NY MTA's BusTime Off To Fast Start

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Staten Island bus rider Regina Esposito uses Bus Time. (Photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) The old saying is true: “Build a system for mobile devices that allows Staten Islanders to find out when their bus will arrive, and they will come.”

OK, that’s not an old saying. But it turns out to be true. The NY MTA’s BusTime system has been up and running in Staten Island for barely two months and already an estimated 10 percent of all bus riders use it every weekday. The service lets riders use a mobile device to text or scan a bus stop code and receive a message with their bus’s location.

“Having that information on the phone just revolutionizes the experience of riding the bus,” said Josh Robin, a project director with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which has had its own version of the program since 2009. “You can look on the screen and see the bus moving toward you instead of peering down the road, hoping to see the lights and LED sign of a bus.”

Staten Island is the first of the city’s five boroughs to receive BusTime, which, according to transportation analysts, is off to a flying start.

“I think it is a smashing success to have 10% of the riders using it within a year of opening the service,” said Dr. Kari Watkins, a civil engineering professor at Georgia Tech who studied real-time bus arrival information in Seattle. She said it has taken two and a half years for that city’s version of BusTime, called OneBusAway, to be used by 20 percent of its riders.

The success of BusTime has not come overnight. The NY MTA struggled for years to come up with a GPS system powerful enough to accurately track its buses while they plied their routes. Robin, who observed the MTA’s era of GPS trial and error, said he’s encourage by the outcome. “To think of all the fits and starts that MTA had in getting the GPS out there, this 10 percent rate is really impressive.”

NY MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said the authority plans to introduce BusTime to the Bronx and a borough-to-be-named-later by the end of this year. He said the entire city should be covered by the end of 2013.

Donovan said it’s too soon to tell if BusTime has led to an increase in ridership in Staten Island. He did say that usage of the system in in the borough has grown at a faster rate than it did for a pilot program on the B63 bus in Brooklyn. “We are pleased with the growth rate and we expect that it will grow further as more people become familiar with it and tell their friends,” he said.