Wildly Inaccurate NextBus Predictions Continue

Muni Had Four Years To Fix The Problem. Here’s How To Get By

On Thursday a bus arrived as the Routesy app indicates that the next bus shouldn’t arrive for another 45 minutes. Muni failed to upgrade GPS transponders on its vehicles before AT&T shut down the 2G cellular network that carried the agency’s location data. Photo: Andy Bosselman.
On Thursday a bus arrived as the Routesy app indicates that the next bus shouldn’t arrive for another 45 minutes. Muni failed to upgrade GPS transponders on its vehicles before AT&T shut down the 2G cellular network that carried the agency’s location data. Photo: Andy Bosselman.

As any regular rider knows, Muni does a lot to earn its abysmal 57 percent on-time performance. For many of its 300,000 daily riders, the only thing that makes Muni workable is real-time arrival information accessed via websites, mobile apps, or NextBus displays at transit stops. But soon after the new year arrived, the system started showing wildly inaccurate information.

Today when you pull up NextBus for a bus route, you’ll see longer than usual wait times, often more than 90 minutes. NextBus simply isn’t tracking more than half the buses on the streets.

In the photo above, the system showed that the next bus wouldn’t arrive for 45 minutes. But the bus pictured clearly was there—and it was followed by two others that showed up within 10 minutes. Last week, Muni fixed the problem in its light rail vehicles, which now reflect accurate NextBus information. But fixing the buses will take the rest of the month.

What Happened
The problem started when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) failed to upgrade a key piece of equipment before a January 1 deadline.

Each Muni vehicle has a Global Positioning System (GPS) device. The equipment, originally installed in 2002, relayed information over AT&T’s 2G wireless network. In 2012, more than four years ago, AT&T announced it would shut down its entire 2G network on January 1, 2017.

Despite the deadline, Paul Rose, a spokesperson for the SFMTA, said the agency had planned to upgrade Muni’s 2G modems after January 1. “Our understanding was that we had more time to continue with our current upgrades.”

But a spokesperson for AT&T said otherwise. “For the past four years, we have provided frequent communications to all 2G customers and worked closely with them to manage the transition to newer technologies,” said Leland Kim.
When the 2G network was switched off, Muni’s problems began and more than two thirds of their roughly 1,000 vehicles needed an upgrade.

Why NextBus Is So Important to San Francisco
We need NextBus because we can’t count on Muni. With an on-time arrival rate of just 57 percent, many Muni riders plan trips by considering several options. Real-time arrival information helps us make good choices.

“NextBus is an absolutely essential component to being a regular Muni rider without losing your mind,” said Aaron Leifer, a J-Church rider who lives near Dolores Park.

In my own case, I check the Routesy app to chose the fastest of three lines. If none of my Muni options are coming soon, I often hop on my bicycle. But the bike is only an option when the weather is good.

On Wednesday evening it was raining, making it even more difficult to traverse an already gridlocked city. When NextBus displayed wait times in excess of 80 minutes for some of Muni’s most popular lines, I decided to hop into a shared Uber.

I asked the other passengers if they ever ride Muni. Both women said they had planned to take Muni that night. But when NextBus data showed excessive waits, they called an Uber—and we all ended up contributing to an already bad traffic situation.

Destroying Trust In Muni Makes Gridlock Worse
“Most people I know have opted to drive, bike, walk or take Chariot because they can no longer rely on Muni to get them to work on time,” said Amy Constable, who works in the Financial District. “It’s hard to fathom how San Francisco is the tech capital of the world and yet our public transportation system doesn’t reflect that.”

In Mayor Ed Lee’s 2030 Transportation Task Force report, it calls for half of all trips in the city to be made by transit, biking, or walking by 2018. The report points out that our streets cannot be widened, we have a growing population, and our economy is booming. San Francisco has no choice: the streets we have must move more people.

While this fancy report recognizes that we need to attract more San Franciscans to public transportation, the reality is that the dramatic improvements Muni needs remains a low priority for our mayor and elected officials.

The NextBus disruption is a case in point. The one thing that makes our public transportation system usable to thousands of people no longer works. Yet this calamity has led to absolutely no public outcry from officials at City Hall, not even a tweet.

If our mayor and elected officials are serious about reducing gridlock, they must commit to a major transformation of Muni into a world-class system, one that people like Amy Constable can count on. And that will take significant new monetary investments, even as the city faces a fast-growing deficit and threats from President-elect Donald J. Trump to remove federal funding from sanctuary cities.

How to survive the NextBus Fiasco
Upgraded last week, Muni’s trains already reflect accurate NextBus information. But for buses, the information at outdoor NextBus terminals and in apps like Routesy won’t be fully accurate for several weeks.

To cope, Muni suggested checking their frequency table, which lists how often buses are scheduled to come. And how good is that information? As mentioned, the most recent on-time rate was 57-percent. But a couple of mobile apps could make navigating Muni a little easier.

The Swiftly mobile app uses NextBus data when it’s available. It also uses the Muni timetable to fill in the gaps and insert vehicles where they’re supposed to be, in theory, if they actually arrived according to the official timetable. While it’s not perfect, it’s useful to know that if you’re seeing a 90-minute wait at a bus stop, there may actually be a few buses scheduled to arrive sooner. You can tell the difference between real-time and scheduled arrival times thanks to a radio wave icon that flashes above the real-time NextBus predictions. Bonus: Swiftly tweaks NextBus predictions to deliver more accurate arrival times than other apps.

The Transit mobile app also combines real-time and timetable information, distinguishing the two with a radio wave icon. Their special sauce is their new Go technology, which transforms their users’ phones into GPS transponders. When a Muni rider opens the app and enables Go, their location and speed are tracked, helping the app give better predictions. While it’s only useful when there are Transit users to track, Jake Sion, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, says that about 10-percent of their San Francisco users are already enabling the Go technology.

  • Rogue Cyclist

    Ah, this would explain why NextBus has been lousy at predicting some of my AC Transit trips.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I don’t believe it does explain that. I’ve been told by AC Transit that their buses are up-to-date. The only apparent problem with NextBus in the East Bay has been that the fixed signs don’t work because they are on the 2G network, or they were before it stopped working.

  • AngryRider

    WMATA in DC got rid of NextBus; maybe it’s time for MUNI to do the same.

  • Dexter Wong

    I can remember when NextBus was a startup and only had Muni and EmeryGoRound as their clients. Few talked about using GPS data to predict buses back then. Now NextBus is part of Cubic, a big corporation that also provides fare collection services. How many cities use NextBus and how many use other GPS prediction services? How well do the alternatives work? How long will it take Muni to update the bus data modems to 3G (or better)? Will people wait that long for ridership to return?

  • Easy

    In Toronto they just started getting NextBus, and most people there don’t think it’s a big deal. Instead most of their routes are frequent enough that you can walk outside and catch bus with a few minutes wait. If SF really wants to be a transit first city, it needs that kind of service.

  • fulminantly

    The service outage is a true disservice to the people of San Francisco, especially those that rely on Muni buses for transportation. SFMTA’s answers are disappointing and I hope our supervisors begin an investigation into why the bus radio upgrade is behind schedule.

  • onemore4acure

    Please stop using Uber! (Lyft would be a better choice if necessary): 1. Saudi Arabia invested $3.5 billion in Uber, partly to provide Saudi Arabian women with rides since women are still not allowed behind the wheel; 2. Gavin Newsom worked years ago to make the city’s taxi fleet non-polluting; Uber laughs at this and the bulk of its many cars choke and pollute at will since it’s a private company that can do what it wants; 3. And speaking of doing what it wants, Uber thought it could test its self-driving cars without a state permit and unlike over a dozen other companies, refused to pay, then had a tantrum and moved its cars to Arizona. Is this a company that has the good values of San Francisco in mind? I think not. Please take Uber out of your mix. You may save a few dollars and minutes, but our common good is suffering. And yes, let’s keep the pressure on Muni to truly keep moving forward!

  • Toronto has used NextBus for years. I agree that TTC is a very well-run transit system, one that many other cities could learn from.

  • Nicholas Littlejohn

    TMobile would have helped with this. Muni needs better IT people.

    https://newsroom.t-mobile.com/news-and-blogs/att-2g-iot-lifeline.htm

  • Nicholas Littlejohn

    Uber is horrible to community, drivers and passengers alike.

  • jaharthur

    I disagree. The last several months NextBus has been wildly inaccurate on the AC Transit lines I take. Buses aren’t shown on the map even though they are running; buses are shown as arriving in 5 minutes when it’s actually 25 minutes because a run has been missed; buses suddenly advance by 2 miles and the arrival time changes dramatically. All in all, completely unreliable now.

  • sam

    a bunch super terrible people all currupt and lack any sense for the city and the needs of the riders whoever downed the system should be in jail and or fired and both

  • DD

    I agree with jaharthur: AC Transit info is seriously out of whack in the last few weeks in both apps I use (Quicky & CityMapper) which have nothing to do with the fixed displays problem. I came to this story just to refresh my memory about the MUNI issues before logging my complaint with AC, but it seems like there may be a bigger story on this side of the Bay as well…?

  • August Nick

    “It’s hard to fathom how San Francisco is the tech capital of the world and yet our public transportation system doesn’t reflect that.” … well said especially considering it is MORE unusual to find an escalator actually functioning and don’t EVEN get me started on the walk of shame to 4th and market at Powell Station that exits at Ross … absolute filth

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