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Hey dude, where’s my bus?

Pilot program will provide real-time data online

(Globe Digital Illustration)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 21, 2009

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Moira O’Neil hates waiting on the street corner for a bus. Instead, she sits at home, sipping coffee until just before it arrives at her stop. She doesn’t worry about missing the bus; her cellphone will tell her when it’s about to pull up to the curb.

O’Neil, a 19-year-old student at the Art Institute of Chicago, uses an online service that tracks the precise location of every bus in the Windy City. “It provides you more time,’’ O’Neil said. “It’s safer,’’ and during Chicago’s notorious winters, “it keeps you out of the cold.’’

Chicago is one of several cities with a service that tracks its buses in real time and offers the information to the public online. And now the same technology is on its way to Boston.

The state’s Executive Office of Transportation is working with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on a plan to publish real-time data about the MBTA’s buses on the Internet. Commuters with smartphones would know, at any given moment, just when the next bus will arrive.

A test of the technology could begin this year, according to transportation department spokesman Colin Durrant. “MBTA is preparing a pilot program where we will be able to provide real-time data for a few select routes,’’ he said.

Real-time bus tracking has already been embraced by the Cape Cod and MetroWest regional transit authorities.

For Boston-area residents, basic data about MBTA train and bus routes and schedules were added to Google Inc.’s Google Maps service in late July. Commuters can use Google to find the best bus or subway route between any two points.

But Google Maps shows where buses are supposed to be, not where they really are. For that, the MBTA’s fleet must be equipped with GPS satellite navigation systems and other tracking gear, along with a radio transmitter on each bus to constantly report its location to a central computer. This information would then be published on the Internet.

The Chicago Transit Authority began to offer its CTA Bus Tracker service in 2006, and it became fully operational late last year. The service now broadcasts the location of every bus on 149 of the 153 routes.

Visitors to ctabustracker.com are shown a Google map of Chicago’s streets, with boxes that represent each bus on the route and show the direction it’s heading. Each bus stop is represented by a circle. Hover a mouse over the circle, and up pops a window showing the time when the next three buses will arrive. The same technology is available as a software app for Apple Inc.’s popular iPhone, and Bus Tracker can be programmed to send e-mail alerts to commuters about arrival times.

CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said the Bus Tracker website gets about 28,000 visits each day and has about 2,500 e-mail subscribers. Gaffney uses the e-mail service to get a morning alert about the bus she rides to work. “It just lets me know if I need to hurry,’’ she said.

Clever Devices Ltd., of Plainview, N.Y., designed the Chicago system. John Walsh, the company’s chief research and strategy officer, said Clever Devices has met with Massachusetts transportation officials about building a similar system.

All MBTA buses already have GPS equipment on board. But Walsh said GPS alone isn’t enough, because in many neighborhoods, tall buildings interfere with satellite radio signals.

His company’s equipment also uses sensors that measure the vehicle’s acceleration to estimate its position when GPS is out of range. Walsh said a complete setup costs between $15,000 and $25,000 per bus.

He added that the equipment also ties into the vehicle’s diagnostic systems, delivering real-time alerts about malfunctioning air conditioning or faulty brakes. It can even track how much carbon dioxide a bus is dumping into the atmosphere, data that transportation planners can use in developing environmental strategies.

Eventually, the MBTA wants to offer real-time tracking of its subway trains too.

“That’s something they’re considering and planning for,’’ Durrant said. But he added that due to budget limits, the authority has decided to focus first on getting the buses online.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.