Riders on Staten Island Can Use a Cellphone to Locate a Bus


mta-busBy Noach Rosenberg

Jasmin Dunn had gotten off her night-shift job and finished up a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday morning, and she desperately wanted to get home. But the B63 bus in Brooklyn was nowhere in sight.

So Ms. Dunn did what many B63 commuters have done since February, and what bus riders on lines throughout Staten Island got the opportunity to do starting on Wednesday: she took out her cellphone and sent a text message to get a reply with up-to-date arrival information for her bus.

Her experience, however, seemed atypical: she got back an error message because she had used an incomplete code to identify her bus stop. (Ms. Dunn blamed her error on unclear signs, and said she would try again another time.)

The service, MTA Bus Time, relies on GPS transmitters and cellular equipment on buses to inform riders of a bus’s location. Riders can access the system from their desktop computers or cellphones by supplying a bus route, street intersection or bus stop code; the codes are available online and posted at bus stops.

The program represented not just an added convenience for Staten Island bus riders, but also a sign of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s growing embrace of, and collaborations with, the technology community in the city.

The service began a trial run on 30 buses on the B63 line, between Brooklyn Bridge Park and Shore Road in Dyker Heights, and became available on all bus lines, including express routes, on Staten Island on Wednesday.

Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the transportation agency, said the agency hoped to equip all city bus lines with the technology by the end of next year. Bus Time, he said, was designed to be a customer-oriented counterpart to the countdown clocks on some subway platforms.

The system’s current bus-location notifications inform riders how far away a bus is, either in distance or, if it is fairly close, in how many stops away. If a bus is within a tenth of a mile from a chosen location, it is described as “approaching.”

But given the unpredictability of traffic on the streets of New York, a spot test conducted on Wednesday showed that even with accurate location information, there was no telling how long it would take for a bus to arrive, something that Michael Frumin, a systems engineering manager for Bus Time, acknowledged. He said that in the future, the transportation agency planned to offer arrival-time information once it improved its system to account for traffic, number of riders and other “spontaneous conditions” that might result in delays. For now, though, riders on the B63 and on Staten Island have to make do.

On Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Colin White, who was waiting for the B63, said he used Bus Time several times a month, usually “when the weather is inclement.” He said the service allowed him to wait indoors until arrival time.

“The M.T.A. is finally coming into the 18th century,” Mr. White, 33, joked. “Baby steps.”

Mario Delgado, who has been driving a city bus for five years, said that many of his riders on the B63 had been using Bus Time, but that he thought the system, in its current state, was better suited to the subways.

“On the street it’s totally different,” Mr. Delgado, 46, said, while waiting to begin his route, at the other end of the line, on Shore Road in Dyker Heights. “You don’t know what the traffic is like on the roads; there could be an accident or a car doubled-parked.”

Nonetheless, the expansion of Bus Time drew praise from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who called it “the kind of entrepreneurial spirit and creativity our city thrives upon.”

In this project, the authority worked with electrical engineering students from City College and Columbia University.

The transportation authority expects to use the data gleaned from Bus Time to further improve service. Mr. Donovan said the agency would use real-time location data to create “offshoot applications” that will help ensure that buses are more evenly spaced.

For Ms. Dunn, 30, who waited to board the B63 on Atlantic Avenue, near Hicks Street, her misadventure with the system was harmless: the bus screeched to the curb moments later.

“Thank God!” she said, climbing aboard.

For the most part, Bus Time seems to be working. As a B63 bus pulled to a stop on Fifth Avenue, near Bay Ridge Parkway, a reporter used an iPhone to test the system’s accuracy. An “at stop” message appeared on the screen, as well as a notification that another bus was 0.8 miles away.

Then, the bus driver honked. It was Mr. Delgado, who had begun his route on Shore Road minutes earlier.

“Was it accurate?” he asked, as if knowing the answer.

“Come back at rush hour,” he quipped, breaking into a smile as he drove off.

{Noach Rosenberg-NY Times, Matzav.com Newscenter}