Archive | Transit Tools

Trackless in Portland: Where’s My Bus?

As an occasional transit rider, using the system isn’t completely intuitive for me. Any time I don’t know when the next bus is coming is a moment when I might get frustrated and give up.That’s why the new technologies TriMet has been implementing have made the system a lot easier to use, which makes me more likely to use (and enjoy) transit.

tracker

As an occasional transit rider, using the system isn’t completely intuitive for me. Any time I don’t know when the next bus is coming is a moment when I might get frustrated and give up and get back on my bike. That’s why the new technologies TriMet has been implementing have made the system a lot easier to use, which makes me more likely to use (and enjoy) transit.

Real-time displays at bus stops and on the web that let me know exactly when the next bus or train will arrive are fantastically useful tools that make the system work. (And, of course, there are those who are yet more cutting-edge, who want to unplug the system and be able to track real-time arrivals with wi-fi.)

Making the connection between between the schedule and the real live bus makes a real difference even when things are moving smoothly and basically according to schedule. But what happens to these systems when everything goes haywire?

Tonight was a good test of the system. Portland shuts down when it snows, and even the Commissioner of Transportation strongly recommends that citizens take transit instead of driving. It’s not impossible to ride a bike in the snow, but even in Portland biking drops a fair amount when the ground is white.

So, if transit is the best, if not only, way to get around today, how do you figure out if and how transit is going to work for you in the face of necessary delays and service changes?

I had the chance to test out how TriMet’s emergency information services were doing today. My sister was over for a visit, and while she was here it snowed. Biking back home was not an option, so we checked the TriMet web site to look for detours or delays. The closest bus line had delays, but there was no notice of anything out of the ordinary with the next route south.

We used Transit Tracker to find when the next bus should arrive, and it was coming in a half an hour, so I bundled her up against the cold, and sent her out in the cold world to walk a good long stretch to Hawthorne. She waited and waited at the stop, but even though multiple buses came in the other direction, no bus ever arrived. She had to walk home.

To my mind, this is a failure of the system. If we had known that our route was cancelled or severely delayed, she could have walked home from the get-go, stayed over, or taken a cab instead of waiting for an hours for a bus that never came. Even better would have been if we could have actually known when it made sense for her to leave the house and wait in the cold, because we could be sure a bus would arrive soon after. Luckily for my sister, she could walk a few miles home, but not everyone will be in that position.

I say all this with a great deal of sympathy and respect for TriMet’s engineers, operators, and administrators. I know they’re doing their best out there. But it seems to me that the real-time information and the reliability of the web site are more important in a crisis situation than ever. Take pity on those of us who will be waiting in the cold for that phantom bus this morning, and please just tell us if that bus will really arrive.

If not, I’m staying home.

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!

Google Transit Launches with TriMet

We got scooped by News4Neighbors, but here it is: today Google launched a Transit Trip Planner, using TriMet as their first partner, so right now it’s a Portland exclusive.

My favorite part is the comparison of driving costs with the transit fare!

What this highlights is that TriMet has great data, and a real willingness to be innovative. Here at Portland Transport we’re very well aware of this. Tomorrow we’ll be launching a transit tool of our own, relying on TriMet’s data. Watch this space…