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Muni to upgrade decades old ‘NextBus’ prediction technology

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The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is looking for vendors to upgrade its NextMuni arrival prediction time system. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The City is set to finally upgrade the two-decade old NextBus transit prediction technology.

That’s the same hardware and software that glitched itself into oblivion for two weeks in January last year, leaving Muni riders with no clue when their next bus would arrive.

Those citywide, crippling errors were due mostly to the system’s age, as it relied on 2G cellular networks tied to the legacy system first developed in 1999, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

“I think it’s more like 1990 [technology],” John Haley, SFMTA director of transit, dryly told reporters Tuesday.

The NextBus service, which is called NextMuni in San Francisco, allows riders to check when their next bus or train is set to arrive in real time via the web, smartphone apps, and at bus stops across The City. The SFMTA first piloted the bus prediction technology in 1999, and approved technology company NextBus as a contractor to provide the service in 2001, according to an SFMTA staff report.

SEE RELATED: Inside the Muni NextBus meltdown: Emails reveal what could have averted crisis

“The system’s design has not fundamentally changed since inception,” that staff report reads.

Tuesday however, the SFMTA Board of Directors voted to begin seeking bidders to replace the NextMuni system, for a contract to last six years. The board tentatively expects to approve a proposal by mid-2019.

NextBus itself is a natural bidder, though there are other similar technology suppliers out there, Jason Lee, a project manager in charge of the NextBus contract, told reporters.

“Technology has come very far since then,” SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin told the board. That tech will have “much better reliability, much much better algorithms, than what we have today.”

And with a look at new technology, SFMTA is seeking a suite of new features in its NextMuni service.

SFMTA is asking for “more sophisticated and accurate” vehicle arrival predictions, according to the staff report, which is key as the system is known to be rife with “ghost buses,” glitches which appear as soon-to-arrive vehicles that never arrive. The agency also wants strengthened network connectivity, information more accessible to Muni riders with disabilities, app-based escalator and elevator outage information, data analytics to study customer behavior, alerts for delays and “alternatively powered” digital signage at some bus stops.

By “alternatively powered,” the agency means solar power or some other means separate from a power grid, Lee said. Some of The City’s bus stops are not connected to the power grid, so they do not have digital signage showing NextMuni predictions.

Those bus stop NextMuni readouts will be upgraded too. Instead of dot-matrix LED signage in yellow, they will be LCD screens capable of showing far more information.

One key upgrade, Lee said, is for the NextMuni service to recommend alternate Muni routes when a bus is delayed. For instance, when the 1-California sees a delay, a rider would be directed to walk two blocks south to Geary Boulevard to catch a 38-Geary, which runs a parallel route, Lee said.

Bells and whistles are nice, said SFMTA board members, but what really matters is reliable Muni predictions.

“Hypothetically,” said SFMTA Board of Directors Vice Chair Malcolm Heinicke, “if you have a ninth grader heading to St. Ignatius [College Preparatory High School]” and the 48-Quintara bus says it is arriving in five minutes, but doesn’t, “and that hypothetical ninth grader tells her father who happens to sit on the SFMTA board, ‘what happened?’ I’d like to have an answer.”

“Reliability is the most important thing,” Heinicke said.

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