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Monday, December 31, 2012

Is the CityBus coming? There (might soon be) an app for that

David Brooks

There are smartphones and tablet apps to do just about everything, but when you’re standing in the snow along Amherst Street, the only app you really want is one showing where the closest Nashua Citybus is.

Help is on its way – probably. ...

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There are smartphones and tablet apps to do just about everything, but when you’re standing in the snow along Amherst Street, the only app you really want is one showing where the closest Nashua Citybus is.

Help is on its way – probably.

Citybus hopes to spend $138,000 in leftover federal stimulus funding to upgrade computers and software that will include a free app, giving riders real-time insight into the location and timing of buses on all seven routes.

Mark Sousa, manager of the city Transportation Department, hopes it will be up and running by March, assuming the Board of Aldermen approves spending the money.

“I’ve been looking at this system probably a year and a half, two years,” said Sousa. “If a passenger is sitting there and pulls up a map looking for the bus – it has to be ready, and it has to be accurate.”

The apps, which would hook into Google Transit online maps that show public transit routes, would be part of a computer/software upgrade that will help with dispatching, particularly of the system’s nine paratransit vans. Those vans make individually scheduled runs for people with medical complications, often involving the use of a wheelchair, which is a much more complicated and changeable schedule than on the city’s eight “fixed-route” buses.

The upgrade also will move Citybus closer to being what is grandly labeled an “intelligent transit system,” in which mobile data changes the way people interact with public transportation. Think of it as the bus equivalent of a smart grid for electricity.

When people are more confident that a bus is coming, they’re more likely to ride it. This has always been obvious – why else are all those enormous, hard-to-read schedules attached to bus-stop poles – but the explosion of the app ecosystem makes the approach much more feasible.

The real-time bus information, collected automatically from GPS transmitters in each vehicle and transmitted over cell-phone networks, will first be visible in a large screen in the waiting room of the transit center on Elm Street behind City Hall, which is generally open from 5 a.m.-11 p.m. The app rollout will take a little longer.

An extra service – sending emails, texts or calls to individual clients when a paratransit van is a certain distance from the stop – will have to wait for a future upgrade, Sousa said.

The system was developed by a company called RouteMatch, one of several major providers of real-time transit-information firms.

Citybus uses RouteMatch already, Sousa said, but only a 10-year-old system mainly designed to deal with the federal reporting requirements for paratransit operations.

The upgrade will involve installing wirelessly connected tablets into 21 vehicles – the eight buses, three trollies and nine paratransit vans, plus a supervisor’s car. This will allow bypassing the venerable radio-dispatch network for many operations, he said: “Dispatch can cancel a trip from dispatch center, take it off schedule for that (paratransit) vehicle, and they don’t even need to get on the radio. Or they can transfer it to another vehicle.”

The upgrade also will allow automated announcements of upcoming stops, so you can close your eyes and pretend you’re riding the T in Boston.

Other specifics will come with time.

“One thing nice about this, we can create programs to work on our system,” said Sousa. “We’re not MTBA – we’re not hundreds of routes, running every 15 minutes. ... Our needs are different.”

Citybus operates seven daytime routes and three evening routes. Buses rack up about 1,870 miles a day, and the most recent annual ridership figures topped 445,000.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.