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‘Real-time’ TARC bus schedule data set for March; will brand Louisville as a smarter city, officials say

by Ken Hardin

It’s a little easier to find the Insider Louisville world headquarters with bus route data on Google Maps, and TARC officials say that by March riders will be able to know (within a couple minutes) exactly when the bus will arrive.

After a few months delay, TARC riders are set to have access to an online data feed that will tell them exactly when the next bus will arrive – at least within a couple minutes delay.

TARC and city officials now say “real-time” bus schedule information should be available sometime in March on TARC’s own Trip Planner web page, as well as in an open data feed that can be used by Google Maps and other third-party applications.

Riders will be able to check with these online services to see the same bus tracking data that TARC operators now get from service provider Trapeze Group, a service fleet monitoring company based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The “real-time” data updates will actually update every couple minutes, TARC officials confirm, which is not uncommon with systems that process enormous amounts of information, such as where every bus is within a top-50 metropolitan area.

“People are still going to have to arrange their schedules to be at the stop 5 or so minutes before the bus arrives,” said Barry Barker, TARC’s executive director. The “real-time” data will be most useful, Barker said, in helping riders determine if they have already missed a recent run or need to plan around unexpected service interruptions. In other words, it will just make it easier to use Louisville’s limited mass transit options.

“We can’t put enough service on the streets, so any data we can offer to make it more comfortable and easy for people is going to be a plus,” Barker said.

Louisville will be one of only a handful of cities in the United States where riders have access to “real-time” bus data when the project is complete, transit officials and advocates say, with the other communities being mostly large cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The “real-time” schedule data was expected to be available on TARC’s own Trip Planner, powered by the Trapeze system, by December, with the open data feed in the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) to follow by March. (The feed was a hot topic at last fall’s Transportation Camp). Now, both projects – which are being handled by vendor Trapeze — are on roughly the same schedule, Barker said.

A corporate spokesperson for Trapeze said in an e-mail Wednesday the TARC project is expected “to be operational in the next few months.”

Entrepreneurs at the Transit Camp in November, including Metromapper founder Michael Schnuerle, expressed some frustrations at a perceived slow pace of the project to expose the “real-time” data to the public. Schnuerle said this week that while he still thinks the project has moved slowly, at least in entrepreneurial time, TARC is most likely “playing it safe” in its implementation and that the system is “definitely headed in the right direction.”

“We are going to be on the cutting edge,” when “real-time” schedule data is available, Schnuerle said.

TARC’s web-based Trip Planner will be available on mobile devices, and Barker and TARC marketing director Kay Stewart both described inclusion of “real-time” schedule data in Google services as their “second tool” for disseminating the information to riders.

Other app developers, such as iNextBus, will also be able to integrate the feed. Schnuerle, an avid  “smart data” developer himself, said he might whip up a city map that pinpoints current bus locations.

The scheduling data project is part of an ongoing effort by TARC to get more digital info to riders. Last fall, TARC fixed route data was opened to Google Maps, and Barker said riders have, at least anecdotally, responded positively to being able to use the ubiquitous directions service to map out a bus trip.

In his own experience, Barker said, Google Maps has recommended an alternate route along Frankfort Avenue to his office that he had not previously considered. “And I live and breathe this stuff every day,” he said.

However, Barker and Stewart said Google does not release analytics information about how many users have actually viewed TARC route information on Google Maps. And TARC has no way of measuring the direct impact of the project on ridership, Barker added.

Both Barker and Schnuerle said it is hard to quantify whether ease-of-use improvements are more likely to attract new riders or simply more deeply engage current mass transit users. But both agree that not missing the bus will make anyone more likely to be willing to ride again.

Improvements in mass transit have been a front-burner issue in City Hall circles for a while, and Ted Smith, the mayor’s Director of Economic Growth and Innovation, is often cited as a lead advocate for a smarter bus network.

In an email, Smith said the “first thing” he did upon returning early last year to Louisville from Washington D.C. was to meet with Barker about working through apparent obstacles with Google to get TARC routes on Google Maps, which Smith had seen associates rely on heavily in the nation’s capital.

To Smith, a primary benefit of a smarter transit system is simply branding Louisville as a smart place to live.

“There is no doubt in my mind that a city unable to be navigated and mediated by a digital device is a city broadcasting its ignorance of changes in citizen expectations,” Smith wrote in his email:

It reaffirms undesirable stereotypes and cheats us of opportunities that many might take to explore a bus or trolley option due to uncertainty about routes and current schedules. Other cities have seen increases in public transit use when these systems are rolled out. Workers can be more productive when they spend less time waiting. Visitors may venture further into retail corridors when route uncertainty is removed. It is about millennial workers, it’s about removing uncertainty, it’s about making our city more visitor-friendly, it’s improving public transit, it’s about sustainability, it’s about retail development.

Schnuerle echoed Smith’s sentiments, suggesting that a “tech-savvy” entrepreneur might be immediately be turned off by not being able to easily find out the details of riding the bus from the airport to a job interview or meeting.

TARC’s Stewart said the entire project, including the real-time data and customization to the Trip Planner, is budgeted at $42,000. As a point of context, in TARC’s overall $72 million projected expenses for 2013, $85,000 is earmarked for lubricants for buses.

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