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Muni ready to retire NextBus prediction system

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is preparing to get rid of its old NextBus system and upgrade to what transit officials say will be a more robust and accurate system that can inform Muni riders when the next bus or train will arrive.

Muni riders have relied on NextBus, known in San Francisco as NextMuni, either at bus shelters, subway station platforms or on smartphones, but the outdated 2G cellular network technology that supports NextBus has become unreliable and the transit agency is ready to move on.

The SFMTA Board of Directors approved to issue a request for qualifications where contractors can begin submitting bids to the transit agency to become the next system that tells Muni riders the next arrival time for a bus or train.

Jason Lee, the SFMTA project manager for the replacement of NextBus, said technology has changed since 1999 when the SFMTA adopted the system.

Features of a new system will offer alternative routes if one Muni bus is taking more than 15 minutes to arrive. The display could inform riders that another Muni bus line a few blocks away is coming sooner.

In survey by the SFMTA of 5,789 Muni passengers, passengers were given two scenarios.

The first scenario is the current situation where a person arrives at a transit stop and NextBus says the bus is arriving in 20 minutes.

About 24 percent of riders said they would wait for that bus while 21 percent said they would find and take an alternative route on their own or walk to their destination.

But when presented with a second scenario where the display presented a second Muni alternative just three blocks away, 76 percent of Muni passengers said they would walk and take the alternative Muni route.

Part of the replacement of the NextBus system is the installation of new LCD signage, which can allow the transit agency to add more information on the display compared to the current digital display at transit shelters.

Malcolm Heinicke, vice chair of the Board of Directors, said the new options are nice but wanted some assurances that any new system would be accurate:

“I want ensure that as we go forward to a new contract that we’re just not looking for options but were also working to make sure this is a reliable system or as reliable as it can be.”

In the request for bids, the transit agency asks potential bidders to deal with “ghost buses,” which happens when NextBus says a bus is arriving in five minutes, for example, but the bus never arrives.

SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin said the technology has come a long way since the transit agency began using NextBus in 1999 and that algorithms and the technology have vastly improved.

The transit agency expects to award a contract next year and complete the replacement of the existing NextBus system in 2020.

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