Busting Ghost Buses

MBTA bus arrival predictions should get better as of today and further improvements can be expected over the next few months.

Representatives Jon Hecht and Dave Rogers and I learned a lot at a recent meeting with MBTA management about bus service complaints that we had received from riders.

Most regular bus riders now rely on mobile phone apps to get predictions of when the next bus will arrive. Here is how those predictions are generated and how the technology is changing.

Each MBTA bus is equipped with a device that transmits its location back to the MBTA’s control center. Currently buses send their position every 60 seconds over the MBTA’s data radio system. One improvement, expected by the end of the year, is a new cellular data location reporting system that will automatically report locations every 5 seconds instead of every minute.

The location updates are compiled into a continuous data feed which is transmitted in real time to an outside vendor who crunches the location data to create a stream of predictions as to when each bus will arrive at stops further down the route.

The vendor transmits this prediction feed back to the MBTA which makes publicly available a consolidated feed of locations and predictions.

Any software developer can read this location/prediction feed and use it to power a mobile app for transit users.

So, there are actually two different private companies involved in providing the predictions on the mobile phone. The company that users know is the company that creates the app on the phone. The MBTA does not license or otherwise control those apps and cannot take responsibility for them. The MBTA does, however, endorse one particular app called “Transit”. They endorsed it after a formal competition in 2016.

The other private company is the one that crunches the location data to make predictions. Predicting arrival times from locations is a complicated mathematical process and different companies use different proprietary algorithms.

The MBTA recently reprocured the prediction service. The MBTA technology staff competitively tested different vendor algorithms, allowing the vendors to demonstrate what predictions they would make from historical feeds of locations and comparing their predictions to actual results. The competition resulted in switch to a new vendor, Swiftly, who took over the prediction feed as of today.

Most riders understand that arrival projections for buses in traffic cannot always be accurate to the minute. But it is unacceptable when apps show a bus as arriving and it just never arrives.  According to the MBTA’s technology people, the “ghost buses” should go away with the change to the new vendor.

The new prediction vendor promises transit systems to “DELIGHT PASSENGERS AND IMPROVE RIDERSHIP WITH THE MOST ACCURATE REAL-TIME INFORMATION”— we shall see how it goes.

Passengers who experience really inconvenient prediction errors should complain online or place a quick call to the MBTA’s service line: 617-222-3200. Provide the date, time and stop you were waiting at and the specifics of the prediction error.  If possible, also provide the number of the bus that you ultimately were able to board — this allows more accurate analysis by bus operations.

If you ask for an explanation of the particular error, you are more likely to get one, but given that T buses make 450,000 stops per day, the analysts may not be able to account for every error. It’s still worth reporting so that they can recognize patterns of problems and try to get to their root.

We discussed other service issues like bunching at the recent meeting and I’ll report further on those after more follow-up.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

11 replies on “Busting Ghost Buses”

  1. Thanks for the update and for the attention you have paid to public transit. One annoying bus-related problem will also be hopefully resolved by this. While waiting for the bus to Belmont Center in the Harvard Busway I have found the arrival times of the buses posted by the T on their own electric message boards to sometimes be highly inaccurate. There have been “ghost” bus problems there, too, and it’s a real problem when the frequency of buses is as long as it is on the 74 and 75 routes.

  2. 3/5 nights, the system in total doesn’t work like it should for my husband to get home from work. The problem with these apps is still human decision. Buses go away, they come in and the driver maybe needs to go take a nap and then the next run doesn’t happen. That happens. Or the train comes in and the bus leaves without allowing a rider to get from the train to the bus. It’s supposed to be possible. Until we address the human factor, I don’t think the apps will be more effective later in the evening.

  3. I still believe schedules should reflect departure times from various points on any long route, like 70 and 70A Cedarwood, Waltham, Watertown, Cambridge.
    Buses arriving early and leaving ever earlier from points on the line, put particular buses un useable.
    One can arrive at a stop 10 minutes ahead of “lv” times, only to find it had arrived and left already.

  4. Thanks, but what we really need are MORE buses, even more than info about how on time or late they are. COMM MA should commit to replacing old buses and trains soon. Our current system is old and fragile and not going to make it much longer.

  5. 1. What’s a “ghost bus”? I searched for this and all I found were references to haunted bus tours.

    2. It’s great that real-time schedule updates will be available via phone app, but it would be much better to have electronic postings (as in the subways) at each stop for all buses that stop there, along with posting the schedules at bus stops. I recently saw these features at bus stops in Edinburgh and as a newcomer to the city found them very helpful. (They would also be useful for local folks who don’t have mobile phones.)


  6. Thanks so much for keeping us informed about the updates. I was happy to hear about the Transit app as the one that the MBTA has endorsed. It’ll be my 2nd app to OpenMBTA.

    By the way, when I followed the Transit link, I came to http://www.wbur.org/bostonomix/2016/09/06/mbta-best-transit-app. Here it mentioned that the Pittsburgh transit was piloting a a chat feature that allows commuters to communicate with each other and with the transit agency about issues, and that the MBTA was considering it for Boston. Do you have any information about what happened with this feature. I think it would be much appreciated by commuters.


  7. Thanks to Senator Brownsberger, Reps Hecht and Rogers for your typically precise and dedicated trail on the MBTA bus routes. I know how important this is to passengers as I see every one of them glued to their cell phone apps at the stop and then on the vehicle. Again speaking as a privileged ancient Belmont citizen who has seen a bit of the USA, Europe, Africa and India, I am constantly reminded of our good fortune in having public transit, despite its imperfections. As the population grows without pause, challenges will only grow. I am thankful every day for what we have now. More buses would be ideal but passengers increasingly frustrated by waiting and unpredictability might be only temporarily assuaged. In my volunteer job tutoring children, I encourage each of them to strengthen their inner core of resilience and look constantly at the broad picture.
    Stay strong and accept my profound gratitude for making our collective life forward thinking/moving and peaceful.

  8. Thank you for the wonderful title (ghost buses really do need to be busted) and for your attention to public transportation.

    For the writer who wondered what a ghost bus is: I’m not quite sure how others use “ghost bus,” but, to me, these are buses that are scheduled, but never appear. So, for example, from Harvard Square you might have a choice between a 74 and a 78. The 74 arrives but the 78, closer to your destination, is reported to be arriving in seven minutes. You decide to wait. The bus never shows. It’s not that it is late or caught in traffic — it simply disappears off the screen and the bus never shows up.

    The 78 bus line, in particular, was so plagued with them (it wasn’t just the terrible traffic on Brighton St.) that I now take a different bus route to the red line. It’s a longer walk but the buses show up!

    Again, Senator Brownsberger — thanks for your work on public transportation and for your excellent communications.

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