Monday, June 8, 2009

Using Metro on the Smartphone

For the past few weeks I've been playing around with Rapid on the Cell and the cell phone version of Metro's Trip Planner as part of my ongoing look at how new mobile technologies can help people better interact with public transit. A lack of information is a big barrier to transit use for choice riders. The internet has revolutionized the availability of transit information - no longer do people have to have paper copies of time tables and route maps to figure out how to get around.

However, as the internet becomes more mobile with laptops, cells, and smart phones, it seems Metro has not kept up. Metro currently has two mobile offerings, TripPlanner and RapidBus.net.


A screenshot taken by Sirinya of the Rapid on the Cell site while she was tracking the whereabouts of the next 720 from her home computer for Juan

Rapidbus.net allows visitors to read the same next bus displays at Metro Rapid (7-series) stops, but from their web-enabled cell or computer. As frequent transit users know, the information provided by these screens is not the most accurate.

One downfall of the line I frequently use, the 720, is that there is no option to see when the next bus is arriving at stops in Santa Monica. I assume this is because there are no inductive loops for signal priority in Santa Monica, which I believe drives the Next Bus times. One additional downside of using the inductive loops in the asphalt rather than GPS positioning is that the first stop for which next bus information is available often reads "Unavailable" until a bus is only a few minutes away.

All in all, Rapidbus.net is a useful tool that can help users minimize wait time at bus stops. I used it to get home from downtown late Saturday night, and was able to arrive at my stop only 3 minutes before the bus arrived. At the time, the 720 was operating with 15 minute headways.
One downside of Rapidbus.net is that, at least on my cellphone (a Blackberry 8820), it does not enable deep linking. Deep linking would be useful if a user wanted to save a bookmark of nextbus information for a stop they frequented (work or home) and didn't want to spend the minute or so it takes to navigate the Rapidbus site to find the next bus information.

On the cell, a user must click links for "MTA" (the first one, not the 2nd of the two MTA's available), then the line they wish to travel on, the direction they wish to travel, then the stop they wish to view information for. The computer version is more user friendly.
One additional errata is the presence of a Sepulveda stop on the 720. The stop is actually at Bonsall, 400 yards away.
Using Trip Planner on the cell is a bit more difficult. Trip Planner online is notorious for errors. Luckily, TripPlanner on the cell can provide useful information for users who have figured out how to use the site. The trick is knowing Metro's convention for cross streets, which is a "/" rather than a "&". If you use a & which is the convention on Google Maps, you'll never find what you're looking for.

Once you get past that part, you have to verify that TripPlanner understood your intersections correctly. Then it gives you some options of what bus to take. If you're not familiar with different routes, this can be difficult, especially if you're not familiar with the difference between two or more bus numbers which use the same route (920/720/20). Eventually, it's possible to figure out what time the next bus is scheduled to arrive. This is useful information.

One huge drawback to TripPlanner on the computer by phone is that it doesn't include owl service. I found this out when using TripPlanner on my cell to come back home from a night out at Karaoke in Korea Town. It was around 1 in the morning, but TripPlanner showed the next trip at 4:38 in the morning. Because PDFs don't load well on my cell, I couldn't access the time tables. I had to call a friend to find out when the next 20 bus might be coming.

At the time, I wasn't aware of NextTrip, which is accessible by clicking "Riding Metro" and then "Metro Bus" on the mobile site. This would only have been a viable option since I knew which line I wanted to take and which stops I wanted to use.

Both of Rapidbus and TripPlanner on the cell have shortcomings, but are useful to a patient user who has some degree of bus riding experience. I'm looking forward to the one day, very soon, when Google Transit rolls out in the Los Angeles area. After that, many other good things will happen.

2 comments:

Sirinya said...

BeccaKlaus called me from downtown last night to ask about transit directions for getting back to Westwood. How synergistic. Anyway, I tried Rapid on the Cell (via the website) for her, but was told that data was "unavailable" for the stop by 5th and Grand. Boo. I waded through PDFs for the 720 and 20 bus to give BK some arrival time projections, but of course, it was all a crapshoot. She, Liz and the others did get home safely, which was reassuring.
Sirinyay

Stephen said...

You're right- the next bus predictions for the Rapids are from the TPS loops embedded in the street (they are the long ones that stretch across the entire width of the street, or to at least half of the street). There are three gripes I have about the system:
1) It is not as accurate as GPS... many times the bus will hit a traffic delay right after being detected, so it could say 2 minutes but really be 8 minutes. That could easily be fixed with GPS (which I'm assuming Metro already has as they have automated stop announcements)... it's just about coordinating the system. CTA in Chicago has a great bus tracker they've been rolling out the past couple of years now. DC, SF, Portland and dozens of other smaller cities are using NextBus to share real time transit info.
2) The sensor can only tell you when one bus is coming. Rather, other real time programs I've seen in other cities can tell you when the next two or three buses are coming. So if you know that there are two buses bunched up and the stop you're waiting at is crowded, you can just wait to take the 2nd bus and not be packed into the first one.
3) When one of the sensors comm goes down, then you cannot get a prediction for that stop anymore. That is when the displays show "Metro Rapid Bus" or "Unavailable" or "Rapidbus.net". With GPS, if comm goes down, it is only for that individual bus and not for every single bus running through the route along that stop.