Traveller Information Systems. By Kevin S. Hutchby
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Real-time transit arrival times on your Palm deviceA tour and question and answer session, at the NEXTBUS headquarters was kindly provided by Bryce Nesbitt, Jim Maresca and Erica Chriss.

NEXTBUS design, build and market the hardware and software for global positioning satellite (GPS) transit tracking systems in partnership with WebWirelessNow, AT&T and Xypoint. They have successfully deployed systems in their home town of Emeryville - California, the Municipal Rail network (MUNI) in downtown San Francisco and a light commuter rail system in Boston. In a nutshell the systems consist of the GPS satellite receiver equipment (installed in transit vehicles), a computer hardware base station running AVL algorithms and communicating arrival predictions to on-street variable message signs and/or Pole mounted rugged LCDs mounted at stops along the route. This technology is already up and running in various areas of the U.K. including parts of Nottinghamshire.

Where this system differs is with its impressive array of real-time information access tools. The NEXTBUS vehicle position and estimated-time-of-arrival data is available on the Internet and a host of other hand held devices including WAP phones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), Palm Tops and pagers - as many as 60 - 70 models at the time of my tour. Designs have even been drawn up for office clocks displaying the times of the NEXTBUS. A relatively traditional outlet for such information consisted largely of bus stop mounted variable message signs. These received paging frequency messages reflecting the latest predictions for bus / train arrivals and with a good degree of accuracy. To extend this to the latest gadgets really adds a massive amount of value and flexibility to such a system. MUNI advert for wireless information devices

Bryce Nesbitt, a Manager at NextBus, Emeryville allowed me to test the system for myself by kindly equipping me with a WAP phone prior to my visit to their headquarters at Emeryville. My main use of the device was to check the status of the bus connection from the BART station at McArthur to Emeryville central. Whilst normally I'd have just waited at the stop, the device allowed me to check whether there was in fact time for coffee at a nearby cafß. Unfortunately, there apparently wasn't.

The WAP device was, however, easy to use. The access number was already stored so that all I needed to know was the public transit service number, an acceptable pre-requisite. The connection speeds were more than adequate and the menu system so simple to use. Having had prior knowledge of such systems I trusted the prediction information implicitly for all the journeys taken that day - and every vehicle arrived during a 35 second window either side of the predicted time. The key point here though is the sheer convenience of the pocket sized device - to all intents and purposes a mobile phone with internet access and messaging capabilities.

I had actually tried the phone before my visit to have a look at the update rates of the information received and compared this with the information on the Internet site. The raw information was identical, the only advantage with the full Internet access was the user friendly graphical map used to present the data. Some PDAs have already been developed with colour graphics capability anyway.

real-time bus tracker sign real-time bus tracker bus stop sign
real-time bus tracker office hand-held device
real-time bus tracker office clock

Various real-time transit information provision devices

Arriving at the NEXTBUS building I discussed various products and strategies with Bryce, Erica and Jim and the various aspects of the NEXTBUS system specifically.

At the outset of designing a NEXTBUS system, Internet and WAP capabilities were a fundamental part of the scheme. The original concept that Bryce latched onto was purely for a hand held device solution, however, it made sense to harness the fuller capabilities of the Internet as well. In addition to the WAP devices being able to view the vehicle arrival predictions via the NEXTBUS Wireless Internet, some are also capable of downloading and installing applications that display relevant static timetable information. In terms of the popularity of portable Internet, the Emeryville NEXTBUS system receives over 75,000 user sessions a month. Half of these are identified as originating from mobile devices!

Due to the fact that branded NEXTBUS systems are visible in bus shelters, and on certain other street furniture, the system is capable, to a degree, of marketing itself. Bryce also stressed that TV, radio and press publicity was also sought to advertise the products on offer.

More developments were already on the drawing board, including a talking wireless version of the system especially designed for visually impaired travellers and systems that display text in languages other than English.

The convenience of hand held transit information - straight to your mobile phone The convenience of hand held transit information - straight to your mobile phone

The convenience of hand held transit information - straight to your mobile phone

The feedback already received about NEXTBUS in Emeryville contains positive comments similar to those received about the Nottinghamshire system: That even though buses continued to deviate from their schedules, sometimes greatly during peak periods, transit patrons were perfectly aware of when the bus would be arriving and therefore concluded that the service had improved a great deal. This is a very useful point. Rider satisfaction was also gleaned from studies carried out. To quantify the above points:

  • 65% of passengers said they had waited a shorter time (even though the actual time had not changed)
  • 64% said that the passenger service had improved (even though there was no change measured)
  • There was positive evidence of increased patronage

NEXTBUS's Bryce Nesbitt demonstrates the latest real time passenger information front end, complete with mapping system

My sincere thanks to Bryce Nesbitt, Jim Maresca and Erica Chriss.

As a postscript to this section on NEXTBUS, the WAP Forum and IBC awarded NEXTBUS an honourable mention in the first ever WAP Awards presented in Seville on November 28, 2000.

In addition, the MUNI company also received a national award in July 2000 for installing the NEXTBUS passenger information system. The award was presented in Washington D.C. during the National Electronic Government Conference and Exposition.

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