TAMPA — Waiting for a public bus in Florida can mean braving heat and summer deluges without knowing whether your ride is five minutes away or 30.
That changes today, when Hillsborough Area Regional Transit unveils a new website and smartphone app that will allow public transit riders to track their bus in real time.
The free OneBusAway app will use the phone's Global Positioning System to place the user on a map that shows all the nearest transit routes and how far away the next bus on each is, then estimate an arrival time to the minute. It will also let you know if you've just missed the No. 7 bus so that you can grab a cup of java from the air-conditioned comfort of the nearest coffee house until the next bus arrives.
"They'll know if their bus is on the way without just standing out there in the heat or the rain," HART spokeswoman Sandra Morrison said. "So they can plan accordingly."
OneBusAway has been nearly a year in the planning. It began as a research project at the University of Washington, where a professor and some students with an interest in transit teamed with volunteers to create a bus tracking system for transit systems in the Puget Sound area. It has since been adapted for use in New York City.
The University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research secured $150,000 from the National Center for Transit Research to make the apps available in other cities, including Tampa. Atlanta is also launching its own system.
Using free, open-source software available to anyone with the know-how to use it, the system uses global positioning information from the buses to place them on a map. Click the corresponding bus icon and color-coded travel time estimates pop up, with blue meaning the bus is behind schedule and red indicating it may arrive early. A minus sign before the numbers explains that you missed the bus by that much.
Working with a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the group at USF conducted a pilot project with 400 participants, half of whom got to use the app or website. They haven't finished crunching the numbers yet, but so far the reviews appear favorable.
In Washington, riders said they felt they were waiting less time for buses to arrive, and they actually were, said Sean Barbeau, a researcher at CUTR who has spearheaded the local effort. So the service has the potential to improve how the public perceives transit as a viable mode of travel.
"This has definitely been a rewarding project," Barbeau said, "because it has had a real-world impact and will definitely make people's lives easier in terms of accessing transit."
From a computer, transit riders can track buses from the website tampa.onebusaway.org. On a smartphone, search for the OneBusAway app. It's available for Android, Windows Phone and iPhone users. (The iPhone app is still in beta testing and defaults to the greater Puget Sound transit systems. Directions for adjusting settings to make it work in Hillsborough are available at the website.)
County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a board member of HART, said the app is overdue. He has been pushing for modernization of the county's bus system, including offering Wi-Fi for passengers.
"I have been very impatient to move our bus system into the tech world," Sharpe said. "This is just the beginning."