After missing the M bus home, Steve Banks said he would welcome a mobile-phone-access GPS system that CT Transit plans to install next year.
By the end of 2015, New Haven’s public buses will have GPS (global positioning system) devices installed on them, according to CT Transit spokesman Philip Fry. People at bus stops will be able to use mobile app to see how many minutes away the next bus is.
That might have helped Banks (pictured) catch his bus on Monday afternoon. He just missed the M to his home in Hamden, and had to wait an extra 20 minutes.
Informed of the plans for the new GPS system, Banks said, “Definitely put that on the bus. Definitely.”
New Haveners have been expressing that sentiment for some time. New traffic tsar Doug Hausladen called for GPS-equipped buses when he took office earlier this year. Independent readers voted overwhelmingly in support of the idea.
The proposal will finally become a reality, according to Fry. The state transportation department, which runs CT Transit, has hired Toronto-based Trapeze to install the GPS system. Fry said the system should be in place by the end of 2015. Click the play arrow to see a Trapeze video about its system.
“It’s the Holy Grail of bus information,” said Fry.
Another bus improvement, better fare collection boxes, might be in place as soon as next summer. The state is currently reviewing proposals from companies competing to install a “smart card” system on Connecticut buses.
Bus riders will be able to buy a refillable bus pass that has a microchip in it, instead of the magnetic strip featured on today’s bus passes. When they board the bus, instead of inserting a card into a reader, riders will just tap the top of the fare box, and have the fare automatically deducted from their card.
The Holy Grail
Fry said the state has been working towards GPS-equipped buses for several years. Installation in CT transit’s 600 buses will occur in phases.
The first phase will take place as part of CTfastrak, the new busway under construction between Hartford and New Britain. Buses on CTfastrak and buses in New Britain and Hartford will get GPS units first.
“Then New Haven would be right after that,” Fry said. “The expectation is it would be sometime mid- to late-2015.”
As part of the system, New Haven bus stops will all be numbered. “You’ll be able to go on your computer or phone and punch in the stop that you’re at and it will tell you if your bus will be there in two minutes or three minutes.”
Smartphone users will be able to download an app to interact with the system. Other cell phone users will be able to send a text and receive the information they want.
Riders could always look at the bus schedule to see when the next bus is coming, but what they really want is real-time information, Fry said. “People want to know when my bus is coming. Not when it’s scheduled to be here.”
Hausladen said increasing the amount of information available to bus riders can increase public transit ridership, without having to buy more buses or create new routes. He cited a study showing that real-time information decreases riders’ perceived wait times, keeping riders happier.
The system will tell users how many minutes remain until the next bus arrives at their stop. Fry said it will be similar to a system in St. Petersburg Florida, where people can choose their route and their bus stop and see upcoming arrival times.
St. Petersburg’s system also includes a Google map showing where all city buses are and which direction they’re headed, in real time. Fry said he’s not sure if CT Transit’s system will have that feature.
The system will be especially useful during bad weather or long winters, Fry said. “If it’s pouring rain or cold or snowing, I can check to see when the bus is coming,” Fry said. If the bus is delayed or isn’t coming for 20 minutes, “maybe I’ll stay in my office a little longer.”
Vidhya Ramani expressed the same sentiment, before rushing to catch a bus near the corner of Church and Chapel streets Monday afternoon. With the new system, “I wouldn’t have to wait outside in the cold,” said Ramani, who takes the bus every day to her job in the financial center on Church Street.
Raelyn Rodriguez (at right in photo), waiting with DeeDee Vasquez to take the bus to Archie Moore’s, said she had to wait outside for a half-hour in a snowstorm last year. If the system had already been in place and she’d known the bus would be so late, “I would have stayed home” and waited inside where it was warm.
Ismael Camacho (pictured), commuting back to Hamden from his job at a West Haven nursing home, said he had to call CT Transit that day to figure out what time his bus was coming. He said he’d have an easier time using the bus system if there were a GPS system in place. “It’s a good idea.”
Banks, while he said he supports the idea of a GPS system, also said he wouldn’t necessarily trust the information it would provide.
“The bus is never on time,” he said. “They run when they want to run.”
Sometimes buses are early, sometimes they’re late, he said. Any prediction the GPS system makes could be wrong, if a bus hits traffic.
Two off-duty CT Transit bus drivers, who declined to give their names, said they don’t think the GPS system is a good use of money. Riders don’t need it to know when buses are coming, said one. “They can look at the schedule.”
Before New Haveners will be able to use their phones check on the bus their waiting for, they’ll have a new way to pay their fare. Starting “in the first quarter in 2015,” new fare boxes will start to appear in CT Transit buses, Fry said.
He compared the new system to EZPass, the electronic highway-toll payment system, which scans users’ cars as they pass under an array of sensors.
The new fare boxes will be equipped with a reader that will sense a card when it gets close enough. “You can just tap that and go,” Fry said.
“It’s faster,” Fry said. In the current system, people feed their bus passes in to a box, they are read by the machine and spit out the top. It takes two or three seconds. Those seconds add up if you’ve got a line of people at a busy stop, waiting to get on, Fry said.
Users can set up an account in their name and reload their smart cards online. If you lose your card, you can have it canceled and the money refunded. If you don’t register your card, however, you won’t get your money back if you lose it.
The off-duty bus drivers waiting outside Roly Poly on Monday weren’t impressed by the news of the coming smart cards.
If speed is the concern, CT Transit should install swipe-style pass readers, said one of the drivers.
She offered another idea: Tokens. She said all bus stops should have vending machines for tokens. That way, when people get on the bus, they either have a token or they don’t. They can’t start haggling with the driver when they don’t have the right change or are 75 cents short, she said.
“You get cussed out, fussed out, slapped,” she said. “It’s easier for us not to accept cash.”
“Very Rich Data”
Fry said the two planned bus improvements could be combined, to provide the city with lots of new data about bus ridership.
For instance, he said, the fare boxes could track how many people get on at each stop, and what kinds of people: Are they paying the youth fare? The senior citizen fare?
“My hope is to have very rich data,” said Hausladen. With detailed information about which stops are most used, the city could start to think about consolidating stops to make the buses more efficient. Fewer stops would also mean more money to spend on each one, making bus stops more comfortable, he said.