“Next Bus Please”: three words that matter

Monday morning, I found myself riding a very packed Metrobus. After I got on, a few more passengers boarded—standing forward of the standee line. The bus operator continued on (in violation of 49CFR392.62) and then we passed several stops without picking up the passengers waiting at those stops. The passengers were understandably bewildered, and one made a rude gesture as the bus passed. There’s a clear problem here: a bus with passengers forward of the standee line is not a safe bus, and certainly not a bus that can accomodate more passengers, but how do we communicate this to waiting passengers? In New York City, bus headsigns are programmed with a “Next Bus Please” reading for use when a bus remains in service but is discharge-only until crowding is alleviated. This is a good first step (and one more agencies should adopt), but it’s only a first step.

The next step is to tie this information into an agency’s AVL system. When a bus reaches capacity, the driver should be able to push a single button and simultaneously change the headsign reading and update the AVL system. This information then needs to be conveyed to bus supervisors and riders. Getting overcrowding information into an AVL system should make it possible to perform a thorough analysis of the data—what routes have crowding problems, and how bad are they? Sure, many transit agencies use both manual and automated passenger-counting systems, but the issue here isn’t one of the number of riders, it’s whether or not the bus is able to board additional passengers. This information is important for riders, too. When a service like NextBus tells a passenger that the next bus is a few minutes away, they expect that they will actually be able to board that bus. Finding out that the bus is dangerously overcrowded and not boarding additional passengers does riders no good once the bus is at the stop (or as it goes flying past). Instead, riders need to get that information in advance; they need to be told not only that the next bus is coming in three minutes, but that it’s full and so is the following bus, and it’ll be 15 minutes before a bus with any capacity passes their stop. This paints a much more accurate picture of the rider’s situation, and allows them to make more intelligent decisions.

Last week, NJ TRANSIT announced a substantial contract with Clever Devices for “smart bus” technology. This contract will add Clever Devices equipment to the remainder of the buses in the NJ TRANSIT fleet which are not already “smart buses”. Once equipped, these buses will get AVL and automatic stop announcements (among other benefits, but those are the ones most likely to be noticed by riders). WMATA is also in the midst of a project to equip its buses with new technology. I also understand that Ride-On is set to deploy an upgrade to its AVL system from Orbital (which is now a division of ACS), which will add a public front-end. I hope these projects take heed of the fact that while it’s good to tell riders when the next bus is coming, what’s really great is telling them when the next bus is coming that they can actually board. This extends to displays at bus stops as well; there’s nothing more infuriating to a rider than having a bus pass you without stopping, and knowing that the next bus won’t stop because it’s full might go a long way to addressing rider frustration.