While the MBTA is an easy target for criticism, the agency deserves only praise for letting private app developers have real-time data on the movements of its vehicles. For $1 or so, owners of iPhones, Androids, and other smartphones can now buy apps that say with great reliability when the next bus or train will arrive. For yesterday’s blizzard-addled commuters, it was a godsend.
Now, riders can know when to rush between lines at Downtown Crossing, and when not to bother. Complicated journeys involving multiple transfers — from Back Bay to Belmont, say — suddenly seem far more manageable. At times, the digital apps are better than the T’s own signage. At Harvard Station, a prominent sign still directs people seeking the 73 bus to the lower busway, but riders should instead trust the Catch the Bus app when it says to go upstairs.
The apps still don’t have access to real-time data for the Green Line, not all subway stations have cellular service, and not everyone carries a smartphone. Yet more and more people do. And just by putting more information in their hands, the T has removed one of the major barriers to transit ridership — unpredictability.