New smart phone program to help track buses


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Standing in the snow, gloved hands shoved into jacket pockets, staring hopelessly down the bus-less road — that may soon be a distant memory for local bus riders.

Iowa City Transit, Coralville Transit & Parking, and Cambus have partnered to launch the Bus on the Go system, a GPS tracking system patrons will be able to access via their smart phones. Local officials hope to launch the service on Dec. 1.

"We live in Iowa and have extreme weather patterns," said Lance Bolton, the University of Iowa Information Technology Services manager of application support. "Let's say in the winter, it is one of those icy days. The two most important pieces of information are: Are the buses running? And did I miss it? This system will clearly help with that."

ITS began investigating GPS options for the university and quickly decided working with all three groups was important to achieve the best results.

"We are a pretty small community, a lot of people ride Iowa City and Coralville transit," Bolton said. "To do one without doing all three didn't really make a lot of sense."

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Users will be able to use their phones to access a mobile website with constantly updated information on bus locations and routes, receive text messages when a bus is nearing a certain stop, as well as call an automated help line to locate the nearest bus, said Romy Bolton, the project lead.

The project designers emphasized universal compatibility as an important factor.

"The mobile website was an important starting point because it is technologically agnostic," Lance Bolton said. "We could create an iPhone app first, but then all the Android and BlackBerry users wouldn't be able to use it."

But the new system and hardware does not come at a low price. The three entities pay yearly for the service, which comes from a California-based company NextBus. Cambus has the largest fleet of 37, with a yearly cost of roughly $50,000, while Iowa City's fleet of 27 will cost $37,000, and Coralville's fleet of 10 will cost $13,000.

Other colleges and towns have teamed up with NextBus' GPS system such as San Francisco, Oklahoma City, and Texas State University.

"I think we are already getting useful information out if it," said Paul Hamilton, the manager of shuttle system at Texas State University, whose NextBus system went live on Aug. 25. "If you have drivers who are off route or bunching up, not only can our passengers see it, but we can see it."

Members of the Iowa City community also said they are excited about the impending launch.
"I think it will help a lot of people especially with inclement weather," said Iowa City resident Mark Hanson. "Not having to stand outside and catch frostbite in the Iowa winter."

But creators are stressing the website is only the beginning.

Some buses will be outfitted with WiFi, as well as the possibility of creating specific applications, such as a trip planning app, Lance Bolton said.

"We are really hoping it is a differentiator for students looking to come to Iowa City," he said.

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