Bus riders in Montgomery County can start trying to track their Ride On buses with a new real-time system the county is piloting. However, the system still lacks a public API that would allow developers to use the data in other applications.
A map application lets you enter a stop, pick a stop from a list of routes and their stops, or enter an address. The map then shows the entire route, a green circle at the stop’s location, and the position of buses along with an estimate about when they will arrive.
One potentially tricky element for those picking routes is that you have to choose routes just by number; there’s no explanatory name for each route, as there is with Metrobus, to help riders know if they have the right route.
According to Carolyn Biggins, chief of the Division of Transit Services for Montgomery County DOT, Montgomery County will also be placing some digital signs showing real-time arrival information. When the new “Paul S. Sarbanes Multimodal Center” opens in Silver Spring in the spring, it will have signs, and Montgomery hopes to add more “in the next few years.”
One of the most valuable aspects of real-time data is the way most systems provide an API, a computer interface that lets other applications like smartphone apps or Web tools from outside the agency access the real-time bus predictions.
People have already developed many useful tools, and the Mobility Lab in Arlington is working now on some more, including more low-cost digital screens which can combine data from multiple bus providers. Doing this requires having APIs for each bus system.
Metrobus, Circulator, Arlington’s ART, and Fairfax CUE buses already offer real-time arrival data, accessible to developers through APIs. This allows Web and mobile apps to aggregate data from all the systems and display it all in one place.
Biggins says, “Ride On also plans to offer the data in an open format for people to use in other applications as well.” However, Kurt Raschke explains that the system Montgomery County chose, AVL SmartTraveller Plus, does not support an API for accessing the data at this time.
It seems that Montgomery County judged the options mainly on their ability to provide a Web frontend and an SMS interface to real-time passenger information. Regrettably, that’s a somewhat backwards way of looking at things.
As far as I am aware, unlike NextBus, SmartTraveller Plus has no API for developers. From what I can tell, if Montgomery County wants an API for real-time data, they’re going to have to build directly on top of the OrbCAD database, because it’s not going to come from SmartTraveller Plus.
Instead of picking a vendor for their frontend, Raschke says Montgomery should have focused on setting up technology to expose the bus location data, then used a freely available Web and mobile interface like One Bus Away or hired one of the consulting companies that can customize it.
Meanwhile, Ride On riders can start getting their bus predictions, but will have to use separate webpages and apps to transfer between RideOn, Metrobus, and other systems.
The wait for real-time arrival predictions in Montgomery County is finally over. But those hoping to integrate Ride On into multimodal online tools and help more people use Ride On still have to wait for future phases of this long-awaited project.