Does Knowing Count? Comparing Urban Bus Tracking Systems and Ridership

Updated: March 29, 2012 at 01:54 PM

An MTA driver takes a break in Manhattan. The BusTime service, which allows riders to find out when the next bus is coming, is set to expand. Flickr/vincent ☆

Will a high-tech prototype system that tells New Yorkers how far away the next bus is make it worth the wait? The test run of the MTA’s BusTime in Staten Island indicates the GPS-based mobile app could boost lagging ridership rates. MetroFocus takes a look at how other cities have rolled out similar systems, and how ridership has fared.

Public transit ridership rose nationally in 2011, according to a report by the American Public Transportation Association in March. But as new MTA data shows, New Yorkers are bucking the trend by neglecting one core piece of transit infrastructure: city buses. Bus ridership dropped 4 percent between 2010 and 2011, compared to an overall 0.4 percent increase across the county. At a time when the MTA is projecting budget deficits of $141 million and $211 million in 2014 and 2015, respectively,  increased ridership is certainly needed.

Many New York City transit experts and pundits complain that riders’ inability to gauge when the next bus will arrive compounds a host of related problems — budget cuts, bunching, outdated routes, not enough lanes on busy roads, or lanes that are shared with other vehicles — that frequently render bus schedules inaccurate.


OpenPlans, a New York City-based firm that uses open source applications, introduced BusTime on the B63 in Brooklyn. It launched in Staten Island with additional work by Cambridge Systematics, a national transportation firm with a New York City office. The New York-based tech firm, Mobile Commons, enabled BusTime’s text messaging. Video courtesy of the MTA.


The MTA’s Bus Time program allows riders with mobile devices to send a text or scan a code at the bus stop to find out how many stops away the next bus is. The service only exists on special routes, where all of the buses have been fitted with GPS devices. The MTA began testing it on two Manhattan routes back in 2010, then expanded it to Brooklyn’s B63 line in 2011. After ironing out some kinks with the GPS, Staten Island became the first borough to have all of its bus lines linked into the BusTime system in January.

By March, 10 percent of Staten Island bus riders were using BusTime, and the program will soon be brought to the 34th Street line in Manhattan. By the end of 2013, the MTA plans to have BusTime installed on every bus in New York City. While it’s too early to say whether the high usage of the service will translate to increased ridership — and the system is limited to people with mobile phones, after all — the MTA and transit bloggers are excited.

Similar digital, bus time-tracking services have been implemented in other big cities, including Chicago, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles in recent years. How does the technology work in those cities, and has ridership increased in the time since? MetroFocus looked at Chicago, Portland and San Francisco (Los Angeles’ bus tracking system is operated by the same company as in San Francisco, NextBus).

Chicago — Bus Tracker

Service: The Chicago Transportation Authority (CTA) rolled out Bus Tracker in 2008, using GPS systems to track certain bus routes and providing information to mobile device users. Unlike BusTime, however, Bus Tracker tells riders the estimated arrival time, instead of just how many stops away their bus is. In 2009, the CTA began installing screens in some Chicago shops, so that people could see when buses were coming without using a phone. There was so much demand that in September 2011, the CTA turned the service into a $3.8 million program, installing LED signs at over 400 bus stops throughout the city, and in many stores and restaurants.

Impact: As detailed in Atlantic Cities, it’s very difficult to determine whether time-tracking techniques cause changes in ridership, but a study released last June by Transportation Research found a “modest increase” in ridership on routes that had Bus Tracker signs installed. On average, Bus Tracker routes had 126 more weekday riders per month than routes that did not — a 1.8 to 2.2. percent increase — according the study. Transportation Research advised the CTA to better market the service to people who don’t already use public transit. Overall, Chicago’s bus ridership increased by 1.42 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the American Public Transportation Association’s report.


Streetfilms’ Elizabeth Press looks at the Chicago Bus Tracker system. Video courtesy of Streetfilms.


Portland — TransitTracker

Service: Portland’s TriMet transit system installed GPS on its entire fleet of buses way back in 1997, after one of its employees worked with transit officials in London, where the first time tracking system for buses was implemented in 1992. Under Portland’s system, TransitTracker, bus arrival times were listed on signs at city bus stops, and the data was updated every 90 seconds. In 2005, TriMet became the first transit agency in the United States to open its data to the public, allowing for the creation of over 35 transit-related smartphone apps. Many of the apps track bus arrival times, and contain various features that add value to the schedules. People with non-smartphones can send a text for arrival times. In 2010, TriMet created its own mobile site where all TransitTracker arrival times are listed. And in 2011, TriMet created a Quick Response code app, which allows smartphone users to scan codes at all bus stops in order to access TransitTracker arrival times.

Impact: There aren’t any public reports that directly links the apps to ridership changes, though the American Public Transportation Association report says that Portland bus ridership dropped .47 percent between 2010 and 2011. However, on March 13, TriMet reported that weekday ridership grew 3.6 percent between 2011 and 2012, and weekend trips by 4.7 percent.

San Francisco — NextBus

Service: San Francisco’s transit authority contracted the company NextBus in 1999 to install a GPS tracking system on a select number of buses. Signs were installed to show bus riders when their ride was coming in real-time alerts, and between 2005 and 2007, the city installed the technology throughout the entire transit system. In 2009, NextBus became available as a smartphone app, and its use skyrocketed over the course of the following year. Around the same period, San Francisco began releasing its transit data to the public, which resulted in a series of privately created bus time-tracking apps.

Impact: A 2011 study by the tech research company Latitude found that mobile users in San Francisco and Boston said there was a direct relationship between how much information they had access to about transit and how likely they were to use transit. According to the American Public Transportation Association, San Francisco’s bus ridership increased .83 percent between 2010 and 2011.

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