Tag: Train Tracker

Some reasons why the CTA doesn’t make its own mobile apps

Where’s the train?

“Twitter updated their app and now it sucks”. (Here’s some evidence.)

Have you heard that before? Thankfully there are tens – perhaps hundreds – more options to post to and read Twitter on your appy device.

The Chicago Transit Authority provides 1.7 million rides per day. A lot of passengers like to know where the trains and buses are. And it’s possible to know with many tools like Bus Tracker and Train Tracker, both of which are available through APIs, SMS, and websites.

Some people (eh, I can’t exactly point out who right now) have noted (complained?) that the CTA doesn’t make its own app for smartphones and tablets. I’m glad they don’t!

Here are more reasons why the CTA doesn’t make its own mobile apps:

  1. It would be racist of the CTA. (Pretty much everything the CTA does is racist according to someone but making an app would only be useful to those with compatible devices, so it’s probably more accurate to say income discrimination.)
  2. Bus service is getting cut but they’re spending money on making apps.
  3. There are 4 platforms to write apps for (at least 4 – not sure if any CTA passengers would demand Symbian or webOS).

The best reason?

Developers can do it better. So the CTA gives them the tools.

Summary of benefits from transit tracker reports

What benefit does this bus tracker display in a grocery store have on transit passengers? And on the transit agency?

This is a complementary article to the one I posted on Grid Chicago today, The state of transit trackers in Chicago.

The text is excerpted from two reports (unquoted sections are my own paraphrases or thoughts):

  1. “OneBusAway: Results from Providing Real-Time Arrival Information for Public Transit” by Brian Ferris, Kari Watkins, and Alan Borning. University of Washington. Download the report. Referenced with “OneBusAway”.
  2. “Real-time Bus Arrival Information Systems Return-on-Investment Study” by Laura Cham, Georges Darido, David Jackson, Richard Laver, Donald Schneck. Booz Allen Hamilton. Download the report. Referenced with “Booz”.


“Towards this goal, there are two principal reasons for providing better transit traveler information: to increase satisfaction among current riders; and to increase ridership, es- pecially among new or infrequent transit users and for non- peak hour trips. These are two key priorities for many transit agencies. It has been shown that transit traveler information can result in a mode-shift to public transportation [14]. This stems from the riders’ ability to feel more in control of their trip, including their time spent waiting and their perception of safety. Real-time arrival information can help in both of these areas. Existing studies of permanent real-time arrival signage at transit stations have shown that the ability to de- termine when the next vehicle is coming brings travelers’ perception of wait time in line with the true time spent wait- ing [6]. Transit users value knowing how long their wait is, or whether they have just missed the last bus. In addition, it has been found that providing real-time information signifi- cantly increases passenger feelings of safety [20].” (OneBusAway 1)


“The results suggest a number of important positive outcomes for OneBusAway users: increased overall satisfaction with public transit, decreased wait times, increased transit trips per week, increased feelings of safety, and even increased dis- tance walked when using transit.” (OneBusAway 2)


“The most common response, mentioned by 38% of respondents, concerned how OneBusAway alleviated the uncertainty and frustration of not knowing when a bus is really going to arrive. Ttypical comments:

  • ‘The biggest frustration with taking busses is the inconsistency with being able to adhere to schedules because of road traffic. Onebusaway solves all of that frustration.’
  • ‘I no longer sit with pitted stomach wondering where is the bus. It’s less stressful simply knowing it’s nine minutes away, or whatever the case.’ “

Flexibility in planning

“The next most common response, mentioned by 35% of respondents, concerned how OneBusAway increased the ease and flexibility of planning travel using public transit, whether it be a question of which bus to take or when to catch it. A typical comment: ‘I can make decisions about which bus stop to go to and which bus to catch as I have options for the trip home after work.’ and ‘It helps plan my schedule a little better to know if I can take a little extra time or if I have to hurry faster so I don’t miss my bus.’ ” (OneBusAway 5)

Wait time

“Among respondents, 91% reported spending less time waiting, 8% reported no change, and less than 1% reported an increase in wait times.” (OneBusAway 6)

While 95% of Transit Tracker users agreed the system reduces their wait time, there are at present, no solid measures of what the average reduction in wait time actually is. (Booz 49)

Survey responses from users of Transit Tracker information displays at equipped bus stops suggests that actual reductions in total wait time may be negligible. However, this seems unlikely to be the case for those users accessing Transit Tracker via either phone or the internet. Given the availability of accurate, real-time arrival information, riders accessing Transit Tracker via phone or internet have the opportunity of optimizing (i.e., delaying) their bus stop arrival time and thus reduce time spent waiting a transit stop. (Booz 49)

As noted above, the value of time for transit riders waiting at stops is twice that for riders once they have boarded the vehicle. This wait-time premium reflects a variety of wait-time costs that are not experienced “in-vehicle” including reduced personal comfort (e.g., exposure to the elements), potential safety concerns and uncertainty regarding the arrival time of the next transit vehicle. (Booz 50)


“We asked users how their perception of personal safety had changed as result of using OneBusAway. While 79% of re- spondents reported no change, 18% reported feeling some- what safer and 3% reported feeling much safer. This in- crease in the perception of safety when using OneBusAway is significant overall (X2 = 98.05, p < 10?15). We also found that safety was correlated with gender (X2 = 19.458, p = 0.001), with greater increases for women.

We additionally asked respondents whose feeling of safety had changed to describe how in a free-form comment. Of such respondents, 60% reported spending less time waiting at the bus stop as their reason, while 25% mentioned that OneBusAway removed some of their uncertainty. Respondents specifically mentioned waiting at night (25%) or at unsavory stops (11%) as potential reasons they might feel unsafe in the first place. Respondents also described using OneBusAway to plan alternate routes (14%) or to help de- cide on walking to a different stop (7%) in order to increase feelings of safety.” (OneBusAway 6)

Two representative comments:

  • Having the ability to know when my bus will arrive helps me decide whether or not to stay at a bus stop that I may feel a little sketchy about or move on to a different one. Or even, stay inside of a building until the bus does arrive.
  • Onebusaway makes riding the bus seem more accessible and safe. I can plan when to leave the house better and spend less time waiting at dark or remote stops.

These results are consistent with a 2006 King County Metro rider survey which found that 19% of riders were dissatisfied with personal safety while waiting for the bus after dark [7].” (OneBusAway 6)

Transit tracker information gives one the power/tools/ability? to decide if walking to a stop on another route is a good idea (OneBusAway 7).

Also means people can walk to next or previous stop (for exercise or better seat) and know the buss won’t pass them while walking, or arrive before they get there.

Also means you can walk if wait is long and walking is faster than waiting. Might work best with transfers.

Also means that you can take the bus instead of walking if the trip is short, walking is your primary mode, and the bus is arriving within minutes. “…users might be taking advantage of the real-time arrival information from OneBusAway to hop on a bus arriving shortly to save a trip of a few blocks that they would have otherwise walked. Some 26% of respondents in the follow up survey indicated that they do in fact take the bus for short trips for which they previously would have walked based on information from OneBusAway, but overall the balance is more walking.” (OneBusAway 7)

Case against transit tracker at ALL stops (both bus and train)

“However, it is likely prohibitively expensive to provide and maintain such displays at every bus stop in a region. With the increased availability of powerful mobile devices and the public availability of transit schedule data in machine read- able formats, a significant number of tools haven been de- veloped to make this information available on a variety of interfaces, including mobile devices. These systems are often cheaper to deploy than fixed real-time arrival displays at a large number of stops. Further, these systems, especially mobile devices, can support additional, personalized func- tionality, such as customized alerts.” (OneBusAway2)

Implications on service planning

“In the transit service planning industry, 10 minutes has long been considered the barrier between schedule-based and headway-based service. A recent study found that at 11 min- utes, passengers begin to coordinate their arrivals rather than arriving randomly [15]. This is consistent with earlier stud- ies documenting random versus coordinated arrivals. There- fore, at a time between buses greater than 10 minutes, pas- sengers want a schedule to coordinate their arrival times. However, with the introduction of real time information such as OneBusAway, we have shown that users more frequently refer to real time information than to schedules to determine when to wait at the bus stop. This is important for transit ser- vice operations because a significant amount of time is lost in attempting to maintain reliability for scheduled service — planners must build a certain amount of slack time into the schedule. One study found the slack ratio to be 25% in Los Angeles [8]. With headway-based service, supervisors use real time transit data to maintain a certain amount of time between buses, rather than attempting to maintain a sched- ule, thereby allowing free running time and saving slack time [21]. This savings in running time can reduce agency costs to provide the same level of service on a transit route.” (OneBusAway 9)


“In addition, the investment in website and phone-based real time transit information can also save an agency substan- tially in deployment costs. As an example, Portland de- ployed their Transit Tracker program in 2001 with informa- tion displays at transit stops, a webpage and more recently a phone system. The transit tracker signs at light rail stations and 13 bus stops in Portland cost $950,000 including mes- sage signs and conduit. The cost for computer servers and web page development was much cheaper at $125,000 [4]. Given the widespread availability of cell phones and web access, providing real time transit information via a service such as OneBusAway could yield a substantial savings for an agency over constructing real-time arrival display signs. At the same time, we don’t want to unfairly disadvantage people who do not have access to such technology.”

Other notes

Also, better opportunity to provide focused tools for people with different cognitive and physical abilities. (OneBusAway)

Give the CTA a medal, or a pony, for Train Tracker

The Chicago Transit Authority released the Train Tracker API to developers with little fanfare. But it’s some high-quality stuff. At least this guy thinks the documentation is excellent*:

“Dear CTA: please give whoever wrote the Train Tracker API docs a medal, or a pony, or something. Thanks.” Original tweet by cieslak.

I think they got the message. You can bet they asked for the pony.

*I haven’t taken a look at the Train Tracker API documentation, but I did review the Trademark/Branding Guidelines for developers. It’s very clear how you should and shouldn’t use the CTA name and service marks and graphics. I also had a sneak preview in December 2010 of the Train Tracker website, to give user feedback. I was shocked and impressed to find that it worked on my Samsung Slash, a remarkably dumb phone that happens to be able to run Opera Mini (see photo below). The API wasn’t available until June 2011.

Improving transit: CTA launches train tracker

I was invited by Tony Coppoletta, External Electronic Communications Manager at the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), and of recent Streetsfilms fame, to test and provide feedback on the new Train Tracker (still in beta). Launched to the public on Saturday, January 8, 2011, I peeked at it in mid-December, 2010.

Tony first showed us the website version and how it had slick transitions between updates (every 30 seconds). As you might expect, the mobile version looked great on the iPhone and Droid smartphones. I was more concerned about how it would look on my Opera Mini web browser on my Samsung Slash from Virgin Mobile*. I tediously entered the URL (mobile site) on my T9 keyboard and selected a station on the Red Line.

I was excited that it loaded quickly and looked completely normal and like its full-web browser counterparts. That’s to be expected when you design using web standards. Kevin Forsyth discussed the design further:

…it’s the layout of the site that really gets me going. It all feels so immediately familiar, because it closely adheres to CTA’s current graphic design standards for the system as a whole. Station names are displayed in white Helvetica on a dark grey background. All the colors of the train lines are spot-on likenesses of their printed versions, not just web-standard blue, green, orange, etc.

The mobile version of the site is a clean, stripped-down version of the same, and fits nicely onto a first-generation iPhone screen. It’s so neatly arranged, in fact, that I doubt an actual iPhone app could improve on its appearance.

It doesn’t look perfect on my tinny screen though – some elements are pushed to the next line and the boxes don’t expand to include them, but the readability remains. I was extremely impressed and had very limited feedback – I think the CTA’s internal testing efforts gave the public a wonderful “first version” product that I thought could have been launched right then and there in mid-December.

I’ve only tested the predictions (or “estimator” as Kevin calls it) a few times and so far it’s been accurate. The CTA does expect to offer a Train Tracker API just like it offers for Bus Tracker. Have you tried Train Tracker yet? What do you think?

To use CTA Train Tracker on your web-enabled phone (should work in most browsers), go to http://m.transitchicago.com and select “Train Tracker” (first item in the list).

Select your route.

Then select your station.

And view 15 minutes of upcoming train times.

*I prepay for Virgin Mobile phone service (Sprint owns Virgin Mobile) at a cost of $27 (including tax) per month that gives me 300 voice minutes, and unlimited messaging and data/internet. I highly recommend it. Virgin offers Blackberry, Android, and other smartphones.