Nashville’s real-time bus app coming this year

The Tennessean
Joey Garrison

Nashville’s new transit chief says he hears one question more than any other: When’s the app coming?

Talks of a mobile app to provide real-time information on the status of city buses in Nashville go back five years. Finally, Metro Transit Authority’s top official says, the long wait will be over some time this year.

“In this calendar year, the app will be available,” MTA Executive Director Steve Bland recently told The Tennessean. “We’re actually testing equipment and software right now.”

Commuters can already turn to mobile apps to view MTA bus schedules. Soon, however, users will actually be able to track whether that bus is running early or running late. That will be made possible thanks to a wealth of new data relayed from systems similar to GPS that are being installed in every bus.

Digital boards at Music City Central — and eventually at bus rapid transit lite stations on Gallatin, Murfreesboro and Charlotte pikes — will soon also display real-time information. For AccessRide customers, the system will generate automatic calls to users to remind them of their pick-up times, dates and locations.

The new real-time component, Bland said, won’t just be helpful in improving the experience for bus users. It will also provide valuable data to MTA that could steer future changes.

“We’ll know by bus stop, by day, by time of day — here’s how many people are on a particular bus,” Bland said. “Here’s where they get on. Here’s where they get off. Here’s how it was running according to schedule.

“As you accumulate that over time, you can help make service more reliable by adjusting schedules,” he said. “I say to people, ‘You may be happy with the app for the first week, but if all it tells you is your bus is running late every day, you’re not going to be happy for very long.'”

Metro is using $3.4 million in federal funds and $2.2 million in state and local funds for the transportation management software installations to enable the new app. Installation began last spring.

The plan calls for a new MTA app, but existing popular third-party apps will likely be the preferred system for most riders. The app Transit, for example, already details real-time information of bus systems across the country. The same app only shows schedules of MTA buses — but soon MTA will open up real-time data to third-party apps as well.

MTA has contracted a transportation management company called Trapeze — maker of what is known as Automatic Vehicle Location technology — that will effectively link Nashville’s data to the networks of third-party apps like Transit.

“It will do several things for riders,” said Dave Keiser, who serves on the advisory board for Transit Now Nashville. “Rider safety will definitely be improved because you have an app on your phone, you’re not going to be standing out in the rain waiting for a 3:45 p.m. bus. You can look it up on the phone and see that it’s a mile away, so you can stay where there’s shelter and walk out to the stop at the right moment.

“It’s going to increase reliability as well. The bus will never be late or early ever again. It will be just where it is moving on your phone.”

The app might seem like a simple concept, but it’s taken several years to get going in Nashville because of litigation with a prior vendor.

Metro had originally contracted a company called ACS (later bought by Xerox) to create the transportation management system. Work was 75 percent complete when Nashville’s devastating 2010 flood damaged equipment stored at its headquarters essential to the transition. The two parties couldn’t agree how to move forward, and the matter is now being litigated.

MTA spokeswoman Patricia Harris-Morehead declined to comment on the suit.

Now that the project is on track, however, MTA officials believe the availability of real-time apps could even help boost ridership.

“When I talk about how we attract more people to use transit, simplicity is first on my list,” Bland said. “This is something that makes it simple.”

Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.