Thursday, August 5, 2010

QR codes at Metro Transit stops

I have been a fan of Metro Transit's NexTrip system, which receives data from Global Positioning System sensors installed on buses in the Twin Cities and tries to calculate bus arrival times for stops along each route. It can be accessed from a computer or a mobile phone that has a web browser built in (generally smartphones, but it should work with many not-so-smart phones too). It has its problems, but when it works correctly, it gives a transit rider much more confidence in the region's bus and train system.

In recent months, I've been wondering if the NexTrip system could be made easier to use. I have had problems when I've wanted to just get a quick idea of when the next bus will arrive, since I usually have to navigate to the NexTrip main page, then select the bus route, followed by a bus direction -- and then I have to choose the stop. With the way it's currently designed, each one of these actions requires talking to a web server -- and while the NexTrip website is relatively stripped-down, it does transfer a lot more data than it really needs to, which makes it fairly slow.

It would be much better if there was a shortcut. In fact, I have created a few bookmarks on my phone so I can cut out the action of selecting the bus route number, but do I really want to go through and make a bookmark for each individual bus stop that I use regularly? Not really.

My best thoughts have revolved around the use of QR codes. These could be generated for each bus stop and put on a sign at each stop.

To demonstrate this a little, I'll use a URL that the NexTrip site generates for me if I make a bookmark. The following URL is for bus route 3, eastbound, at the intersection of Hamline and Como Ave:

That's kind of a mess, isn't it? And here's the QR code you'd get if you used that long URL:

Okay, that's alright, but it's bigger than it needs to be. Also, if anyone wanted to type in the URL themselves, you wouldn't be able to fit the original URL onto a sign. The amount of information you need is very small -- simply the route number, the direction it's going (north, east, south, or west), and the 4-letter code of the bus stop ("HLCO" in the case above).

Metro Transit could really make use of URL shortening. They could probably start a site named something like "" (the ".mn" top-level domain is owned by Mongolia, but several things in Minnesota use it, like the state senate and the Star Tribune's I'd envision shortening the URL something like this: for the earlier stop I looked at. And here's what the corresponding QR code would look like:

Well, I suppose that doesn't look a whole lot different, but I figure that the lower amount of data encoded in that image will make it easier for cameraphones to read, especially after signs get dirtied up from living in the real world.

Now, there are several problems with this idea:
  1. Will riders know what these things are? Who knows. This is a commonly-used technology in Japan, but it hasn't really caught on in the U.S. One good thing about QR codes is they are pretty easy to identify after you've seen them a few times -- they've got three distinctive squares along the left and the top two corners and in the bottom left -- but educating people about them might prove challenging.

  2. Will riders have phones that can interpret these symbols? Another open question. iPhones, Android phones, and (I presume) Blackberry phones should be able to handle these codes just fine. Other phones will probably be hit-and-miss.

  3. Will riders be able to use the website? I wish I knew. Considering that transit riders often can't afford more expensive phones or the data plans to go along with them, it would probably only benefit a modest percentage of riders. However, smartphones are becoming more and more popular each year.

  4. How likely is it that signs will be where people need them? Unfortunately, my gut feeling is that getting signs deployed to bus stops would be the biggest challenge. I think if Metro Transit had the money for something like this, we would have seen bus stops with signs for the routes they serve a long time ago. However, I think the public would get behind this idea -- if someone came up with a way to buy or make the signs cheaply, I think there would be many community members willing to put their time or money into acquiring the signs and having them put up.

  5. If all that stuff happens, will this thing actually work? Unfortunately, my results with using the NexTrip site have been mixed. Sometimes there isn't any data for the bus I want to take, so it may appear that the bus is not running at all. Also just because a bus is late now doesn't mean it will be late five minutes from now (or vice-versa). If people trust the site too much, they will probably become disappointed in the concept. (However, the only way to get around that, in my estimation, is to run buses much more frequently so that the schedule basically doesn't matter. Unless a magic source of funding appears, that's not likely to happen, so I think it's best to make the best use of what we've got until things get better).