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Bus rider communications improvements: Get arrival info via text message

On Monday we wrote about planned improvements to communications with rail riders in 2009. Today we recap improvements in communications to bus riders, detailed in the CTA Tattler Coffee with Ron Huberman last Saturday.

The most intriguing initiative is the ability to text a phone number posted on bus stop signs to learn the arrival time of the next bus. Huberman promises this feature by early next year, made possible by Bus Tracker location information.

And speaking of Bus Tracker, I asked Ron why there haven't been additional bus routes added in the last two months. He said the CTA needs to get more new buses on the road so they can retire the last of the buses bought in 1991. Due to the lack of capital funding, the CTA is leasing buses instead of buying them. He said the CTA can't write off depreciation, since it's a public agency. But private companies can, so they buy the buses, lease them to the CTA, take advantage of the depreciation writeoff, and pass on some savings to the CTA.

Huberman acknowledged there still are issues with reliability with Bus Tracker information -- issues that have been reported by many Tattler readers. Issues such as buses either dropping off the Bus Tracker data base, or never showing up there. Ron said reliability is still in just the 90% range. He's trying to get it to 98%.

Finally, Huberman mentioned the CTA has gotten a grant to install video screens at the busiest bus stops -- much like those at rail stations. Unfortunately, there's not enough cash to install them across the vast CTA bus system.

Huberman said all of these improvements should be in place in the next six months.

Plus, on Monday, Huberman announced that advertising info boards will be mounted on the curb side of some buses. A total of 100 buses will be equipped with the digital advertising display boards, part of the$101 million deal to equip train stations with the 55-inch screens.


Queue the complaints.......

My bet is that someone will actually believe that their own personal experiences are indicative of the entire Bus Tracker experience and claim that the 90% figure is way off. Will it be KevinB, Rusty, or someone else altogether? Stay tuned!

Also, can someone who was at the meeting clarify that his statement means that there will be no more Bus Tracker rollouts until we get capital funding and/or new buses? That is how I read it, but wasn't sure if that is right.

If I recall from the meeting, bus tracker requires GPS. Until an entire route gets buses capable of GPS, the route will not have bus tracker. Retro-fitting old buses with GPS is expensive. Until we get new buses (through leasing them, like stated above), bus tracker will not be on every route.

I do not remember the time line for new buses, though. Anyone remember?



Yes, I understand why they are not putting them on old buses. I just want to know if they have essentially stopped the roll-out of new routes until we get new buses/capital.

Hi chris! But I'm going to let you down... a little. The bus tracker has been very, very reliable for me. I use it daily on the 147 Outer Drive Express, frequently on the 50 Damen, and occasionally on the various westbound buses I use between Irving Park and Foster.

But I don't extrapolate from that. There are clearly routes where it works really well and routes where it works less well.

I also think some people don't understand that the arrival times it provides are algorithmic guesses. If it says a bus is three minutes away, and the stop it's at has a wheelchair user getting on, say, or if the driver misses a light, or both, that might stretch to five or six or seven minutes. And maybe the driver makes a light (where "makes" is a euphemism for "runs") and shows up sooner. It isn't and won't be in real time; it's an extrapolation of the next few minutes based on the last few minutes.

Bob S,

You're not letting me down. I applaud your understanding of the system. I have similar experiences in that it works most of the time and I now use it on a regular basis enough where it changes my habits of when I leave my place to catch a bus.

I've found the Tracker to be hit-and-miss, myself. If I want a northbound bus, from here in Rogers Park, it's pretty much 100% reliable in my experience.

But, as an example, it's near useless if I want a southbound bus from the Howard terminal. It doesn't seem to have the ability to account for new buses coming from the garage or to account for the time between runs.

Whoops, that last comment was in reference to 147 buses.

"Plus, on Monday, Huberman announced that advertising info boards will be mounted on the curb side of some buses. A total of 100 buses will be equipped with the digital advertising display boards, part of the $101 million deal to equip train stations with the 55-inch screens."

Gee, isn't that the same announcement he made back in May at a press conference at Southport? http://www.yourcta.com/news/ctaandpress.wu?action=displayarticledetail&articleid=102005

And apparently, now it's just a test - with only one bus with a sign. Where are the station signs he announced 5 months ago, too?

Actually I don't have much to complain about. It's a great idea and other than the occasional ghost bus and the lack of 22/36 bus routes it's a keeper. I'd also like to see a train version since there seems to be such a problem with having the SB purple line express actually show up at Howard at the time they print on those nice schedules they put out on the web or in the stations.

I like the idea of the text message thing at the bus stops too. It takes me too long to fire up my browser and the only suggestion I have is that they should have the rail stations at the top of the street list rather than at the bottom on the web version. I hate having to scroll all the way down for a rail station stop.

Sorry to disappoint if you were expecting rabid disagreement.


Well, anybody who knows the CTA must have known that their promise to roll out bus tracker to all routes in 12 months was never going to happen. No shock there.

As for bus tracker's reliability, obviously the "90% reliability" metric is meaningless unless you know how they define "reliable." For example, is a bus prediction "reliable" if it's no more than 2 minutes off? What about 5 minutes? 10? Do they count a bus as 0% reliable when it's not tracked at all or when it disappears from the system, or do they just ignore those buses when computing "reliability"?

Presumably they have selected some standard, which they may or may not ever tell us about. (If you write to the bus tracker e-mail address, they don't even bother to acknowledge receipt of your message, let alone respond to it substantively; at least customer service tells you they got your message, even if they seldom provide any meaningful answer to it.)

Still, bus tracker is far, far better than nothing. The errors the system makes are often themselves predictable; I know that at one stop I use "2 minutes" usually means 5-8 minutes, and at another "7 minutes" can really mean as little as 2 or 4. Why the CTA doesn't have a robust enough algorithm to notice this and make an adjustment is mystifying, but what can you do. It sounds like Huberman means well, but he's only one person.

The alphabetical listing of streets on the bus tracker is a pain -- why not list them in the order the bus serves them?

That press release from April shows Huberman saying that the digital signs would be rolled out "over the next year," which would still be more or less in the "8 months" timeframe he gave at the coffee this past weekend.


I suppose CTA could provide upper and lower bounds / confidence intervals for each arrival time prediction... e.g. "bus XXXX is 95% likely to arrive in 4 minutes plus or minus 57 seconds" but then people would complain about how confusing it is. Probably better to provide a single, round number, and err on the high side.

stillwaiting, again, I'm not going to extrapolate from my experience. But earlier this year I emailed the bus tracker contact address with some comments and questions and got a thoughtful answer back within a few days. (In fact, I thought part of the email was newsworthy enough to forward on to Kevin here.)

And there'd be some value to having both the alphabetical listing and the ordered listing of stops available. On an unfamiliar route, alphabetical is easier to find, but on a familar route, ordered is easier.

Vancouver uses the text messaging system too. But their system is pretty exact. Hopefully this works out.

Per Adam's comment, I think the alphabetical listing is just fine (though I agree with the idea that the train stations should be first). As someone, who isn't familiar with the order of the stops on the routes that I don't usually take, I prefer the A-Z listings.

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