Looking for the bus? GPS can find it for you

Most Triangle commuters will soon have real-time tracking data

Staff WriterMarch 3, 2010 

Catrin Davies was late picking up her son from child care, because her Triangle Transit bus was early.

"I was on the other side of the road when it arrived, and because of the traffic I couldn't get across before it left," said Davies, a medical researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, who waited 30 minutes in the afternoon chill for the next bus to her home in Durham.

"If I had known it was running a few minutes early," Davies said, "I could have left my office in time to catch it."

Riders such as Davies in Chapel Hill and Raleigh now have real-time satellite technology to tell them when the bus is coming. And two more local bus lines will add the technology in the coming year.

By early 2011, five Triangle bus agencies will have GPS technology that tracks the speed and location of each bus and lets riders find out how soon their buses will arrive.

Triangle Transit and the Durham Area Transit Authority will spend $1.2 million this year in federal stimulus money to outfit 131 buses. Riders will be able to check bus times on Internet browsers, cell phones and electronic message boards at some stops.

One likely bidder for these contracts is Digital Recorders Inc., based in Research Triangle Park. The company, with 80 employees, expects to rake in up to $5.5 million in stimulus-funded contracts from transit agencies across the United States.

"Users of transit systems increasingly want good, real-time information," said David L. Turney, chief executive officer of Dallas-based DRI Corp., the RTP company's parent. "They want to know if the transit vehicle is coming, and they want to know if it is coming on time."

Raleigh's Capital Area Transit spent $500,000 to equip its 65 buses with Digital Recorders gear. CAT recently introduced its real-time bus-tracking service online at www.raleighrides.org.

Blue CAT bus icons scuttle around their routes on aGoogle map. A mouse click reveals an up-to-the minute prediction for arrival at the next major stop. Riders can subscribe to alerts that will notify them when a particular bus is due.

Message boards post times for riders waiting at CAT's four busiest transfer points - Moore Square, WakeMed-Raleigh, Crabtree Valley Mall and Triangle Towne Center.

"If you're an occasional rider, this provides a greater level of confidence," said David Eatman, Raleigh transit administrator. The arrival predictions aren't foolproof, but they'll make transit more reliable for many users, he said.

"The biggest drawback ... is that anxiety when you're standing at the stop and you have that doubt: Did I miss it, or is it delayed - and how long am I going to stand here?"

Chapel Hill Transit, the region's busiest bus line, began its real-time service in 2006. Riders can check buses at www.chtransit.org or www.nextbus.com .

"I use the bus to get around town as well as to go home," said Sharon Mays of Hillsborough, a data analyst at UNC-Chapel Hill. "If I have, say, a 10 o'clock meeting, I use the Web site to figure out what time I need to leave my office to get my bus."

System isn't glitch-free

Riders said signs and satellite systems aren't always right.

"Sometimes it says a bus is coming in 10 minutes or 5 minutes, but it doesn't necessarily show up," said Joshua Chiu of Durham, a physical therapist. "You're left waiting until who knows when."

Chiu was in a group of construction workers, nurses and researchers who stamped their feet in the cold one afternoon last week at a Chapel Hill Transit stop near UNC Hospitals. They watched a message board counting down the minutes they would wait for the buses taking them home.

"Sometimes it plays tricks on you," said Yvonne Dunlap, who works in the Lineberger Cancer Center. "Just now it said the FCX bus would come in 12 minutes - but when it got down to 8, it jumped back to 11 minutes."

Brian Fahey, customer service manager for Triangle Transit, said plans call for a shared Web site that will show bus locations and times for Durham Area Transit, Chapel Hill Transit, Triangle Transit, Capital Area Transit and N.C. State University's Wolfline.

Local software developers will be invited to use the bus data for their own Web sites and software applications.

Meanwhile, Fahey said, anyone with a cell phone will be able to check arrival times for any bus stop and receive the answer in a text message.

Davies, the researcher from Durham who commutes to UNC-CH, was glad to hear that Triangle Transit will add real-time information next year, and that riders will get text updates on their phones.

"With that text message, I think they'll be able to reach out to other people who don't have access to the Internet," Davies said.

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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