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.
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.
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.