Does MTA Real Time Work?

This morning, Mayor Barry rode the bus to work to promote the MTA’s new real time transit app.

The real time data that was rolled out in December was hailed as the solution to MTA customers’ problems.  But this simple technological solution, while nice, is a just a minor feature masquerading as a fix.

Accompanied by other bigwigs and news media, who likely drove to her bus stop to ride with her, Mayor Barry extolled the virtues of having real time information on bus arrivals.  “It’s really important – the open data that allows people to track all of this information make it a lot easier if you’re a rider to know where the bus is and if it’s coming and you can access the bus when it gets here,” she told WKRN.

Although the MTA’s Instagram post claims that she was riding route 7, the photo in the collage makes it appear that she was riding a bus that was running especially for her.  The dynamic sign board on the front of the bus simply says “Mayor Megan Barry” instead of the route number and destination:

I haven’t had an entirely great experience with the real time data, though.  For the past three days, I’ve been riding the bus to a conference downtown.  Five of the six times I used the app this week, the arrival times have been nearly accurate (even though the interface is clunky).  But this afternoon, as I was waiting for my bus during rush hour, the app left me frustrated and in the dark.  The real time data kept jumping all over the place — at first the bus was 10 minutes late, then it was suddenly 20 minutes late, then 50.  And then, just as suddenly, the bus showed up with no warning from the app.  A second bus traveling on the same corridor was shortly behind it, but that bus was also not shown on the results returned for my stop.

At its core, MTA real time is an API — a data stream of bus arrival times that programmers can hook in to for their own applications.  MTA (with the help of their contractor) runs this API using their own servers and trackers installed in each bus.  While the official Music City Transit app is the most-promoted solution available, there are other apps that utilize this same data stream: Transit App, Google Maps, and Vanderbilt’s own T-Hub.

Vanderbilt employee Heidi Hall seemed to have a better experience with the real time data when she used T-Hub:

To be blunt, the MTA’s bus schedule and when the buses actually arrive have very little to do with each other on busy routes. T-Hub allows me to set the trip, but then track where my bus is in real time. No need to run out of my office at 4:30 p.m. if the bus isn’t going to be there until 5 p.m.

And Councilmember Sledge was satisfied with Transit App when he used in shortly after its Nashville debut last December.

My biggest beef with the real time data, though, is that it’s promoted as the be-all end-all for the MTA riders’ woes.  It’s not.  Knowing that your bus will be 20 minutes late does not help with the fact that it’s 20 minutes late.  Sure, you may not have to run out to your stop until shortly before your bus actually arrives (if you’re lucky enough to be leaving from a place just a few steps from your bus stop), but that still makes you 20 minutes late to your destination.

This new feature is a great (if late) step in the right direction.  Both the MTA and its real time data API have a long way to go.


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