Transit blog, day eight

There is sort of an app for that

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At the beginning of this series I said that after I used the Cedar Rapids Transit app more, I’d offer a review. Today seems like a good day.

The first thing you need to know is that the website — rideCRT.com — and the companion mobile app aren’t homegrown. They are part of a system offered by Utah-based Ride Systems, which reports it works with more than 150 transit agencies in North America — municipal, academic, corporate, airport and resort. I’ve used their site to access a tutorial for the app, and have also embedded that video below. (If you aren’t into new age music, you might want to watch with the sound muted.) I can’t say that I learned anything from the tutorial that I hadn’t already figured out on my own.

The big advantage to using the app is being able to see real-time bus data, and being able to view all available bus stops on each route. The latter is the reason I’ve continued to use the app. Detailed bus stop information is not available on the City of Cedar Rapids’ transit web pages. (That’s an updated link, by the way. The city pushed out a new site Monday night, so old links won’t work and some of the new links are also broken.)

While the mobile app remains a step up from the earlier need to carry paper copies or PDFs of bus schedules and maps, it is quirky and sometimes just unusable. Sometimes, for instance, buses will simply disappear from the map. Although clicking on a bus stop should provide the next two stops at that location by each servicing route, the time isn’t always accurate. In some instances, when the user clicks on a bus icon, information from previous bus stops will be displayed along with a note that the bus has already left. It should be showing what’s coming up, not what happened in the past.

And, as a reader pointed out, the bus routes are linked to specific bus numbers. For instance, this morning I rode Route 5N into downtown Cedar Rapids, which is being served by bus number 2482. If a bus breaks down or is otherwise out of service, there’s no way for a user to manually update the bus number and the app becomes useless until the number of the replacement bus is fed into the program by an administrator.

From the transit website, users can sign up for email or text alerts of changes to the bus routes. Those who use rideCRT.com or the companion app can also view these alerts. But route information doesn’t change, even when a bus is diverting over a period of several days. Those using the real-time system can watch as a bus goes off-route, but there is nothing to graphically indicate that a particular segment of a route isn’t being serviced.

There is also no way to look at the app and determine if a bus stop is closed. Information on stop closures is also not part of the alert system, which is generally limited to route changes.

But the biggest deal breaker, in my opinion, is that there is no place whatsoever to enter a current location and a destination and receive directions on how to navigate by public transit. Cedar Rapids Transit information isn’t even available via Google maps, although the transit systems in Waterloo, Ames and Des Moines have provided their schedules to the free service. There is no way for residents or visitors to our community to easily plan a trip using public transit. None. Nada.

According to an earlier report in The Gazette, Cedar Rapids entered into a three-year contract with Ride Systems for this service. “The contract is worth $259,500 total, which includes $88,200 for GPS units, $18,000 for equipment and $23,400 per year for data. … The contract also includes auto-counters on each bus to track passengers and quantify the activity at each bus stop.”

My guess is that last sentence regarding internal tracking of the system, drivers and users is what sold the city on this particular purchase. That the public could use it, that it could be branded as an advancement for the local transit system, was secondary to the possibility of custom reporting features.

On a scale of one to ten, I give the website and app a three. The best thing it has going for it is the ability to see detailed bus stop information for each route. That is helpful, especially since Cedar Rapids riders have no other choice than to build their own trips from scratch. The only reason I’ve opened the app in the past four or five days is to access that level of data. I doubt I’d use it otherwise.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 339-3144, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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