Magic bus

With the help of high-tech tools, San Francisco takes the gamble out of public transit

NEXTBus Information Systems

For many commuters, mass transit is something to avoid. The hassle of connecting

with a bus, being exposed to the elements and jostling for position once

aboard is bad enough. And then, commuters can't count on buses to be on


In San Francisco, however, riders on the 22-Fillmore trolley bus line

don't have to deal with that uncertainty. Instead of craning their necks

over the curb for signs of their lift, they can view an electronic display

mounted on or near their shelter that tells them how many minutes until

the next bus arrives.

If a bus breaks down or is in an accident, that information is flashed

on the screen at the affected bus stops. In fact, commuters don't even have

to be there to get the information. They can check on the Internet before

they leave home or the office, or by using a wireless device.

"The 22-Fillmore was chosen because that line was considered one of

the poorest performing," said Michael Burns, general manager for the San

Francisco Municipal Railway.

The company providing San Francisco with this technology is appropriately

named NextBus Information Systems Inc. The company's system blends satellite-based

vehicle tracking, predictive software and wireless communications. The Emeryville,

Calif., start-up is running pilot programs in a number of cities, but San

Francisco is its largest test bed so far.

The Muni, as it is known, is embracing NextBus and other advanced traveler

information systems with fleet management features to improve service and

rider satisfaction. Giving passengers real-time information that can help

them negotiate their trips is a necessity for a city that places a premium

on mass transit, Burns said.

"The whole philosophy here is [toward] a transit-first environment,"

Burns said. "There are tremendous opportunities for getting people on transit

with this type of system."

"If you can put the systems in efficiently and effectively, you can

become more competitive with the automobile and hopefully increase ridership,"

said Larry Schulman, a former administrator for the Federal Transit Administration

and a consultant to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

The Muni is the seventh-largest public transit system in the United

States, with about 700,000 trips per day. It operates 140 electric streetcars,

350 electric trolley buses, 450 diesel buses, 38 cable cars and a historic

rail line with 30 cars.

The trolley buses are not the only vehicles getting technology to help

travelers navigate the city. Muni streetcars also have NextBus systems,

part of a two-year, $750,000 trial that ends this summer. And Muni has a

contract with Raleigh, N.C.-based Digital Recorders Inc. to provide its

Talking Bus system for new diesel buses. Talking Bus uses human-sounding

digital recordings and variable message signs to automatically announce

stops and routes. And 20 of the new buses will carry Swiss-made automatic

passenger counters.

Global Positioning System technology is the foundation for both NextBus'

and Digital Recorders' components. Equipped with atomic clocks, the GPS

satellites transmit precise time and position information, which is picked

up by receivers on the vehicles.

What sets NextBus apart from other advanced traveler information systems

is its predictive software, which enables it to adjust to changing circumstances.

After installing the equipment, the company spends six weeks capturing

data from the buses, taking into account daily traffic patterns. The data

is used to build a baseline mathematical model of a vehicle's behavior.

The receiver sends a location report every 90 seconds through a wireless

modem to the company's servers in San Jose, Calif., and Dallas. Based on

the computer model, the software predicts when the vehicle will arrive at

its next stop. The model is constantly updated as the historical database

grows with time.

"We will be correct within a minute 95 percent of the time," said Jim

Maresca, NextBus' chief executive officer.

"It's been very accurate. We haven't had any problems with the predictions,"

Burns said.

That information is then relayed to the bus shelters, where passengers

can see an LED sign with the wait time for the next two or three buses.

The system can differentiate between separate lines operating on the same

street if the buses carry mobile data terminals, which code each vehicle.

Muni chose not to use the terminals for its pilot, Maresca said.

"If the bus is behaving as predicted, then the signs just keep counting

down," Maresca said. But if an accident or weather conditions delay the

bus and an adaptation is needed, the system sends a message to the sign

to change the prediction.

In the works are applications that can page or send e-mail to riders

when their bus is nearing, Maresca said.

"NextBus has probably been the most visible improvement we've made for

our customers in the last year to year-and-a-half," Burns said. "It's been

tremendously well received."

The voice annunciators also improve the passenger experience, he said.

Announcing each stop and route had been hard for Muni. Despite training

and disciplinary measures, bus drivers make announcements about 65 percent

of the time. The Talking Bus system will give riders "a high degree of certainty"

that their stop will be called, Burns said. This is especially helpful to

tourists and visually impaired riders, and when crowded conditions make

it difficult to see the coming stop, he said.

Although NextBus and Digital Recorders focus on the passenger, the information

they provide can help managers operate their fleets more efficiently and

provide faster response in emergencies.

With NextBus, managers know when to send another bus to finish a run

experiencing delays. They can send a message to drivers to skip stops or

slow down if they start to bunch up. And streetcar supervisors can track

the light rail vehicles when they leave the underground tracks to travel

on the street.

In addition to GPS-triggered voice announcements, Digital Recorders

captures vehicle diagnostic data on a memory card. Although Muni does not

get the data in real time, the GPS system allows time and location references

to be stamped on the data files. So, for instance, Muni managers can track

when the brakes and turn signals are used, doors open and close, and onboard

video surveillance tapes run, Digital Recorders General Manager Tanya Johnson


A standard Talking Bus system costs about $5,000, she said. NextBus

can outfit vehicles for five years at $7,000, including wireless charges.

The shelter signs are an additional $4,000 apiece.

A large-scale automatic vehicle location and computer-aided dispatch

system costs roughly $15,000 per vehicle, according to transportation industry

officials and U.S. government data.

But that's not the kind of system Burns said he wants. Most fleet management

systems communicate through expensive private radio networks. For a city

the size of San Francisco, that could cost about $50 million. Plus, there

is no guarantee that the system will be as reliable as promised because

the radio frequencies cannot handle that much simultaneous data transmission.

Rather than create a communications infrastructure it would have to

maintain, Muni can save time and money by taking advantage of commercial

wireless networks, Burns said.

"We are only 49 square miles," he said. "There is less of a need for

us to have some of the features that are contained in some of the larger,

more expensive systems."

Burns said he is pushing Muni to use the Internet as the common information

platform to keep costs under control. "What we really have to look at is

[this]: What's the information that we really need? People end up with huge

systems with a lot of information and then don't know what to do with it."

This year, Muni will issue bid requests for systems that can track vehicles

and provide up-to-date arrival times. Burns said he hopes to install the

equipment systemwide.

NEXT STORY: BLM gains ground on programs