Eyes on the Street: 511 ID Numbers Going Up at More Muni Stops

IMG_1700.jpg A new stop ID sign at a Muni shelter. Photo: Michael Rhodes

It will soon be a lot easier for any Muni rider with a cellphone to find out when the bus will arrive.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, is in the process of posting unique identification numbers at nearly all of its stops, along with instructions for dialing 511 and entering the stop ID to get arrival times. By posting the numbers, the MTA may be able to save money on work orders from 311, an information line that provides many of the same services as 511, but bills the MTA an average of $1.96 per call. All told, the MTA paid 311 over $6 million this past year.

The signs are posted at just 100 stops now, but the MTA hopes to have
them up at nearly all of its 4,000 stops by mid-summer. 

If service cuts go through as planned, knowing when the bus will show up may soon be more a necessity than a convenience for riders, especially during off-peak hours. MTA spokesperson Kristen Holland said the agency hopes to give people more arrival data so they can make informed choices.

Having more information is essential, "especially when you don’t have as frequent headways," said Holland. "More information is better any time, but especially then."

That will give riders options, said Holland.

"If I know it’s going to be a few minutes, I’ll stand and wait. Or, you know what, I think I’d rather walk up and grab this other line," said Holland, describing how riders could use the information. "Giving them information empowers that decision."

Riders can continue to call 311 or 511 even if they don’t know the stop ID number and go through a menu system to get to their stop, but the posted 511 stop IDs should make it much quicker, giving all cell phone owners some of the convenience that iPhone and other smart phone owners already have.

Of course, guiding riders away from the city-owned 311 service and towards the regional 511 number should also have financial benefits for the MTA, since the agency doesn’t get billed for 511 calls.

Muni riders have averaged 4,294 phone inquiries daily to 311 this fiscal year, making up the large majority of the 5,363 average MTA-related 311 calls per day. Muni also has 860 real-time arrival displays at its stops across the city, according to a recent NextMuni maintenance contract.

Will this make your Muni ride any easier? Do you already own an iPhone or other smart phone and use an app to find out when the next bus is coming? Let us know in the comments section below.

  • The stop at 23rd and Vermont has NextMuni arrival times for the 19, but not the 48. Once I get the stop ID, who do I contact to let them know?

  • They should also ask the NextBus folks to add it to the electronic NextBus signs. People will remember the code number and call 511 or use their cell phone browser before leaving their office or home.

    If they can do that, then Muni would save thousands making all those stickers and they would just place stickers on stops that don’t have the NextBus signage.

  • Nick

    How much does the MTA get billed per call? Someone check my math because I calculated it at over $10 a call.

    -If MUNI riders make 1500 calls daily, that is 547,500 calls per year. Assuming all of those calls go through 311, then ($6,000,000 / 547,500) = $10.95 per call.

  • Matt

    This is great. Hurray for cheap improvements. I use my iPhone now, but given AT&T’s atrocious service in SF, this might be much more reliable.

  • @Nick not sure about the numbers in the article, but your math comes close. Muni was billed $1.95 per call

  • Peter M

    Where are they going to put the ID number on the gigantic number of stops that neither have a shelter or even a bus stop sign? Are they going to stencil it onto the street where the yellow “Coach stop” rectangle is?

  • Michael Rhodes

    @Josh and Nick: I’ve update with more current data.

  • Nick

    I’m a little schocked that a few thousand stickers can save the agency $6 million per year. What other waste is engineered into their day-to-day operations?

    I’ll give 511 a try next time I’m out. Most people dislike automated messages (that require voice prompts). Do they make a text message version of this for those of us who don’t own smart phones?

  • Portland just had a number posted along with a stop ID. You call the number and then key in the stop ID and it runs through the buses that are going to stop there and the expected times for each. Sounds pretty easy to set up to me. No need to feed Newsom’s piggy bank. No need for smart phones. But MTA and logical don’t seem to belong in the same sentence – let alone the same city.

  • Erik

    @Nick: Text “nbus sf ” to 41411

  • Erik

    Make that “nbus sf (stopid)”. It didn’t like my angle brackets.

  • Sprague

    I prefer using an automated service and not having to inconvenience someone and wait on hold than using 311.

  • James

    I would guess that arrival time inquiries are only a small portion of the calls that 311 receives which are billed to the MTA.

  • Michael Smith

    Some notes from NextBus with respect to the above comments:
    * If you have suggestions for NextBus send them to feedback@nextbus.com . We really want to hear from you in order to make the system better.
    * SF MTA can display any message they want to, including ones describing stop IDs, on each individual sign.
    * For text messaging you can enter an address or intersection instead of a stop ID. Can be really handy if you don’t know the stop ID.
    * For stops where there is no shelter Washington DC WMATA had NextBus install 10″ diameter metal signs with the phone number and stop ID at 12,000 stops.
    * If you have a smartphone such as an iPhone (but also Droids and such) you can go to http://www.nextbus.com and click on the “special site” link to get a geolocation based website that automatically provides predictions for nearest stops. Try it out and let us know what you think.

    — Mike (the head of engineering at NextBus)

  • Michael Smith

    One thing I forgot to add is that if you use 511 then you can completely bypass the voice recognition (which can be nice if you are impatient or if you are in a noisy environment) by simply entering “6”. So for stop 13984 you can simply enter 511 6 13984. And they great thing is that you can just program that into your phone for easy access. Just make sure you put a pause between the 511 and the 6.

  • Erik

    I think you need to enter a # after the stopid if you use 511-6.

  • You actually don’t need to add a # for 511. But it does speed up the request by a couple of seconds because then it doesn’t wait for a timeout.

    Another tip is that when you use 511-6 you need to put a pause between the 511 and the 6, and then another pause between the 6 and the stop ID. So you should use something like “511 pause 6 pause 13984#”.

  • andrew

    I despise voice prompts with a fury that burns deep within my soul. So I shall continue to use the website.

  • Erik

    The arrival time voice command thingy actually works pretty well once you know which order to go in so you don’t have to listen to the instructions.

    Call 511 and say “arrival times”, “don’t know”, “muni”, (line number), (outbound or inbound), (street name), (cross street) with a second or two pause between each. I’ve never had problems with it not understanding me.

  • Seven

    During a recent breakdown of an N-Judah, MTA employees were telling the public to call 311 to find alternate routes to their destination. I’m not sure which was more absurd: listening to MTA employees tell the public to call 311 instead of 511, or watching as clueless MTA employees had absolutely no idea which bus lines ran nearby.

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