Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Finally, Transit System Unveils Real-Time Bus Data

Long-awaited service improvement is here, sort of. When finished, you'll be able to check exactly when the bus will arrive.

By - Apr 23rd, 2014 10:48 am

The future has arrived, almost. The Milwaukee County Transit System started publishing real-time data for one route today (a beta release), with others to arrive soon. Accessible via a website or with text messaging, the real time data gives riders up-to-the-minute information on when the bus will arrive at a given stop.

Google Maps has for a number of years now provided trip planning services with the system’s schedule (a great convenience to riders), but real-time data adjusts to ever changing conditions on the road. Say, for instance, the Milwaukee Public Market needs to be evacuated and roads need to be closed, as happened yesterday; the real-time system lets riders at Bayshore Town Center and in Bay View (opposite ends of the Green Line that pass the Milwaukee Public Market) know exactly when the next bus will arrive. Without the real-time data riders are left standing at the bus stop, staring at their watches with frustration building as to when the next bus will arrive.

Upcoming arrivals listed one after another.

Upcoming arrivals listed one after another.

This bus rider in particular is excited for next winter, when instead of waiting in the cold for a scheduled bus, I’ll wait inside until just the right moment to meet the bus. Or even like this past weekend, when on Saturday morning without certainty the bus would come, I settled for a cab to get me to the Badger Bus Depot (admittedly I cut it too close, but real-time data could have saved me $8 in that single instance).

As a condition of the contract, the vendor providing the service, Clever Devices, will be providing a freely-available public Application Programmable Interface (API). That’s certainly Greek to the non-tech savvy, but an API provides the interface for third-party applications to be developed, meaning those outside the transit system, but with an interest in the information, can display it for others. Imagine, for instance, a digital sign displayed just inside all of the Collectivo cafes that automatically scrolls through the upcoming bus arrivals for the nearby bus stops. (Owners Ward and Lincoln Fowler, there’s an idea for you.) Another potential use that needs to happen, sooner rather than later, is for the biggest business improvement districts in town to display countdown clocks at or near their most prominent neighborhood bus stop.

While only Route 21 (Mayfair to UWM) is available today, next up will be all the routes that are dispatched from the Fond du Lac Ave. facility. This includes popular routes like the 10 (Brookfield Square – Bayshore Town Center), 30 (UWM to Keefe/Florist), BlueLine and 23 (Fond du Lac Ave).

Most customers will likely interact with the real-time data through the website with a desktop, laptop or mobile device. Whether by bookmarking the pages for their most-used stops, or by looking at the constantly updating map of bus locations, riders will be able to spend less time waiting for the bus.

Note the stop number 1231

Note the stop number 1231

Customers will also be able to receive estimated arrival times by a texting MCTS [BUS STOP NUMBER] to 41411 or by calling the information line at 414-344-6711. Each bus stop is now equipped with a unique number, just above the route numbers. Riders can also sign-up to receive automated notifications everyday.

If you feel like you’ve been waiting a long-time for this, you’re not alone. MCTS spokesperson Jackie Janz first referenced the system working on this back in November of 2010 in a comment on an article by my colleague Dave Reid pining for MCTS to take the next step. And county supervisors have been complaining about the need to modernize the transit system for years.

For those that have used real-time data in Chicago, much of the interface will seem very familiar. Clever Devices also provides the service for the CTA, starting in 2008.

Managing Director Retires

In other MCTS news, Michael Giugno, 65, will retire in June. Giugno has been the head of the system and MTS since Lloyd Grant resigned/retired May 1st of last year. He started with the system in 1981 as a bus driver and has worked his way to the top.

He’ll leave the system during a period of great transition, as the Milwaukee County budget requires the county to bring the system in house at this point with no new operator selected. Whether there will be another RFP issued soliciting other companies to bid on operating the system remains to be seen. And will all Milwaukee Transport Services employees become Milwaukee County employees (as has been suggested)? Your guess is as good as mine.

Categories: Eyes on Milwaukee

One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Finally, Transit System Unveils Real-Time Bus Data”

  1. J T says:

    If you’ve been waiting eagerly for this, you know how much of a game changer this feature is, especially when the times are posted at the stop.
    If you haven’t been waiting for it, it might just sneak up on you… try it out.

    Incidentally, I was riding a bus the other day and enjoyed advertisements for an executive MBA program, luxury cruises, and $3000 designer furniture, rather than for plasma donation and abortion alternatives. Interesting how different cities read the social meaning of riding the bus, perhaps based on how easy different cities make it to ride the bus.

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