Electronic signs will soon greet you at bus stops

Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 10:45pm

The Metro Transit Authority is preparing to implement a real-time-data plan with electronic signage offering bus status updates, specifically along the Gallatin Road/Main Street bus rapid transit line and at the Music City Central downtown hub.

That real-time data effort, which was to have been in place by now, was delayed when MTA servers and equipment suffered flood damage, according to James McAteer, the authority’s director of planning. McAteer said MTA is exploring mechanisms to make the authority’s data open to programming companies.

With an open-data system, for example, bus riders can use their handheld mobile devices to monitor route efficiency and ridership. In simple terms, if a bus is running late, a rider could find out — and then take time to, say, quickly grab a cup of coffee at the nearest cafe.

McAteer said MTA is planning to offer its bus route schedules in real time and to handheld devices. This can be done, he said, prior to making the agency’s data open to programmers.

Transit Now Nashville, a nonprofit advocacy group, wants MTA eventually to provide the more comprehensive open-data system.

“With open data, software developers can use the data to create new applications,” said Travis Todd, Transit Now president. “If the data stays closed, the public’s only source for that information is the agency that controls it.”

Todd said an open-data system could help spur private investment as an ancillary component of public transportation.

“Like weather information, we want to have transit information easily available, real-time and free,” he said. “The best way to get there fast is to open the data and give private companies a chance to create tools to complement existing transit systems.”

MTA spokeswoman Patricia Harris-Morehead said the agency is neither philosophically nor fiscally opposed to the approach. But there are legal and contractual issues with MTA vendors that must be addressed, she said.

Nashville is not the only city yet to embrace open transit data.

According to City-Go-Round, which provides information on transit systems, of the nation’s 824 major transit systems, 122 offer an open-data system and 702 do not.