There's an App for That—But Will It Last?
UW Student Tries to Save OneBusAway After Google Hires Him Away from Seattle
The bus is late. If it takes much longer to arrive at this stop in Ballard, I'll miss my transfer downtown and be late to meet someone for another interview. "The bus will arrive in seven minutes," says Brian Ferris, a University of Washington PhD graduate, while checking his phone. With the calmness of a man who has mastered time, he adds, "You'll be fine."
Thirty-year-old Ferris has sort of mastered time, at least when it comes to the King County Metro bus system. In 2008, he created OneBusAway, the popular free app that you can use from any phone to access real-time bus arrival information. Since he launched the program's website (www.onebusaway.org) with the help of civil engineering graduate Kari Watkins, users have doubled annually. Now, every week 50,000 people—roughly 13 percent of King County Metro bus riders—use it to check on their buses. And it's not only popular in Seattle; officials have adopted the open-source application for use in France, Poland, New York City, and Montreal.
"I've created a beautiful monster," says Ferris, who works up to 20 hours a week running the website's server, streamlining data, fixing bugs, and working on new apps.
But now the program's future in Seattle is uncertain.
Ferris starts a transit-planning job with Google in Switzerland on August 2. To his credit, Ferris has essentially parlayed what was a hobby in his free time—which developed into his thesis—into a career. On the downside, he says, "There's a big question of what happens to the project when I go away."
The University of Washington technically owns the program and the server that runs OneBusAway. "We're operating under a very tight deadline to find [Ferris's] replacement," says Alan Borning, who has been Ferris's faculty adviser at the UW's Department of Computer Science and Engineering. "We don't want to leave riders in the lurch." The university, he says, is in talks with Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, and King County Metro to fund the project for another year, at an unspecified cost.
But when contacted, officials at Metro and Sound Transit were more interested in praising the program's importance than in confirming their ability to fund it.
"The service has a great deal of value," said Kimberly Reason, a spokesperson for Sound Transit. She couldn't speak to the negotiations, saying only, "We're discussing options."
"Everyone thinks it's a great application," added Linda Thielke, a spokesperson for Metro. "No one thinks it's going away. We're in preliminary talks to help out."
Budget shortfalls may explain why transit agencies are hesitant to commit to the undisputedly worthwhile program. Sound Transit is struggling to bridge an expected $3.9 billion budget shortfall through 2023; Metro is bracing to cut 600,000 annual service hours (or 17 percent of current routes) over the next two years if voters don't approve a $20 vehicle license fee this fall.
"Everyone is facing serious budget constraints—it's a huge stumbling block for transit," says Martin Duke, editor of Seattle Transit Blog. But, Duke argues, that makes OneBusAway an especially vital public service. "With these cuts, we'll see more routes become infrequent and unreliable. It makes this service more important than ever."
Ferris's doctorate research shows the same thing. "People ride buses more and spend less time waiting for buses when they use OneBusAway," Ferris explains. "Uncertainty stretches time. When you're waiting for five minutes for a bus to come, it often feels like 10 minutes because of the uncertainty of when the bus will actually arrive. But adding real-time information actually shrinks that back down to five minutes."
Ferris checks his phone again. The number 44 bus is still a couple minutes away. While we wait under the bus stop awning, he shows me a new feature he's developing for the iPhone—a real-time bus trip planner. "The app updates as you travel along, much like in-car navigation," he explains. "That way, if a bus is running slow, or if you get on the wrong bus, or if you sleep through your stop, it will help you recover."
Our bus arrives while Ferris is still explaining how the new app would work. It's five minutes late, according to the paper schedule at the bus stop, but precisely when OneBusAway predicted. As for keeping OneBusAway alive, Ferris says he's committed to running it in the short-term. However, neither the UW nor any transit agency has stepped up to keep it running once he's gone.