D.C. Metrobus app and reality out of sync

March 13, 2019

Bus riders in Washington can use an app that estimates how long until the next bus arrives at any given stop. Its implementation has made commuting much more convenient for myself and thousands of other regular bus commuters.

However, WMATA also publishes a schedule for its buses that it encourages drivers to conform to, in an attempt to make the service predictable and prevent buses from bunching. Keeping the buses on schedule is important to WMATA; its professed goal is for 80 percent of its buses to arrive on time, which it defines as no more than seven minutes late or two minutes early. It regularly publishes its performance statistics. To help keep its buses on time, drivers have a simple app on their phone that beeps quickly when the driver needs to make up time and slowly when the bus is ahead of schedule, indicating that he should slow down. It is the latter cue that I have a problem with: Drivers ahead of schedule will linger at bus stops, deliberately try to hit red lights, or simply stop the bus until the beeping stops. While these deliberate delays may put the bus back on schedule, they also inconvenience (not to mention aggravate) people already on the bus as well as render the real-time estimates useless, as apps cannot account for such actions. Heres my own tale of bus waiting woe: when the southbound 42 or L2 buses cross 18th street on Columbia Road the app estimates it to be three minutes away from arriving on Connecticut Avenue. However, buses that arrive ahead of schedule at that point find it convenient to remain there until they are back on schedule. When that occurs, the app may show that a bus is three minutes away from Connecticut for several minutes. Who benefits from this delay? Certainly not the people already on the bus. People down the line who use the real-time estimates to make a decision as to when to leave their residence or office to catch the bus are not happy either, as it leads them to arrive needlessly early to their bus stop and makes them question the reliability of such apps, and the bus system more generally. This perverse requirement to hew to a schedule few people are aware of when a bus is ahead of schedule undoubtedly reduces bus usage by making it less reliable. Someone who chooses to travel by bus to an appointment may have eschewed Uber because it appears a bus is imminent: After the promised two-minute arrival turns into eight minutes--not all that unusual in my experience--this person may choose to go with an Uber pool in the future, which is usually quicker and not much more expensive than a bus. And more reliable as well. WMATA has two mutually-exclusive goals: it can either have buses attempt to stick to a schedule or we can have more accurate real-time apps that provides the most reliable information possible. By implementing a system that directs buses to slow down or stop if they get ahead of schedule we have implicitly chosen to prioritize the schedule--not for the benefit of passengers but for the sake of improving a flawed measure of on-time performance. A simple improvement would be to stop encouraging drivers to take dilatory measures to get back on schedule, or declare that any bus that arrives before scheduled stop to be on time-even if its early. But encouraging bus drivers to delay their route is not a way to increase bus ridership or commuter satisfaction. Ike Brannon is a senior fellow at the Jack Kemp Foundation.