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Looking in-house for a bus tracking system

by Benjamin Kabak

Will the MTA be able to develop a bus-tracking system internally?

One of the MTA’s fanciest new tech toys 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 information along the M16 and M34 routes, and the authority hopes to bring this to the rest of the city.

There is a hitch though as there often is. Clever Devices’ technology is very expensive — prohibitively so for a system as vast as New York’s, and according to a recent post on the MTA Developer Resources’ Google Groups, the authority is looking for an in-house solution. The MTA’s Bus Customer Information Systems team is searching for a Technical Analyst (pdf) and a Senior Business Analyst (pdf) who will help evaluate a pilot and scale it for full-fleet deployment.

The project description provides a glimpse into the authority’s thinking:

We are using modular components, Open Standards, Open Data, and (when appropriate) Open Source Software to lower costs and bring benefits to our passengers as quickly as possible. Real-time bus information will be made available to passengers over the web, mobile devices, and text messages, as well as applications developed by developers using open data feeds.

We are playing the overall role of a systems engineer and integrator, allowing us to buy different components of the system from different vendors (e.g. on-bus hardware separately from the central data/web server) and connect them using open standard interfaces. This approach depends heavily on a small but highly-skilled team of analysts and engineers to understand the requirements of our large and complex real- world bus operation, architect the overall system, and work with multiple vendors to ensure the system is delivered as designed.

While subway countdown clocks make travel more pleasant and less stressful, bus timers can revolutionize a bus system. If riders know exactly where the bus is and how long it will take to arrive at a certain stop, potential riders will be far more likely to wait for the bus and can time their trips appropriately. It removes the mystery and frustrating waits — currently one of the bus system’s biggest problems — from the ride, and it can make the bus a convenient part of travel instead of a trip that happens only if the bus is in sight. I’ll be watching this effort closely as the MTA tries to bring a badly-needed technology to its vast bus fleet .

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Sharon November 21, 2010 - 7:14 pm

Ho rey. The main reason I avoid buses at all cost in Brooklyn is that a ride could take 40 min or two hours if you need to transfer. At least if I know the nearest bus is 15 min away I can go buy a coffee and come back

Frank November 21, 2010 - 8:31 pm

I wonder whether they have the in house skill to do this efficiently?

Most bus systems in europe have this functionality already. In Madrid you text your bus stop and route number to discover how far away your bus is (down to the meter) and it’s ETA.

Couldn’t we buy this more or less “off the shelf” from one of the providers for the scores of European systems? Why re-invent the wheel? This is almost decade old technology.

rob November 21, 2010 - 9:09 pm

So let me get this straight…the MTA hires two companies over the years (siemens and another company I can’t recall), who specialize in this type of thing, and both projects fail. Yet the MTA thinks it can build this themselves? Yikes! Sometimes you have to wonder. Let’s hope changes in 2011 bring back some sanity @ the MTA.

Benjamin Kabak November 21, 2010 - 10:10 pm

Considering the leaps and bounds with which real-time technology has advanced over the last few years, there’s no reason to think they can’t. Take a look at some location-based mobile apps.

To clarify your first point, though, only Siemens failed. The second company was Clever Devices. They were hired for only the 34th St. pilot, and it’s a technology success with a price point that’s just too high right now.

Mark November 22, 2010 - 12:24 pm


What location-based mobile apps are you referring to?

No, there was another system in the 90s. I think it was called Orbital.

Alon Levy November 21, 2010 - 10:49 pm

It’s not that stupid. Siemens is accountable to shareholders, who profit the most when the costs are as high as possible. The MTA has up to now not seriously dangled contract cancellations, in-house development, and other threats forcing its contractors to behave; up to now, there’s been no incentive for the private sector to control costs. In contrast, developing things in-house means that the people in charge work for the MTA and have an incentive to make the project work the best for the least amount of money.

Joe November 21, 2010 - 10:26 pm

How did the CTA manage to afford the Clever Devices system on its hundreds of bus lines? They are even more broke than the MTA. This seems like a rather tricky thing to do in-house with no experience.

Benjamin Kabak November 21, 2010 - 10:34 pm

Chicago paid $24.1 million in 2008 to equip 2600 buses, but they don’t have the same problem with radio signals that the canyons in Manhattan do. I don’t have to-the-dollar figures, but the costs of this program to the MTA would be significantly higher than the $50 million or so at which you would arrive by doubling the Chicago price. (New York City has around twice as many buses as Chicago.)

At least, that’s the developers’ and MTA’s party line on this issue.

Alon Levy November 21, 2010 - 10:52 pm

The Loop is canyon-ridden. The Chicago skyline is dense enough in the CBD that cellphones have trouble functioning.

In Hong Kong they did run into problems tracking buses – the buildings interfered with the GPS signals. The city’s solution was to equip buses with RFID in addition to GPS, which together made the bus tracking system more accurate.

Joe November 22, 2010 - 12:30 am

Chicago has the tallest skyscrapers in the country and a dense core district in the Loop and surrounding areas. Does Clever Devices intend to charge more because of the ‘urban canyons’ and if so, what is their justification? More sophisticated GPS sensors?

Kai B November 21, 2010 - 11:03 pm

I love how there’s an iPhone and Android app that’s advertising in my neighborhood with flyers at bus stops proclaiming “Find out when the next bus is really coming.” Half asleep one morning I almost fell for it until I realized it’s relies on people “checking in” with the app when they get on their bus.

That’s less reliable than the bus schedule itself.

John Paul N. November 28, 2010 - 1:59 am

That is an application of crowdsourcing. Whether that is appropriate for the instance of bus tracking I will reserve judgment on, but it’s better than nothing.

If the app you’re talking about is Roadify, I don’t fault the creators for having good intentions. In fact, having met them personally, I admire their work ethic and they have engaging personalities. I want to see them succeed, but they need to be careful not to let their business model become obsolete. I think they have a strong community, which has a significant value, so they need to work hard not to lose it.

Paul November 22, 2010 - 7:17 am

This one promising thing is that NYCT already has the Clever Devices system being installed on any new equipment for Automatic Vehicle Maintenance so the BusTime module would just be an add on. On the cost side, one of the big issues is long term costs as Clever Devices uses cell service to transmit data (CTA included) which can add up quickly.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines November 22, 2010 - 8:55 am

[…] How Do You Know MTA Is Serious About Real-Time Bus Tracking? They’re Hiring (Ben Kabak) […]

NextBus is Best November 22, 2010 - 1:33 pm

Why go to Europe for this tech? NextBus (www.nextbus.com) already provides this service to Boston, Washington, DC, Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, part of NJ Transit, and even has a system up and running in lower Manhattan (Downtown Alliance). The NextBus system has no problems with the urban canyons of lower Manhattan through the use of enhancements like dead-reckoning. NextBus is a fraction of the cost of Clever Devices as NextBus has over 90 customers using this (Clever has 3 live systems – CTA, Ohio State University, and this demo line on 34th St.).

Clever is not the leader in this area – NextBus is and has been doing it for 14 years. It’s Commercial, Off the Shelf, reliable, and has many more features than the Clever system.

Learn more: http://www.nextbus.com or http://www.nextbusnews.com.

John Paul N. November 28, 2010 - 1:18 am

A reason against: Boston-New York rivalry, perhaps? See this video, part 8 of the recent MTA Developers’ Unconference (begin at 3:28), recorded by OpenPlans. This part (my favorite, and continued into part 9) has, I think, the most important remarks of Jay Walder about tracking technology not covered in the MTA’s PR. (Unfortunately, not a lot of people have discovered it, which I could blame on the lack of annotations in the conference videos’ summaries.) “We’re not competing with Boston, except that we want to crush them.”

Have you formally introduced your company to the MTA? And would you be comfortable going through the MTA’s procurement and bidding procedures?

Andrew November 25, 2010 - 12:12 am

I’m a bit concerned about the equity implications of this sentence: “Real-time bus information will be made available to passengers over the web, mobile devices, and text messages, as well as applications developed by developers using open data feeds.”

That’s all well and good, but not everyone has access to the web (especially when away from home), mobile devices, or text messages – especially lower-income riders. If this is being considered as an alternative (rather than a supplement) to signs at bus stops, I think it’s leaving a lot of bus riders out in the cold.

Also, will dispatchers be able to use this data to help them do their jobs?

John Paul N. November 28, 2010 - 1:41 am

Heaven forbid the MTA must partner with NYCDOT. Seriously, though, I don’t feel there would be an objection from either side, plus Cemusa, of a partnership in this regard in principle. I’m unsure if it’s on the top of Bloomberg’s and the DOT commissioner’s lists, but if they are pro-technology, it could be.

Then again, the administration could feel that the Guide-A-Rides are enough, so that may remove a nice possibility. Speaking of which, if the bus status info can fit in a Guide-A-Ride box, that should be great. That is, until a pole gets damaged and/or the possibility of theft and misuse of embedded devices.

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