Seattle to the World: Smarter Public Transport

Article Photo

by Thijs Moonen

The Story:
From time to time you stumble on something - a tool, an idea, a little trick - you wish had existed earlier. Take King County Metro's trip planner for example. Before it was introduced, planning a bus-ride from one side of the city to the other was a real hassle. Today, our need for instant information has pushed the development of such tools further. Metro's own trip planner is able to tell you when to expect a bus, but if things don't go as planned, you're left in the cold all to often. Now, thanks to some creative Seattleites, you can check real-time bus arrival information on the go.

If you dig a little deeper in Metro's Online tools, you'll find the Tracker. Unlike their traditional trip planner, Tracker gives you a real-time peek at where different buses are. It comes in handy when you have a computer and internet at your fingertips, but what if you are already at a bus stop? Not all phones support instant web-browsing, and even then the system requirements can make it inconvenient. Fortunately, the radio signal information that's used to track any specific bus can be used freely by programmers. Over at the University of Washington, the ITS department (Intelligent Transportation System) took advantage of that information to create, one of their many projects to make public transport in Seattle a little more user-friendly.

But the story doesn't end here! UW Grad student Brian Ferris wasn't totally satisfied with, so he decided to take matters into his own hands by creating a program he calls One Bus Away. One Bus Away is probably the most simple solution out there. Use you cell phone to text ONEBUS followed by your stop number to 41411, and the system responds by telling you when your bus arrives, based on the actual location of that bus. You can even call the One Bus Away database to have arrival information read to you, and iPhone users have a dedicated web application at their disposal.

One Bus Away certainly is a success. The phone service alone, which launched last June, will soon reach its first 100,000 answered calls. "I felt there was a real opportunity to make a big difference in the way people use mass transit with just a simple tool," says Ferris. "I believe that a strong mass transit system is an essential part of building strong communities. This is just my way of helping out".

Ferris is currently optimizing the surprisingly handy Explore function (see picture), and with plans to add Pierce Transit and Sound Transit to the system, he will have his hands full. Tools like these make using public transport more tempting, which is something we can only encourage. We're excited to see how One Bus Away will develop in the future.

Why it's Worldchanging:
We've written quite a bit about open source information and collaboration at Worldchanging, and the tools listed here are beautiful examples of what a simple application of those principles can look like. In a world where information is more readily available, the focus changes to making simple and practical use of it. Though less visible, open source programmers are working for the community as much as other volunteers.

His work is a grassroots step toward a smarter mass transit system. In cities worldwide, public transport is the number one alternative to the personal automobile, and while we're waiting for a mass public transportation improvement like light rail or Bus Rapid Transit, anything that tackles the inconveniences that our current system might bring is certainly welcome.

Image courtesy of google/Brian Ferris


This post is part of the series, "Seattle to the World: 100 Best Innovations from the Emerald City."


One Bus Away is a user friendly system which can have potential use in almost all the big cities of the world. It will certainly make public transportation systems more attractive compared to travel by automobiles. For the design and building of futuristic cities with state of the art mass transit system please read my science fiction novel MEGALOPOLIS ONE 2080 A.D. where it is shown how future mass transit systems in a megacity in the 2080 can effectively change the concept of city living. The website is

Posted by: Amitabha Mukhopadhyay on April 22, 2009 10:32 PM

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