There's an App for That—But Will It Last?

UW Student Tries to Save OneBusAway After Google Hires Him Away from Seattle

There's an App for That—But Will It Last?

Kelly O

BRIAN FERRIS “I’ve created a beautiful monster.”

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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 ( 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. recommended


Comments (33) RSS

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tehjakers 1
Onebusaway is amazing. It helps me get on less crowded buses when I'm heading home. It also tells me how late #49 always is.
Posted by tehjakers on June 29, 2011 at 9:06 AM · Report this
Brian Ferris 2
Also be sure to check out this blog post about the future of OneBusAway:…
Posted by Brian Ferris on June 29, 2011 at 10:23 AM · Report this
Route #8 has got to be one of the most off time routes in existence. It's common for a bus to be more than 10 minutes late. I hate it so much. Onebusaway has made riding it a little more bearable and a lot more predictable. Hope they find funding to keep it going.
Posted by Chester Copperpot on June 29, 2011 at 10:26 AM · Report this
I love this app. I've used it literally every time I've visited Seattle. Can't we just kickstarter this shit or something? It works for some of the dumbest projects in existence, how about one of the better?
Posted by factoryfactory on June 29, 2011 at 12:13 PM · Report this
John Horstman 5
Every single mass-transit system should be operating a system like this, irrespective of the budget. It makes mass-transit inestimably more attractive and easier to use, even if a few buses per route would need to be cut in order to pay for it (assuming no funding increases; tax hikes on the wealthy sufficient to fund a free-to-use, efficient, and easily-accessible mass-transit infrastructure would be my ideal).
Posted by John Horstman on June 29, 2011 at 12:36 PM · Report this
Gee, now wouldn't a city-wide monorail system make a lot more sense?
Posted by sgt_doom on June 29, 2011 at 1:39 PM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 7
How much does the maintenance of OBA run? If people who used it kicked over $3 or $5 a year, would it be self-sufficient? I know part of its benefit is that its free, but I'd kick over $3-5 a year for this app. I use this app all the freaking time.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on June 29, 2011 at 2:04 PM · Report this
I'm a reluctant bus rider at best, but OBA makes the whole bus commute thing a heck of a lot easier. I love that it's currently free but would certainly pony up a few bucks for an annual subscription if that would ensure it's continuation.
Posted by kristy b on June 29, 2011 at 2:48 PM · Report this
biju 9
OBA saved my ass on more occasions than I can remember. Gonna miss you Brian, you'll have a blast at Google
Posted by biju on June 29, 2011 at 3:17 PM · Report this
care bear 10
If One Bus Away goes away, or there's a decline in quality I will for sure stop riding the bus. @3 is right about the goddamn 8. I hate that bus so fucking much. Even with OBA it's pretty much unbearable -- every time I refresh the app it's another minute or two late.
Posted by care bear on June 29, 2011 at 3:32 PM · Report this
I love OBA-- I just now recommended it to my assistant who downloaded it to her iPod Touch. I really don't want to see OBA go away.
If the solution (since I've already downloaded the app) is to set up a donation, pay-what-you-can page, and each of us that have the app pay $3-5 (easily worth it), then it might help fund it for at least a year.
There's got to be some kind of solution...
Posted by Vlad on June 29, 2011 at 6:17 PM · Report this
lindsey 12
@7 no shit, I'd be down with that too. I only take the bus a few times a month but it's more than worth the convenience. if nothing else than to keep my drunk ass off my bike if I know there's a bus arriving soon that can get me home safe.
Posted by lindsey on June 29, 2011 at 9:12 PM · Report this
@#6 no because buses are cheap and still would be late.
Posted by SD70MACMAN on June 29, 2011 at 9:36 PM · Report this
14 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
I'm a daily rider and a OBA addict, and I've gotten all my usual-non-bus-riding coworkers hooked. I'd pay dearly for the service, it's worth more to me than a gym membership, fo sho.
Posted by CommutingJenny on June 30, 2011 at 8:20 AM · Report this
Greenwood 16
Just want to add my voice as another user who finds OBA extremely useful. Can't imagine going back to the dark ages of not knowing when the next bus is coming.
Posted by Greenwood on June 30, 2011 at 12:51 PM · Report this
Maybe we could start a kick starter project to hire someone for 1 year to keep OBA operating. Say like $80,000 a year?
Posted by tigntink on June 30, 2011 at 1:54 PM · Report this
With this many users, there much be some advertisers interested. Brian! Get the rights to YOUR work and privatize it. Go national and forget about Google. Or just sell it to them for a few million and keep your job. Seems to me that the University is to blame for killing OBA if it's a matter of funding. It's a profitable business plan on it's own. I disagree with making the users pay for the app. I rather see ads than pay for an app - plus, that's continuing revenue.
Posted by RobinHood on June 30, 2011 at 2:31 PM · Report this
lindsey 19
@18 ads would take away from the whole "find my bus RIGHT FREAKIN' NOW" thing if you have to click on/away from them to get the app to do its job. it seems it would make more sense as a subscription service. however, there's a lot of apps who have both a free and paid option, and I imagine it wouldn't be too difficult to have both.
Posted by lindsey on July 3, 2011 at 3:30 PM · Report this
Metro probably doesn't want to fund this because they are going to put GPS on all of their buses and will most likely provide their own real-time tracking to go with it.
Posted by Southside Kelly on July 3, 2011 at 4:45 PM · Report this
Sometimes I have to test different phones for work, and on the rare occasions that I've been stuck with something that didn't run OBA properly I have literally cried in frustration waiting for a bus that never came. (I may be a bit of a high-strung pansy at times, but goddamn, that interminable wait for a late bus is maddening, and anyone who's had to wait for the eastbound 2 at Broadway and Union knows exactly what I'm talking about.)

I'm lucky enough that my employer provides a shuttle directly from my neighborhood to work, so I don't have to deal with Metro so much anymore. But if OBA goes away I'll probably end up buying a cheap beater car (no zipcar in my area) rather than deal with OBA-less Metro again. Seriously, I hate it that much.
Posted by haunted leg on July 3, 2011 at 6:37 PM · Report this
Why doesn't Google just buy it and integrate it into Google Maps?
Posted by ishf on July 3, 2011 at 6:53 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 23
My only prob with running OneBusAway on an iPad2 is that if - like me - you turn off Location Services - it won't use a Default location (e.g. Seattle) for the world map.

Some people don't want to be tracked.
Posted by Will in Seattle on July 3, 2011 at 7:36 PM · Report this
OneBusAway makes Metro usable. I'd gladly pay to keep it running, but it really seems like something Metro themselves should be providing for free--much like their dead-tree inaccurate schedules in every bus and at every bus stop.
Posted by tiktok on July 3, 2011 at 8:19 PM · Report this
I love OneBusAway and find it of great value. I'm another user who would gladly pay for it.
Posted by LMcGuff on July 3, 2011 at 10:26 PM · Report this
With Seattle apparently getting real GPS trackers soon, I certainly hope they find someone to update OBA soon.
Posted by madcap on July 3, 2011 at 10:45 PM · Report this
artschmart 27
Thanks, Brian Ferris, for making Metro less random. You've done a great service for bus riders. And I for one would be willing to pay for the app.
Posted by artschmart on July 3, 2011 at 10:47 PM · Report this
@6: Oh look, another loony troll. Why don't you and Kinison hold hands and both take pickaxes to the lightrail construction if you hate it so much. You can also cheer on the Tunnel, while you're at it.
Posted by combined with the antivax, you're insane on July 4, 2011 at 11:04 AM · Report this
stinky 29
OBA as it stands is run on three decent-sized web/database servers and, according to BF, consumes about twenty hours a week of skilled maintenance without substantial work on new features. Let's guess that's a burn rate of about $75K/year assuming the hosting and network remains cost-free, which it cannot indefinitely now that the research component of the project is effectively over.

It seems clear that eventually Google's transit services will eliminate the need for OBA. The advent of GPS feeds- which will be staged, not land all at once- won't have a substantial impact except on accuracy- the work in OBA is in the user interface. Fact is that Metro and other agencies could in theory do that sort of work, but not efficiently, judging from past IT projects from organisations like that. It's not unheard of for government to burn dozens of times the resources providing similar function as non-profits or university projects yield.

So it seems like what's needed is $150K and some technical leadership (which could come from the U) to carry it on for about two years. Or maybe a little longer, and a little more money.
Posted by stinky on July 4, 2011 at 3:10 PM · Report this
Maybe Metro and UW don't want to deal with this lawsuit?

King Co. sued over real-time bus-tracker…
Posted by bornhere on July 4, 2011 at 5:50 PM · Report this
orino 31
Every single mass-transit system should be operating a system like this

Well, TriMet in Portland does, and it's not only available on their Web site, but there are a sh*tload of apps for pretty much all smartphones available here. They make a point of mentioning that the data stream is open to anyone, and they even have an e-mail address for questions about these apps.

But then, TriMet had a Web site in 1995. And TriMet sees its mission as getting people from point A to point B, not fetishized social engineering...
Posted by orino on July 4, 2011 at 6:45 PM · Report this
lunch break 32
love this app. Here's an idea - charge a fair price for it and let it fund itself. I'd pay a buck, or two or even three and not feel rip'd off.
Posted by lunch break on July 5, 2011 at 5:28 PM · Report this
@ 23 - If you don't like being tracked, Metro has a system you can use... it's called "Trip Planner." And it will tell you when the bus is supposed to arrive. For those of us who want to know when it REALLY is going to arrive, we use OBA.

I don't have a car and I like the idea that I can call into work and say I'm going to be (?) minutes late. The idea of adding a Real Time Trip Planner would definitely make this an APP that I would be willing to pay $3-5 per year. It saves me time and money.

Good luck Brian and thank you for making my life easier.
Posted by DarthTagnan on July 5, 2011 at 6:48 PM · Report this

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