Where is that bus?

If you’re a commuter wondering where your bus is, you’re in luck – real-time information is now as close as the cell phone in your pocket.

Thanks to work by a group of University of Washington engineers, mass transit riders in the Puget Sound-area of the US can keep tabs on nearly 1,000 King County Metro Transit buses with the punch of a few buttons. All they need is a cellular telephone that can access the World Wide Web.

‘People are contacting us and telling us that they like what they see and want to replicate it for their cities,’ said Stuart Maclean, research associate with the UW’s Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) group.

The new application is the logical extension of an ITS project called ‘MyBus,’ which lists similar information on a conventional Web site. Riders can visit the site from their home or office computer to find out if their bus is running on time.

And therein lies the drawback to an otherwise popular service, according to Dan Dailey, electrical engineering research professor and ITS director.

‘After all, where you really need this information is walking down the street to your stop, or while you’re waiting for your bus,’ Dailey said. ‘The information is just not as useful on your computer or laptop.’

Giving commuters cell-phone access to MyBus was relatively simple, Maclean said. Coding for the site was changed from HTML, the computer language commonly used on the Web, to WML, a language that allows access by WAP-enabled phones.

Callers can get bus information by pointing their phone browsers to the MyBus WAP site at www.mybus.org/wml/ and selecting MetroKC from the MyBus menu. They need to select a bus stop and enter the route number of their bus. The phone browser will then display real-time predictions of when the bus will leave the stop.

To make those predictions, MyBus taps into Metro’s bus location system. An algorithm processes that information with data on how the buses have run in the past to predict the time the bus will be leaving the selected stop.