street traffic, riders never know with much certainty when the next bus is going to show up. We don’t know if it’s better to wait for the bus or to start walking, and we don’t know how well traffic is moving down the road.

Starting today, a new MTA pilot should improve that system. For the first time, city bus riders can now track the exact location of buses as they meander through Midtown. Called MTA BusTime and launched in conjunction with Clever Devices, the new service GPS-based service allows for real-time, web-based tracking of buses along the M16 and M34 routes. It is available at the MTA BusTime website, and Transit says the new pilot is “aimed at giving riders a quick and easy means of determining approximately when the next bus will arrive at a specific stop.” The information will be available online, via email and via text message.

“Why rush to the bus stop when you can finish your cup of coffee or stop and grab a newspaper? Now we’re providing our customers with the information they need to make informed decisions about their travel before they get to the bus stop,” Transit President Thomas Prendergast said in a statement. “Along with the new train arrival screens that are being activated in subways stations around the City, MTA BusTime is another example of how we are developing new ways to give customers information they can use.”

A screenshot of the MTA BusTime map showing the real-time location of M16 and M34 buses.

The system, explains Transit, uses GPS devices that report bus location data. In real time, the BusTime will show where buses are either on a map, which doesn’t appear to show the buses right now will show the buses if you click on the “ROUTE” button and then select the bus or buses you want to see, or on a mobile-optimized timesheet page. “Using this information,” Transit says, “customers will know when a bus is estimated to arrive at a particular stop, even if they are still at the office, shopping, or dining.”

It’s hard to stress how much of a game-changing this app could be for the city’s buses. All of a sudden, I know that, in 13 minutes from when I wrote this, an eastbound M16 is going to stop at 34th St. and 3rd Ave. I can time when to leave my house; I can decide if I want to take the bus or wait; I can determine the best way to make the bus work for me. It is empowering the rider, and if Transit can introduce the pilot on a wider scheme, bus ridership should shoot up in response.

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Chris G October 14, 2010 - 4:44 pm

This is great.

I just wish they had an app for that. Even though I’m not supposed to use that phrase for non apple stuff.

Seth R October 15, 2010 - 11:42 am

they have a mobile website at onthego.mta.info, as a web developer, I can say it’s much easier to make one well-functioning page for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Symbian, and Maemo, then to create an app for each. It’s also much easier to maintain and improve quickly.

Ray October 14, 2010 - 5:08 pm

I had the same problem with the map. Turns out you have to select Routes, and choose the ones you want to show first. That’ll be great when there are more to track, not so great now.

As far as apps go I am assuming that they want the developer community to do that for them, you can grab the API from Clever Devices. The problem there is that they have said that the Clever Devices system is a trial, and I swear I saw somewhere that they had already decided that the system was too expensive to continue. (Not sure if that means continue use on 34th, or continue expansion). If I was an app developer I wouldn’t put in the time to develop something that will have such limited use and lifespan.

It is great that we are rolling out this type of program, but I would really like to know what the next step is here.

Cap'n Transit October 14, 2010 - 5:38 pm

Thanks, Ray! Ben, you should update your post with Ray’s info.

Benjamin Kabak October 14, 2010 - 6:35 pm

Thanks, Ray. I got it now. Good stuff.

Ray November 1, 2010 - 10:41 pm


I did some checking, and back in June MTA signed a contract with the Open Plans project to pilot a bus tracking system in conjunction with the smartcard pilot. You wrote a post on it at the time. I noticed on the OPP site they now say their “One Bus Away” project, which started in Seattle, will be “coming to NYC in 2011.” I am very excited at prospect of the MTA embracing an open source project like this. Any chance you can find out more?

Any idea if they plan to add this functionality to the SBS? It seems a natural fit for a”better bus” project – especially since they bought all new buses for it.

Kid Twist October 14, 2010 - 5:26 pm

It’s promising. The Select Route/Select Direction/Select Stop menus show up really tiny in my Android phone’s browser. But it’s a good start.

I don’t really need an app if all the app does is put a skin on the mobile web site. If it uses the phone’s location sensors to point me to the closest stop, that’s a different story.

Alon Levy October 14, 2010 - 6:28 pm

Meh. Not everybody has a smartphone. But everybody can read signs like those that London has had for years.

Cap'n Transit October 14, 2010 - 7:08 pm

You mean like the signs the MTA installed on 34th Street back in December?

Alon Levy October 15, 2010 - 1:50 pm

Yes, exactly.

JebO October 15, 2010 - 9:30 am

As long as you have a cellphone of any kind, even if it’s not a smartphone, you can benefit from the text-message service that is a part of this.

BrooklynBus October 14, 2010 - 8:06 pm

GPS also needs to be used to help get the buses to run on time, in addition to informing the passenger.

Joe October 14, 2010 - 9:16 pm

Wow. That looks exactly like CTA’s Bus Tracker (www.ctabustracker.com). Except, of course, Chicago has it on every single line now 😛

Benjamin Kabak October 14, 2010 - 9:20 pm

You won’t be surprised to hear that Clever Devices also set up the program for the CTA. No need to recreate the wheel for the MTA.

Paul October 14, 2010 - 11:56 pm

CTA Bus Tracker works very well here in Chicago; it is one of the only things about the CTA that seems to get rave reviews. It’s especially useful on the less frequent routes; I’ve even seen people start conversations with it: someone will look up the next bus, see another person doing the lean into the street, and then offer up: “Hey….Bus Tracker says it will be here in 6 minutes.” It’s nice to see those little pleasantries.

After just a few months, we ended up with some great apps as well. Buster is the best one, in my opinion. See screen shots here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app.....09511?mt=8 The best part of the app, in my opinion, is the Vanna White action flip when you want to change direction.

John October 15, 2010 - 11:39 am

CTA’s Bus Tracker is pretty awesome. I was there this summer and made use of it. Of course it didn’t help me when I was trying to get to Navy Pier for the July 4th fireworks and the buses were jam packed and drove right past me…

Abba October 15, 2010 - 12:36 am

Ben,when can we expect this to expanded to other bus lines?

Benjamin Kabak October 15, 2010 - 12:36 am

Unclear. From what I’ve heard, it’s a very expensive project.

AK October 15, 2010 - 8:51 am

Do you have figures, Ben?

Mark October 15, 2010 - 10:42 am

It’s relatively cheap compared to what it cost for the subway countdown clock system. Not to mention way more valuable to riders b/c buses are more unpredictable than trains.

Murray October 15, 2010 - 7:49 am

It would be better if you could either choose eastsbound or westbound for a route, or if they showed up in different colors. After all, you know which direction you’re looking for. The arrows are not as good a solution.

Also, in the text app, would it be possible to show textually where the bus is (e.g. 3 Avenue) in addition to the expected time, given that the time estimate will often be funky?

Harlan October 15, 2010 - 7:58 am

This is a good idea. They should put those little 2-D bar codes on every bus stop so that you can go to the appropriate web page on your smartphone in one step!

Cap'n Transit October 15, 2010 - 9:34 am

Great idea!

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines October 15, 2010 - 9:11 am

[…] Now You Can See the Next 34th Street Bus on Your Computer or Smartphone (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

SEAN October 15, 2010 - 10:10 am

In Portland OR , Trimet has been doing this for years with bus tracker. The text message service started a few months ago, but by calling them you could get the same info rather quickly by entering the stop ID number for any given location.

Hank October 15, 2010 - 11:55 am

Anything to stop the bloody convoys. 4 M15 busses convoyed together on First Ave last night @7pm after waiting a half hour in the rain!

Nabe News: October 15 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle October 15, 2010 - 1:41 pm

[…] web-based tracking system for the city’s bus system. What about mobile? [Second Avenue […]

Rob Durchalo October 15, 2010 - 9:47 pm

When I was in Paris a year ago, the buses had displays that flashed the estimated time to the next time point and to the end of the line. I assume they were GPS based. However, every time we hit a traffic tie-up, the times adjusted (got longer).

I assume the same approach is used in the NYC system. Thus, the bus may be 12 minutes away based on current position and scheduled time to traverse “x” distance; but if it hits a tie-up, the time would be adjusted. Of course, one could already be at the bus stop when the tie up occurs three blocks up the road.

Looking in-house for a bus tracking system :: Second Ave. Sagas November 21, 2010 - 12:45 pm

[…] that would, if rolled out systemwide, greatly improve the bus system is BusTime tracking program unveiled in October. Using technology developed by Clever Devices, the MTA can present real-time bus location […]


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