Hacker Charity Helps Detroit Buses Take Tech Leap: Real Time Arrival Info by Text

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A Detroit bus stop. (By Flickr user JSmith Photo)

It may be called the Motor City, but a third of Detroiters don't have a car. They depend on the bus and it ain't easy. In the past few years, riders have suffered three-hour waits, dangerous conditions culminating in a driver strike, and watched service cut by a third. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing even suggested privatizing the bus system as a possible way to make ends meet in the municipal budget. These are gloomy times for the city's transit users.

But on Tuesday, Detroit's battered bus system took a leap forward -- not to mention a leap over some other larger bus systems. Riders can now text their location to "50464" and receive the next arrival time of the nearest bus -- not scheduled arrival but actual projections based on the location of the bus at that moment. It's designed for people who ride the bus every day: school kids, teenagers, folks who don't own a car. This isn't a fancy smart phone app -- anyone with text messaging service can use this. New York City has experimented with a similar plan but hasn't rolled it out citywide yet.

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Detroit Mayor Dave Bing issued a statement calling the new #TextMyBus service "an essential resource for all of our citizens as we continue our efforts to improve DDOT service and provide reliable bus transportation.”

To pull this off, Detroit's Department of Transportation partnered with the Federal Transit Administration, the Detroit Public School system, the White House Strong Cities initiative, and the Knight Foundation. It also managed to wrangle three "fellows" from Code for America, which calls itself "a Peace Corps for geeks."

CfA is a nonprofit organization that sends web designers, computer engineers, and software coders to beleaguered cities around the country. These fellows then work with city agencies on digital improvements for the collective good.

In Detroit's case, #TextMyBus is CfA's first project. The group's fellows are also working on other projects, including a way to streamline the process to buy city-owned property.

For those of you not in Detroit, the online brochure -- partially excerpted above -- does a good job explaining how the app works.