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Riders' Report on Metro's NextBus System

This week, we've been testing out Metro's NextBus system, which I hope will make Metrobus service predictable enough to get a lot of people to try buses when they might otherwise drive. I'd like to share some of our experiences, both positive and negative.

metro next_bus_signs.jpg Look for stop and phone number. (Metro)

Post reporters Greg Gaudio and Mark Berman and I, your traffic columnist, spot checked the NextBus system in downtown Washington, Alexandria, Rosslyn, Court House, Silver Spring, Bethesda and Prince George's Plaza. We were looking to learn anything that might be useful to people just starting to use the system designed to let you know when the bus really will be at your stop. We'll have more about this on the Commuter page (page 2 of the Post Metro section) on Sunday, but here's some of what we experienced.

-- On Wednesday morning, I ended one round of checks by using a mobile phone to call up the time for the next J2. The readout from the NextBus mobile Web site said "ARRIVING." I looked up from my bench at the Bethesda Metrobus bay, and there was a J2 pulling up to the stop. That happened a lot, wherever we were at whatever time of day.
-- But not always. When the NextBus information was off, the system quite frequently predicted an arrival a couple of minutes later than the real arrival time.
-- There were some times when no bus would show up around the predicted time, or a bus would arrive that didn't appear to be on the schedule.

-- We couldn't always find the NextBus ID shield at bus stops, although the stops were listed as part of the NextBus system on the mobile site and travel time information was available for them there. (If you're using the phone-in version, the automated voice will ask you for the bus stop ID number on the shield before giving you the arrival information.)
-- Calling in from the Bethesda bus bay, I couldn't get the automated system to recognize the bus stop ID number I tapped in. This happened several times.
-- At the stop on 16th and M streets NW, which is served by several routes, I used the bus stop ID to call up arrival information from the NextBus mobile site. But it would give me information only about the S1. It said "No Prediction," which was fair, since the S1 wasn't scheduled to stop there.
-- Sometimes the phone-in voice recognition system gets confused if there's background noise at your location.

-- Try it, but be prepared for variable experiences. Don't be too fine in timing your arrival at the bus stop, based on what NextBus is telling you. It's one thing to miss a rush hour bus that arrives every 10 minutes but quite another to arrive two minutes late for a bus that won't come again for half an hour.
-- The first thing you want to say to the automated voice on the phone-in line is "NextBus."
-- You can bookmark a mobile Web readout of a particular route or stop for future reference.
-- I found NextBus's mobile Web service helpful in figuring out where the bus stops are located on an unfamiliar route.
-- If you're aboard a Metrobus for a long trip, you can continue using the NextBus service to figure out what time you'll arrive at your destination.

Do our experiences with NextBus sound familiar? Please add your own comments about the new service. What's working well now and what would you like to see improved? What are your tips for users?

By Robert Thomson  |  August 6, 2009; 9:08 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting , Metro , transit  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, NextBus  
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So far, every time I have used the Next bus system it has been wrong at best. The online service on my blackberry is useless as it only give the scheduled arrival time (which I could view on the box while standing at the stop). Twice now, when I've called, I've been told the bus was 5 minutes away (or something similar), only no bus ever came and then had to wait an additional 20 minutes. So did the bus just disappear? (This is an ongoing problem with the reliability of the 8 bus line in Alexandria, not just a next bus problem).

I've also tried, while riding on metro, to look up the next bus times on my blackberry so I would know if I have to hustle, or plan to wait an eternity. (One day a week, I don't get home until late and have to take the bus from King St. either the 28B or the 29K and since it only runs once every 50 minutes, it's kind of nice to know ahead of time.) Again, I get just the schedule and not any accurate times.

I realize that technology isn't perfect, but I don't think I would ever time my trip to the bus stop based on the information provided by Next Bus. I'm guessing I would probably miss my bus most of the time.

Posted by: Ellvee | August 6, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

The service is spotty at best. At 16th and M St NW, I have tried several times to get the Next Bus info only to go through the entire menu and wind up being told that "there is no information available for that stop." Or it will give me info for the S2 rather than the S9. At another stop, I only received information for the next southbound bus when I punched in the Stop ID for the northbound route.

Posted by: niceken10 | August 6, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

I use NextBus along East West Highway where the bus service is every 10 minutes or so during rush hour and about every 20 minutes in the evening.

In my experience, the Nextbus website and Nextbus on the phone give different answers, often miss the mark by 5 or more minutes, or report buses that never materialize. Also, Nextbus doesn't give information for the J4 (limited stop) bus even though it does stop at my bus stop. Sometimes, though, it is right on the button. I would gauge it as being just about as dependable as the agate-type bus schedule on the post.

In other words, it hasn't helped me. I will try it again in a few months to see if it improves.

Posted by: KS100H | August 6, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

I forgot to add: NextBus is good because it gives you something to do while waiting for the bus. And when you're having one of those "where is the bus? did I just miss the bus? should I just start walking home?" moments, Nextbus gives you an answer. Not always the correct answer in my experience, but an answer.

Posted by: KS100H | August 6, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

NextBus = Waste of money that should have been used to maintain the system. So are the electronic bus signs at Rosslyn Metro - rarely accurate, give no more information than the paper schedules posted at the stop.

Posted by: jcflack1 | August 6, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I've had a decent experience with NextBus when using my phone. The first few times I tried it, the system didn't recognize my bus stop when keying in; I've got to the help section and said my bus stop, and it seemed to work. There was one time NextBus was completely off - it was around 10:00 pm on a weeknight. I called to check when the next L2 was coming (on Connecticut Ave). NextBus said 30 minutes; I was about to walk home when I saw the L2 pulling around the corner.
It's not perfect, but it's better to have an estimate than to sit and wonder if/when a bus is coming.

Posted by: bjturley67 | August 6, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

So far, I've used NextBus on the web for the S2/4 about 15 times and I've found it to be pretty accurate.

However, I only use it during rush hour, so there isn’t a lot of time between busses. That might explain why I’ve had good luck. Also, I never checked if the bus was an S4 when it claimed it should be an S2, etc. And I don’t ride S9, so I don’t pay any attention to that.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | August 6, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Dr. G, A very handy feature that allows you to see where a bus route stops is the Live Map:

Just select a bus route number (or enter the stop #), and then click on "Live Map". It lists all of the stops and you can click on any one of them for arrivals and which direction the bus will be going when it stops at those stops.

Also, because it is live, you can see the busses proceeding along the route when the page updates. Quite fun..and informative.

Posted by: data-driven24 | August 6, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I've had mostly good experiences with NextBus. I've had one bad prediction where it didn't seem to be tracking the next bus, but the one after it. But for the most part, it is an invaluable tool. I ride the bus much more than I did before now.

Posted by: tj722 | August 6, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Is it possible for NextBus to sync with WMATA's Trip Planner?

Posted by: cprferry | August 6, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the identification part of the process, for those of you with an iPhone I recommend NextBus DC for iPhone - a handy iPhone app that uses the phone's built-in GPS to look up the stops nearest you, and also provides route maps.

Posted by: alex56 | August 6, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

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