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Ocean City

City pressing ahead with app amidst transit complications

(Jan. 16, 2015) After years of floating the idea, the city is closer than ever to making a deal on a system that will allow visitors to track municipal buses using a web or phone application.

But now that the technology is in reach, the city still must decide how far it wishes to go – and how much it wishes to spend – on a program whose utility may be limited for a community that only has one bus route, on a single straight road, that’s only used for about four months of the year.

“What we have to decide is what we think we need today, and what we can add on later,” said Mayor Rick Meehan during last Tuesday’s Transportation Commission meeting.

The commission spent most of it’s session hearing a pitch from NextBus, the premier purveyor of web-based bus-tracking technology, which provides services to several major jurisdictions such as the Prince George’s County transit system, and even the City of Toronto.

“It’s designed to be a one-stop shop for all of your transit info,” said NextBus representative Tom Noyes.

The NextBus system would feed bus location data back to NextBus’ servers using either the city’s existing bus GPS systems, or by installing NextBus’ own tracking hardware. The latter would be needed to access some of the additional features of the system.

Users of the NextBus website or phone app would then be able to see when the next bus would arrive at their specific location. Users can also set phone alerts so that they receive a message when a bus is a certain distance away.

“This would be very useful if you were leaving a bar, for instance, where you could stay inside until your bus arrives instead of waiting on the sidewalk,” Noyes said.

The alerts are also particularly convenient for local people with fixed schedules, Noyes said, allowing them to set the bus proximity alerts to start at a particular time, such as when they are preparing to leave or return from work.

The NextBus system also features a nearly infinite number of reports that city staff could pull from NextBus’ website. Some jurisdictions, Noyes noted, even install sensors to generate graphs of the buses’ oil pressure and engine temperature through the route.

Most critically for Ocean City, the system would provide a comprehensive report on the wait time in between buses, referred to as “headway,” and the points at which buses are bunching up under heavy rider turnover, a constant problem in the summer.

“For instance, if you’re telling your customer three to five minutes of headway between buses, you could see if that’s accurate or if it’s really more like five to seven minutes,” Noyes said.

The commission’s major point of interest was the ability of NextBus to track, in real time, how many people are on a bus. This can be done using an automated person counter, or APC, which runs off sensor installed in the buses’ doorways.

This would allow potential riders to see, via the NextBus site or app, how full approaching buses are and if there will likely be any room left on them by the time they arrive.

“Without said APC data, you will have a lot of people that see the bus is coming, walk out to the stop, and then have multiple buses pass them by because they’re full,” said Public Works Director Hal Adkins.

The only other way to avoid such a situation would be for bus drivers to take their bus “offline” of the NextBus system, using a keypad installed in the bus, whenever they are full.

The issue with this would be that buses would seem to vanish and then re-appear unpredictably for users. It would also require drivers to remember to work their keypads mid-route.

“As with anything, my thought would be that the bus drivers already have too much to do,” Adkins said. “Their eyes need to be on the road.”

At the end of Tuesday’s session, the commission convened a closed meeting to negotiate with Noyes regarding price.

However, it was mentioned that APC installation would run $4,000 per bus. Adkins also noted to the commission that $100,500 of surplus funds are available in the city’s transportation budget, which would at least partially offset the cost of NextBus implementation.

Those funds, according to Budget Manager Jennie Knapp, were allocated as part of the city’s local match for state-sponsored bus purchases. However, the state offered the city only three new buses for the current fiscal year, as opposed to the five the city thought it would get.

Adkins noted that he also may need those funds for work at the city’s north-end bus terminal, and the park-and-ride terminal in West Ocean City, both of which desperately need caulking, painting, and floor repair.

“Money is available in the fund balance, but that’s dependent on other initiatives such as NextBus, or anything else the council may have on their plate,” Adkins said.

Although the NextBus system offers the best features preferred by the Transportation Commission, the council could always conduct a bid for the services in order to receive feedback from other vendors. The matter will be presented to the full legislative body in the coming weeks.

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