NextBus map of the 42 bus.

by Joey Katzen and David Alpert

For a short time, bus riders in the Washington region could track their buses and find the next arrivals on key routes using online service NextBus. WMATA unceremoniously discontinued the service in the fall of 2007, stating that it wasn’t accurate enough for use, and that they needed to update “legacy systems” to work with NextBus. Notwithstanding these public pronouncements, Joey and many others had been using it for some time via an unpublished Web address, and it’s made our transit experiences considerably more comfortable.

Last week, DCist and New Columbia Heights reported on updates to the system, including real-time maps of bus locations, and told readers how to access the service. Right after a NextBus representative said they weren’t shutting it off, it suddenly disappeared.

The NextBus system works with transponders installed on a transit company’s fleet of buses. They relay each bus’ location, via GPS, back to NextBus. This enables riders to find out, in real time, how long it will take for a bus to arrive, on the Web, by voice-automated phone, by text messaging, or by mobile browsing. The transit agency can also install digital marquees at bus stops, letting riders see the next arrival by simply looking up.

If this data is accurate, it almost eliminates the need for WMATA’s inconvenient PDF bus schedules. Instead of waiting for seemingly-interminable periods with no guarantee a bus will arrive, riders leave their homes or desks just in time to catch the bus. A UK study showed that when riders received real-time information, they thought buses came more often and more reliably, even when the service hadn’t actually changed at all.

After DCist and New Columbia Heights wrote about the service, a representative of NextBus had posted this comment on NCH:

Thanks for using NextBus! The WMATA site is not beta, it is still under construction. WMATA has just given us the green light to finish the project and release it to the public later this year. In the meantime, feel free to continue using it. … No, we won’t be shutting it down because you use it. We WANT you to use it, and feel free to send us feedback. We haven’t created links to it from the main NextBus page yet because it is not ready for widespread public use. You mention it not being reliable, please send me an email and elaborate. Keep in mind, it is under construction. … Feel free to send feedback to

Nevertheless, a short while later, the NextBus interface for the Washington area disappeared. NextBus also asked New Columbia Heights to delete their representative’s comment. Lisa Farbstein of WMATA said in a statement, “The NextBus test site was indeed that, an internal test site. It was not intended for the public to access it because it is not ready for public use. Once it is ready for the public to use it, we will relaunch it. The site and the technology continue to be worked on and when it is ready to be reintroduced, we will reintroduce it. We expect it to be ready this summer.”

However, it was indeed good enough for the public to use. Prior to the shutdown, the mapping, mobile browser interface, and SMS alerts on the test site all worked like a charm, subject to the occasional accuracy fluke. In our experience, the information on upcoming bus arrivals was typically correct within a few minutes. However, sometimes, possibly as a result of a malfunctioning transponder, it would neglect to show a bus that was indeed arriving.

The differing reactions between NextBus and WMATA reflect deep cultural differences among the organizations. Good tech startups live by the mantra, “release early, release often.” If you’re building an online tool, the best course of action is to put it up early and then keep improving it. By doing so, you get a chance to see how real people use the site and hear feedback. This principle encompasses the second and third top recommendations startup investor Paul Graham gives to startups. That’s why NextBus was eager for people to use it. It’s not perfect; so what? As long as people realize it’s still in development, there’s no harm and a lot of good that can come from actual users trying it out.

WMATA, on the other hand, approaches problems from the opposite direction. They don’t release any information until it’s thoroughly vetted. They took NextBus offline in 2007 because it wasn’t accurate enough, even though many users found it plenty accurate. One of their reasons for not working with Google Transit was the possibility of inaccuracies. At Metro, it’s better not to provide any information than to risk giving any wrong information.

Obviously, we need a balance. It’s good to strive for maximum accuracy. If an official service gives riders wrong information, it hurts the rider experience. Of course, that still happens. The official trip planner doesn’t account for temporary reroutes, like those around the Hay-Adams Hotel when Barack Obama stayed there before the inauguration. And if a service is unofficial, as the NextBus test was, and the site makes that clear, what’s the harm?

You can actually still access the NextBus service here. (Select District of Columbia for the state even to see Maryland and Virginia bus routes). It includes many Metrobus routes and the real-time maps. Now that you know, will WMATA ask NextBus to block this as well? We hope not. And for the Metro staff who might read this: please don’t ask NextBus to take this down. NextBus could add a very prominent “BETA” or “TEST SITE” to the page, with a clear disclaimer telling people that any information here is not guaranteed to be accurate, and that riders use it at their own risk. That should deflect any risk to Metro’s reputation. Why not let riders benefit in the meantime?

New Columbia Heights set up a petition for riders to urge WMATA to launch NextBus as soon as possible.

Update: The NextBus site is gone again. Did WMATA officials force NextBus to take it down? We’ll try to find out.