Introducing the Transit Surfer Tool

Today, Portland Transport is releasing a beta test version of our first transit tool, tentatively named the “Transit Surfer”.

The Transit Surfer is our take at an improved mobile user interface for TriMet’s Transit Tracker tool. This uses TriMet’s real time arrival data to help you find when the next bus or train is arriving. We’re actually using TriMet’s data. They do have a public interface on this data, but they haven’t promoted it. We understand that this will change and documentation will be released early in the new year.
Today, Portland Transport is releasing a beta test version of our first transit tool, tentatively named the “Transit Surfer”.

What it is

The Transit Surfer is our take at an improved mobile user interface for TriMet’s Transit Tracker tool. This uses TriMet’s real time arrival data to help you find when the next bus or train is arriving. We’re actually using TriMet’s data. They do have a public interface on this data, but they haven’t promoted it. We understand that this will change and documentation will be released early in the new year.

But we asked very nicely, and having been playing with this for a few months now.

You can find the beta test version at http://beta.portlandtransport.com/cgi-bin/pda.pl. This version is designed specifically for folks with phones that have an HTML browser (typically smartphones, i.e., PDA/phone combos), ours is a Treo 600. It does not work very well on WAP/WML phones.

It also works great on a plain web browser on your laptop or desktop computer. But I don’t carry my laptop to the bus stop that often (at least not turned on).

Who should use it

The Transit Surfer is aimed at the category of folks we call “Transit-Assisted Pedestrians” (and we include ourselves in this category). People who aren’t afraid to walk, and use transit to speed their trip or cover a distance they can’t on foot. They are also well acquainted with the transit system and their route options. If there’s a faster connection three blocks from here, our feet will get us to the faster route.

At that point, the question becomes one of knowing where the bus (or train) is so we can make choices. That’s what the Transit Surfer is about. It’s intended to inform you about when the next vehicle is coming, where you may want to make a transfer, what your options are.

Why it’s better

Now TriMet already has a PDA interface (they have one for WAP phones as well). So what’s different about our interface?

  1. It’s fast – there are no graphics, reducing both screen space and bandwidth required
  2. It’s terse – more info on every screen, even the text is minimized
  3. The navigation is optimized, you can do many things with fewer clicks

Most importantly, when looking at the screen for a given stop, you have links to get to quickly link to data for the previous or (usually more importantly) next stop. With the TriMet interface, I’d need to work back through a set of menus to get to the next stop. This takes care of my favorite approach to using the bus, walking along the route until the bus catches me. With the Transit Surfer I never have a bus pass by me between stops. When I pass a stop, I just click the link for the next stop to get the predicted arrival time.

Transit Surfer Screen Shot

A screenshot of the interface with the critical links circled


Usage strategies

The most awkward part of the interface (this is true for TriMet too) is working through menus. Either lists of routes, or lists of stops on a route. The best way around this is to BOOKMARK. You can bookmark any page in the Transit Surfer, including route pages and stop pages (a page that lists all the arrivals at a given stop).

I would suggest bookmarking a few stops on your favorite routes, especially transfer points. You can then just click your way along the route to the stop you want.

How you can help

  1. Be a beta tester! Use the interface and tell us what you think by commenting on this post.
  2. Tell your friends!
  3. If you know anything about WML interfaces, we need some help for a WAP/WML version.
  4. Give us thoughts on the name. Have you got a better one than Transit Surfer?
  5. If you have experience setting up open source projects – we’re considering open sourcing this code – please get in touch…

What the geeks may want to know

This application is written in Perl and uses the SOAP::Lite module to communicate with a web service at TriMet.

We have several other interfaces in mind for TriMet’s data, so watch this space!

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