Accuracy, reliability are priorities for new NextBus system

Every Muni rider has probably faced this at least once.

The NextBus digital sign says a bus or train is arriving in five minutes, but sees the time either increasing or decreasing. It leaves riders confused as to whether they should wait or find an alternative method to get to their destination.

Officials with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency know that the current NextBus system, better known to riders as NextMuni, has flaws in predicting when the next Muni bus or train is arriving.

Jason Lee with the SFMTA’s technology division, said last Friday at the SFMTA Policy and Governance Committee, that the technology used on the NextBus system is more 15 years old and in need of a major upgrade.

Lee said staff are working on the next form of NextBus that will provide real-time, accurate, arrival time information, along with the possibility of new features to help Muni riders get around The City:

“The future vision looks at keeping customers continually informed.”

Based on the 2016 ridership survey, Lee said riders wanted to know information such as service disruptions either in the subway or on a specific Muni line while traveling.

Right now, the NextBus system only provides information on when the next bus or train is arriving, but no information about unplanned events such as service reroutes or sudden disruptions in service, said Lee:

“We want to really make that experience a lot of better than the current system by providing current information.”

Some of the potential new features is allowing for the SFMTA to provide real-time information about service disruptions and providing alternatives through new LCD signage at transit shelters, buses and in the subway.

Lee said providing alternative route suggestions would also be helpful for riders who may want to take another Muni line nearby that could be arriving sooner. The LCD screens would also allow the transit agency to send out alerts in other languages such as in Chinese or Spanish.

An issue that has plagued Muni riders are the “ghost buses.” The NextBus digital sign would say the next bus is “arriving,” but does not appear.

Lee said he hopes the new SFMTA’s Computer Aided Dispatch and Automated Vehicle Location — the system that gathers the location of Muni buses — will help with getting rid of ghost buses.

A new feature to help riders decide to wait for the next bus is crowding alerts.

All of Muni’s new buses from New Flyer have automatic passenger counters that collects data every minute, and that data would tell riders about crowded buses, said Lee:

“We’ll be able to tell people if a bus is full or not. Perhaps it’s better to wait for the next bus.”

The SFMTA is looking at new on board signage on buses to not just provide the next stop, but also possibly points of interest and transfer connections to other Muni lines.

As far as a mobile app, Lee said the SFMTA may potentially partner with an existing transit app provider to recommend Muni riders to download and use. The SFMTA would work with the app provider to make sure the accuracy on the app is correct.

In early April, the SFMTA had put out a request for information with vendors as part of the first step in the procurement process to get feedback from vendors if they could provide the potential features requested by the transit agency, said Lee.

The information is due back to the transit agency this week. There is no cost estimate yet for the new system.

Earlier this month, the SFMTA Board of Directors approved to extend the contract with NextBus Inc. for at least one year so that staff can work in procuring a new customer information system.

A SFMTA report said the transit agency plans to have the new system installed by July 2019.