Mobile apps help students answer, ‘Where’s the bus?’

Tiramisu uses crowdsourcing to tell riders if there are any remaining seats.

College students waiting patiently for the campus bus or shuttle can find out exactly when their ride will arrive, if it’s packed to the brim, and—for disabled students—whether or not the vehicle has room for a wheelchair: All it takes is a few taps of their smart phone.

Students and faculty members on many campuses use smart phone applications designed for any transit system, while others have apps specifically for their campus.

Carnegie Mellon University is among the schools creating the smart phone add-ons that keep a close virtual eye on the nearest bus.

Created by developers on the prestigious campus, a free app called Tiramisu will show students and other commuters where the nearest bus or light rail vehicle is. An estimated arrival time is listed on the application, based only partly on the route’s “historical data,” according to a Carnegie announcement.

The app differs from other bus-route applications because it uses a crowdsourcing approach, using real-time reports entered by riders as the vehicle moves from stop to stop.

When the rider boards the bus, she can tap a button on her iPhone and indicate how full the vehicle is, and allowing the smart phone to share a GPS signal with the Tiramisu server.

Knowing how much room is available for a wheelchair will prove valuable to students with disabilities, but being able to track bus locations will appeal to anyone who frequents public transit, said Aaron Steinfeld, a senior systems scientist in the university’s Robotics Institute whose expertise is in transportation technologies.

“The beauty of Tiramisu is that it provides information that is valuable not just for people with disabilities, but for every rider. This universal design approach helps everyone,” said Steinfeld, adding that the app could also become a favorite of local store owners. “It can even benefit non-riders, such as local shops, because riders will know if they have time to go into a store.”

Major cities have long used GPS systems to track buses as the circle busy route, Steinfeld said, but for small municipalities like Allegheny County—home of Carnegie Mellon—a tough economy doesn’t leave much room for pricey technological innovations.

“While better funded transit systems, such as those in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco, can afford to make GPS-based information available to riders in real-time, the Allegheny County system is under tremendous budget pressure,” Steinfeld said. “Under such circumstances, a free, crowdsourced system such as Tiramisu offers an important alternative.”

Carnegie Mellon, in an announcement unveiling Tiramisu, said the application could soon be available for Android-based smart phones.

The Tiramisu app is among the first projects undertaken by the university’s Traffic 21 initiative, formed in partnership with the Hillman Foundation, a grant-making nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh.

There are myriad bus-route applications available for college students making their way across campus or back to off-campus housing. One of those apps, RouteShout, is used by students and faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, among other campuses.

The free app, which uses GPS to find the closest bus stop, doesn’t only rely on the tracking technology. When GPS is interrupted by tall buildings, for example, customers can use a magnifying glass icon to track down the nearest stop.

Northwestern University announced in February that its mobile application for iPhones and Android phones would include “shuttle bus route maps, scheduled stop times, and, for shuttles that are in service, real-time bus locations along the route.”

More than 12,000 people have used the mobile app, according to the university.

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