Does real-time transit information reduce waiting time? An empirical analysis

Real-time public transit info on your smartphone is reassuring, but does it save waiting time? We benchmark it using a year’s worth of real-time bus location data and discover – not really.

Liu, L. and Miller, H.J. (2020) “Does real-time transit information reduce waiting time? An empirical analysis,” Transportation Research A, 141, 167-179.

Highlights

  • Public transit agencies publish real time information for use in mobile apps
  • We benchmark several strategies using empirical transit system performance data.
  • Overall, real time information does not outperform simply following schedule.
  • Real time information can reduce waiting time for some users based on location.
  • Including a time buffer improves the greedy approach used by popular apps.

Abstract

A claimed benefit of real-time information (RTI) apps in public transit systems is the reduction of waiting time by allowing passengers to appropriately time their arrivals at transit stops. Although previous research investigated the overall impact of RTI on waiting time, few studies examine the mechanisms underlying these claims, and variations in its effectiveness over time and space. In this paper, we theorize and validate the sources of RTI-based users’ waiting time penalties: reclaimed delay (bus drivers compensating for being behind schedule) and discontinuity delay (an artifact of the update frequency of RTI). We compare two RTI-based strategies – the greedy strategy used by popular trip planning apps and a prudent strategy with an insurance buffer – with non-RTI benchmarks of arbitrary arrival and following the schedule. Using real-time bus location data from a medium-sized US city, we calculate the empirical waiting times and risk of missing a bus for each trip planning strategy. We find that the best RTI strategy, a prudent tactic with an optimized insurance time buffer, performs roughly the same as the simple, follow-the-schedule tactic that does not use RTI. However, relative performance varies over time and space. Moreover, the greedy tactic in common transit apps is the worst strategy, even worse than showing up at a bus stop arbitrarily. These results suggest limitations on claims that RTI reduces public transit waiting times.

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