New MTA feature tells riders how long until the next bus

December 21, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

As he waited yesterday for a bus to take him home from Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Timothy Yancey knew with certainty for the first time that he did not have time to make it to the hospital cafeteria before the No. 40 arrived.

A new Maryland Transit Administration system makes it possible at certain bus stops across Baltimore to know exactly how long it will take for the next bus to arrive. The program, which relies on global positioning technology, is part of the agency's multimillion-dollar effort to improve service and efficiency.

"It's a great idea," said Yancey, a patient who rode the bus to the hospital from his home in East Baltimore. "At least you know how long you'll be waiting out in the cold."

Refurbished bus shelters with the new electronic signs can be found at 11 stops along the No. 40 route, which runs between Security Square Mall and Essex. The MTA intends to add three more stops in the next two weeks, and state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan announced yesterday that by the end of next year, MTA hopes to have the technology in place at 200 stops.

The MTA system includes about 8,500 stops, Flanagan said, and the agency is targeting the busiest ones.

"Is that bus going to come?" Flanagan said at a news conference near one of the new Hopkins Bayview bus shelters. "If it's cold, if it's hot, if it's raining -- you want to know. And do you have time to go get a cup of coffee? We have the answer to that today."

The $3.3 million system is part of an $8.2 million MTA technology upgrade that includes new computers and servers for the agency's Washington Boulevard control facility so that staff can observe buses on electronic maps as they move along their routes.

"When two buses arrive at the same time, that is frustrating to [riders] and frustrating to me," Flanagan said. "This represents a real opportunity for improving our on-time performance."

Baltimore joins a number of cities across the country with similar systems to monitor mass transit. Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Fairfax, Va., and the Chicago suburbs are a few areas that have bought into the technology.

A study released in August commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that the systems work well and offer a good return on investment.

More public transit organizations across the country are tapping technology to improve customer service, said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association.

"Public transportation," she said, "is a 21st-century industry."

Flanagan said Baltimore could have had its system sooner had the General Assembly not been reluctant to approve the expense his agency originally asked for in 2004. Critics, including The Sun editorial board, said the agency should skip the fancy equipment and concentrate on basics such as improving service and the condition of the bus fleet.

"The legislature blocked us for a year," Flanagan said, "but we persevered."

State Sen. Verna L. Jones, who represents the central part of Baltimore, said the changes will make life easier for those who depend on public transportation -- including many people in her district.

"I support anything that will enhance efficiency, and the bus system hasn't always been the most efficient," she said. "I think it should be a good thing."

This year, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association studied bus routes and found that MTA buses arrived on schedule less than half the time. The community watchdog group defined "on schedule" as less than five minutes late or one minute early.

Dan Pontius, the group's regional policy director, said knowing whether buses are running early or late will help people -- but not as much as on-time buses would.

"We think this is a step forward for transit riders," he said. "But it's not a substitute for having the buses come on time. It's only so helpful to know that your bus is going to come really, really late."

Pontius said his organization will push the General Assembly this year to review MTA's performance.

MTA officials say the new system should lead to better service.

Even though the electronic signs will only be installed at selected stops, global positioning technology was put into every bus in the agency's fleet of about 700. Managers at the control facility will be able to observe buses and call drivers if buses are bunching up. They also will be able to study data the system collects to figure out ways to improve efficiency.

Ed Cohen, president of the Transit Riders Action Council, said that it's too bad the state can't afford to install the signs at all bus stops. But he thinks the system's other capabilities will ultimately be more important.

"It will allow much, much better planning of the system going forward," he said. "It will be scheduling that's based on the real world."

Other cities are using GPS systems that allow bus customers to go online to check arrival times. They can also sign up to get alerts sent to their their cell phones or PDAs.

Orbital, the Columbia-based company Maryland has contracted with, offers those services. If it fits into the budget, MTA might add them at some point, Hartsock said.

According to Orbital representatives, all of the 11 stops along the No. 40 line that could have been showing arrival information yesterday weren't doing so because some bus drivers hadn't logged on to the system. Drivers must do that at the start of their routes so the buses register on the system.

Hartsock said more training will fix that. If a driver doesn't log in, the bus stop displays will show the regular bus

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