I had to travel to Portland this weekend, both in order to get out of town and to do a bit of consulting.
While I was there, I used the TriMet public transit system, because I took the train and don’t feel like (nor can I afford) traveling everywhere by ÜberCar. Google is great for telling us what bus/train/streetcar/ferry/kayak/jitney to take where, but leaves off at telling us when it is actually arriving. Sure, it tells you when it’s scheduled to arrive, but every transit rider from SEA to PDX knows that this has the same relationship with reality as Alchemy does to Chemistry. It would be really great if someone would come up with an app for that.
And here in Seattle, the hard work of my fellow iSchool alumn Brian Ferris and team did give forth the One Bus Away app (and saw that it was good), but no comparable graphical system is available for Portland’s buses, trains and other assorted transit units. There is, however, a system that does a very good job at telling you what you really need to know… “how long am I gonna be stuck at this bus stop until the next one comes by?”
The solution is very simple and works on almost any mobile phone system produced in the last few years. You SMS your stop number to the 27299 short code, and you get a reply within a minute telling you how long you have to wait. The system is called TransitTracker and remains a free service thanks to the ad that you get along with your info. Hey, you weren’t using those 80 characters for anything were you?
Here’s an example. I get off the MAX train and ask myself “Will the #75 bus be here soon or do I have time for (yet another) coffee?” I look at the bus stop which sports well-maintained and prominent signage of the stop number and the TransitTracker short code. I text 10872 to 27299, and one minute later I receive:
"75 Sched@4:28 PM / 75 22min -- 10% off any purchase at Green Bean Books on ALberta! Reply: GBB"
Now this confused me a bit, but a friendly local cleared the matter up for me. It seems that the system gives you the next two arrivals: one before and one after the slash. There was no real-time data for the first bus, so only the scheduled time of arrival (4:28 PM) was given. I skipped coffee and the bus was there five minutes later at 4:30.
The system takes some getting used to, but it does work, at least it does in Portland, where stops are well-maintained even in dodgy neighborhoods. In other cities (no names) who prioritize transit funds differently, the system would not be viable as reading stop numbers through a thick patina of graffiti would be impossible or more trouble than it’s worth. This is good news for the 50% (more in the bus riding demographic) that lack smartphones. It also displays the wide reach that SMS services can bring to your table.
Or your commute.
*I later learned that the service is also available via TriMet’s mobile website (m.trimet.org). If you have a smartphone about you, you can get the same information, in a more readable form and without the SMS ads.