Internet-coordinated transit arrivals
by Matthew Gast
Related link: http://www.nextbus.com
As the telcos and their suppliers told us about the wondrous coming world of GPRS and 3G, I struggled to see the applications. Connectivity is often its own reward, and value-added services from the network tend to be late and somewhat expensive. (Why run a VPN over GPRS when you can just run a VPN over Internet connectivity?)
New services over the wireless WAN were supposed to make up for the huge expense in building out the network. Ideal applications for these new networks would send send short, time-critical or location-sensitive bits of data around the WAN to willing subscribers. For some reason, stock quotes were a common example in the circles I traveled in at the time. While securities pricing certainly are time-sensitive data that age quickly, I never felt the need to check up on my portfolio, or worse, trade by mobile phone.
I recently discovered my own application. These days, I frequently use the Muni Metro streetcar service in San Francisco. One of the problems with any big-city transit service is that it's very difficult to schedule, especially when there is no dedicated right of way. Off the beaten downtown path in San Francisco, the streetcars ride at road level, and are subject to the whims of traffic, especially at peak times when cars are most likely to be in the way.
I would rather not spend lots of time waiting outside for the next streetcar to arrive, especially because the stop nearest my house does not have a rain shelter. Fortunately for me, there's the Nextbus. It uses receivers on the streetcars to report location information over an existing cellular network (CDPD, I think). Vehicle location information is reported to a data center, where it is made available over a Web site, as well as to signs in the stops themselves. The Web site is even capable of showing the location of all the streetcars in the Metro system. All the components and protocols used are based on common standards.
I now use nextbus.com whenever I leave my house. With practice, I can now stroll up to the nearest stop within a minute of the arrival of the next train. I'm usually at a loss, however, on the return trip. It is hard to get timely access to the information when I'm not tethered to my copper umbilical cord at home. (Nextbus does make lobby signs, but I haven't seen any in San Francisco yet.) So, I have decided to take the plunge and get a phone with a built-in Web browser, simply to get better access to streetcar location. Congratulations, Nextbus! The handset manufacturers should love you for developing my "killer app" and encouraging me to buy a new phone.
Are you using a next-generation cellular network (GPRS, EDGE, 3G, cdma2000, 1xRTT, EV-DO), and if so, what's the application?
Some stops have lobby signs
The MUNI 22 Fillmore line also has NextBus capability. (The 22 was picked as the major bus line with the worst on-time performance.) Most of the major stops (where it crosses another line) have lobby signs. Also the Castro MUNI Metro station has a sign outside the station. The underground stations all have their own internal scheduling signs.
Theoretically, all of the bus lines were supposed to be NextBus enabled by 2006, but I'm guessing that is on hold with MUNI's budget difficulties.