Bus tracker

Wondering when the next bus is coming may soon be a thing of the past thanks to a new system developed by two University of Washington students.

Wondering when the next bus is coming may soon be a thing of the past thanks to a new system developed by two University of Washington (UW) students.

Over the past year, Brian Ferris, a doctoral student in computer science and Kari Watkins, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, created the new tool, OneBusAway, which allows bus riders to use a mobile phone, iPhone or computer to keep tabs on their bus.

OneBusAway has processed 20,000 automated phone calls since June, and the associated website gets an average of 1,000 hits a day. People have found out about the tool on blogs, from stickers posted at a few UW campus bus stops, from a mention in a Seattle magazine and by word of mouth.

To use OneBusAway in Seattle, users need to dial 206-456-0609 from any phone. Users then punch in their stop number, if they know it already, or follow the prompts to look it up. A computer checks a database of current bus locations, and a voice announces how long it will be until the bus arrives. Users can also access the system online at www.OneBusAway.org or using an iPhone.

Most bus stops have a timetable of when a bus is supposed to come, and digital screens at some central hubs show projected arrivals. But most bus riders waiting by the curb, scanning the horizon for any sign of a bus, have no idea how long they have to wait. Research shows that removing uncertainty cuts frustration dramatically, said Watkins, who works on transportation issues.

OneBusAway is an offshoot of MyBus, an online service that Ferris calls ‘the great granddaddy’ of bus-tracking tools. MyBus, created in the mid-1990s by UW electrical engineering professor Daniel Dailey, allows people to type in a bus route and stop number to get anticipated arrival times. It combines odometer readings, which regularly get beamed back to dispatch, and route information to estimate the current position of each bus. The MyBus system forms the basis for municipal bus-tracking services in Seattle and Chicago.

Anyone can write features for Ferris and Watkins’ open-source tool. One person wrote a patch that allows users to view two different routes on the same computer screen, so if an individual lives close to two routes he or she can load one page to see which bus will come first.

More features are in the works. Ferris and Watkins have built a prototype that integrates real-time tracking with the popular trip-planner feature now offered by King County Metro and Google Transit. The result is a trip planner that would adjust its recommendation depending on whether buses are running on time. Yet another prototype finds businesses that can be easily accessed in a single bus trip.

Eventually, the pair envision offering a suite of bus-riding tools that any transit agency could connect to its database to encourage more people to use public transit. Someday buses may be equipped with GPS antennas that would allow even better tracking.

Brian Ferris, a doctoral student in computer science and engineering, uses his iPhone to check the status of a late bus. Ferris created OneBusAway, a free service that lets bus riders use phones or computers to get real-time updates on bus arrivals