Big Blue Bus Still Behind The Curve On Digital Tools

Santa Monica From Above

One game changing advancement to help users navigate public transit websites is the proliferation of smart phones, apps, and map services catering to public transit. While we shouldn’t assume everyone has access to these tools, it is foolish to not embrace the opportunities these new tools make possible. However, Big Blue Bus remains behind with a lack of real time updates made available. In addition, scheduling and routing data remains inaccessible to independently developed apps and websites.

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I’ve been riding the Big Blue Bus to get around since I started going to college in 2002. Unfortunately I have also seen the Big Blue Bus remain behind the curve of on every big new development in making transit data more accessible. When Google Transit hit the scene, it was so refreshing from the clunky Metro Trip Planner of the time. However years passed and announced timelines broken multiple times before Big Blue Bus made it’s own data available to Google. Siel Ju of now the now defunct blogs Emerald City at the Times and theGreen LA Girl blog, first called attention to the absence back in 2008. I picked up the issue on my own blog in 2010 and tried to pressure getting BBB on Google Transit circulated a petition.

That gap of time in which Metro data was available on Google transit routing but not the Big Blue Bus, meant that anyone using the then new service to find the best transit route for their trip would have Big Blue Bus hidden from view. It may have been modest, but there is no doubt in my mind Big Blue Bus took a self imposed loss of potential ridership during that window, and that some of those riders took more inconvenient trips than necessary.

Big Blue BusAs the ways in which people access transit routing continues to diversify, and new companies and organizations develop new ways to utilize the data; disputes across companies locking up data, gaps are emerging again.

For example, BBB made it’s data available to Google, but Google is it’s own locked up data ecosystem that can not be fully tapped into by other developers. Metro makes it’s data available in a format independent third party developers can access, and many other applications take advantage of that information.

With Google Maps dropped as the default and supported map system on iPhones with the latest operating system update (I have refused to update my own phone), and the new Apple Maps service relying on connections to third party apps for plugging in transit functionality; Big Blue Bus is being left behind. Anyone using the default map on an iOS6 phone won’t be plugged into Big Blue Bus data.

The spat between Google & Apple isn’t the only fall out of Big Blue Bus data being tied up. Consider the growing popularity of Walk Score as a metric to determine desirability of where to live or travel, and is now featured heavily in real estate marketing. Walkable access to transit stops is a consideration in Walk Score’s analysis, but as far as Walk Score is concerned, Big Blue Bus does not exist. Areas of the city unserviced by Metro, but with BBB service, are unfairly portrayed as less transit accessible than they really are.

Real time updates available on the bus fleet of Metro through NextBus is incredibly helpful when things aren’t on schedule. Not knowing when a bus will actually show up can be one of the most stressful aspects of the public transit experience. Having fairly reliable real time updates takes the guessing out of the equation entirely.

I loved using timer function on the app PDX Bus on a recent trip to Portland, that would give me a heads up when the bus I was waiting for was about to arrive. It could even show on a map the last known location of a bus on it’s way. Portland’s Trimet’s website features links to a wide assortment of applications on various platforms by indie software developers.

Santa Monica has some limited real time arrival information on displays at a select few bus stops downtown. Expansion of this functionality to more stops has languished as updating bus stops that have been unrealized for years. Frank Gruber called attention to this issue in one of his YouTube videos during the recent campaign.

Big Blue Bus’s new website pulled the agency’s web based home out of the visual styling of the 90’s, and introduced a new route “Route Wizard”. However this “wizard” basically duplicates the existing Google Transit functionality, but with a layer of clunky UI that is especially frustrating to try and navigate from a smart phone. With enough clicks you can get into real time arrival with this new UI, but it does not access built in GPS on a smart phone as NextBus or other apps I have used in other cities can, making it a lot slower to load and far less user friendly.

With Metro buses ,I can step out my door and in a few thumb flicks know I’ve got 6 minutes to catch the bus. I’ll be honest that there have been times that on the fly ease of use and assurance made me inclined to go Metro over BBB on trips with overlapping coverage. Back in that first blog post I wrote about the absence of BBB on Google Transit, a commenter also noted that they had inquired about real time data in 2004, and were told it would be up on their website by 2005. Well it’s finally here in 2012, but it feels like software meant for 2005, everyone else implementing these features have blown past such clunky interfaces or opened up data to let third parties develop better tools.

Lacking from Big Blue Bus, yet embraced by Metro, is engagement through social media platforms like Twitter. This omission becomes more glaring as time goes on, especially with how pro-active Metro has been. Ignoring social media a missed opportunity to take input, good and bad, and push out updates on useful info or service alerts into the mediums people are actually paying attention to. The transit industry magazine BUSRide recently put agencies on notice, “ignore social media at your peril”. It is no surprise to me that I often see people tweeting at Big Blue Bus account names that do not really exist.

Tweets directed to a Big Blue Bus account that doesn't really exist is a common phenomenon online.

Digital tools and real time updates are no replacement for maintaining the quality of core service frequency and keeping on schedule. However, it certainly helps to have as much uncertainty removed from the user experience as possible. When you can know reliably when the bus is actually coming, you can chill out a little more before you get anxious about ensuring the bus doesn’t skip you. As my wife pointed out to me, if there is a creepy dude hanging out by the bus stop, if you know when when the bus is coming, you can stand somewhere else with more people or better lighting until the bus is about to arrive. These details matter to people.

So Big Blue Bus, and city of Santa Monica, please get with the times already. We have independent app developers like ParkMe, based right here in Santa Monica that are working wonders with our open parking data for drivers. Public transportation data should be an open resource for all, and be ready to be plugged into new as well as not yet imagined tools to help navigate our cities.

  • Guest

    its*

  • Irwinc

    This is my biggest headache with BBB… their 1990 style retro refusal to embrace the  internet age. But to be fair, I think BBB is constrained by budget. Unlike Metro, BBB relies entirely on City funding. None of the muni operators in LA County that are in similar shoes are any better…

    Culver City? Ha! Have you seen their website?
    Long Beach? I don’t think they know they have a website…
    LADOT? Website not mobile friendly.
    Montebello, Norwalk, Glendale, Torrance, Gardena? Don’t make me laugh…

    I suspect the real reason is that Santa Monica City Council members do not take the bus and they don’t understand the vital need for BBB to have a social media voice and something as basic as real time arrival into.

  • “Unlike Metro, BBB relies entirely on City funding.”

    This is incorrect. The included and eligible operators (aka the munis) get funding through the formula allocation procedure.

    http://www.metro.net/about_us/library/images/Formula%20Allocation%20Procedure.pdf

    If you call the Big Blue information line they can tell you when the next bus is coming to the stop you are at — (310) 451-5444 [Monday-Friday 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Saturday Noon-6 p.m.]. If you can believe it, I read about this in the journal of the trade association for transit agencies (California Transit Association) a few years ago. They were supposed to by now have displays at more stops than the few they have so far.

  • Austin Brown

    My favorite transit app (called incidentally… The Transit App http://thetransitapp.com/ ) has emailed BBB and, gotten a reply saying they’re opening their data to them. This was a month and a half ago, and The Transit App still hasn’t gotten the data.

    Culver City is even worse! They don’t even reply to email. Living in the Venice area means I use all 3 of these bus systems pretty frequently, and it is the biggest pain in the ass there is.

    Who do we need to yell at to get these things going?

  • Anonymous

     Dana — I use their phone number frequently to find out if I’ve missed a bus. Ironically, they provide this realtime info by phone during the *precise* times of day and days of the week when you need it least.

    Real-time info is most valuable when frequencies are low, namely nights and weekends.

    I’m sure you know this well, but it bears noting.

    Anyways, I know I’d take the bus out to bars and restaurants in Santa Monica and
    Westwood more in the evenings if there were realtime arrival info available on my phone.

  • Juan Matute

    It’s imperative that Big Blue Bus develop real-time arrival and alert information.  A study from Chicago indicated that real-time arrival information leads to a small but statistically significant increase in ridership (http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/bis_transit_chicago.pdf).  I’ve researched the options, and I recommend that agencies pursue the GTFS-Realtime standard (http://www.transitwiki.org/TransitWiki/index.php?title=Real-time_information). 

  • Sirinya Matute

    Gary – I chuckled (good naturedly) when I saw your screen grab of my and Maddie’s tweets. Yes, I tweeted at @bigbluebus:twitter. And I did so knowing that nobody is monitoring it. That’s the best part. 

  • calwatch

    Big Blue Bus has always been behind the times. When you remember how long they ran New Look buses, or their old light blue schedules with the line art on the front cover through the 2000’s, or their historically low 50 cent fare that they kept until they adopted the EZ transit pass… this is not an organization that is on the cutting edge of anything. 

    Has anyone mentioned this at City Council meetings? Use your three minutes of public comment to bring this to the public’s attention. City Council candidate forums? Local elections are coming up for many towns in March and April 2013. That is who you need to yell at if you want any results. Complaining to staff doesn’t do much if the politicians set the priorities.

  • I would send e-mails to online news sites — they may well publish your comments on the situation. Sometimes airing a situation in the press can move an agency to action. Contact information below.

    The Front Page Online (Culver City)
    http://www.thefrontpageonline.com/contact/

    Santa Monica Lookout
    http://www.surfsantamonica.com/ssm_site/2012–Contact_Us.html

  • Wanderer

    I liked the schedules with the photos, gave me a visual of where the bus went.

    One of the tweets was about restocking schedules. BBB always seems so much better than Metro. On Metro it seems most likely that the schedule for the route the bus is running will not be on the bus.

    The lack of real time information is not good though, it’s probably a barrier for some would be new riders.

  • It’s obvious the designer(s) of the new BBB site have never used public transportation.

  • Dan W.

    Hear hear.  It would be so helpful to have Big Blue Bus on nextbus.com

  • Guest

    “It’s” is a contraction for “it is”. What you wrote was, “For example, BBB made it is data available to Google, but Google is it is own locked up data ecosystem…”, which makes no sense.

  • P.

    The part of the issue is that government can move at a glacial pace. I was happy to hear though the grapevine that Culver CityBus is accepting a Metro grant for real time transit info and signal priority. It’s to be implemented by ……….2016. At least they are trying.

    http://www.culvercity.org/sirepub/cache/2/5egrfiygp0fc05d1xp0yffdo/80116812122012093822546.PDF

  • Anonymous

     Yes. I mentioned it at the last SMTalks and have also spoken to representatives from BBB about it. They say that have no plans to make real-time data available to the public. How kind.

  • Erik Griswold

    At least they finally put a route map up on the website.  It wasn’t there for a while.

  • Erik Griswold

    Those New Looks, both the GM of Canada Fishbowls and the MCI Classics were actually not that old when they were retired.  The Fishbowls were built in 1987 and retired in, what, 2002? That’s only 15 years.

  • calwatch

    CalRobert, staff is not the final arbiter of priorities. Politicians are. You folks in Santa Monica have a great opportunity, with Richard Bloom advancing to the state Assembly. Make it a campaign issue in the race to replace him. 

  • Google Maps came back to the iPhone yesterday!  That solves one of the problems, but the realtime feature is still out there.

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