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A text-messaging system allowing riders to find out how long they will have to wait for the bus will be rolled out this week. (Sami Siva for The Globe and Mail)
A text-messaging system allowing riders to find out how long they will have to wait for the bus will be rolled out this week. (Sami Siva for The Globe and Mail)

Expanding system used on streetcars, TTC to let riders know when next bus is due Add to ...

There's now less reason for Toronto's bus riders to be jealous of their streetcar-riding comrades.

Starting this week, real-time TTC bus arrival times are available online and by text message. Streetcars, with about 800 stops citywide, have had this service since 2010.

Passengers at the city's 9,300 bus stops - and 800 bus stops in the GTA - will be able to access the service, called the Next Vehicle Arrival System.

The system, which uses GPS to track bus locations, is run through a partnership with NextBus.com. Each stop is assigned a numeric code, which, when sent via text message to the phone number 898882, sends back a text with the arrival times of the next six vehicles scheduled to stop there.

The codes will be affixed to bus stops over the next year, and in the meantime will be available on the TTC website. The service is currently free, aside from standard carrier text-messaging charges.

The rollout was approved at a commission meeting July 6. A proposal went forward at the meeting to charge for the text-messaging service, but the matter was deferred until the next meeting in September to have sufficient time to gauge public support.

That proposal, put forward by city staff but deferred by commissioners, would allow the first two texts to be free in a 24-hour period. Each subsequent text would cost 15 cents. Without this charge, the cost of running the system would be anywhere from $500,000 to $1.2-million, TTC spokesman Brad Ross said. By adding the charge, he said, the commission's costs would drop to about $150,000.

"Most people send no more than two a day, so we thought it was reasonable," Mr. Ross told The Globe and Mail.

The commission will spend the next two months looking at other options to defray the costs of the text-message service, including working it into the new advertising contract which was approved last week.

Smartphone users can download third-party apps that take advantage of this information, which is available as open data. Apps such as Next TTC and Rocket Radar have been using the data for streetcar arrivals since last year, and the only cost involved is to purchase the app.

Rune Madsen, who developed Next TTC for iPhone, expects his app's user base to grow beyond the 3,000 people who already use it, now that the amount of stops has increased more than tenfold.

Working with such a huge number of new routes has taken up time and server space, Mr. Madsen said, and he admitted there isn't a lot of money in developing these kinds of apps. But he said it's a worthwhile venture to help frustrated riders make better transit plans.

Making the arrival-time information open data, Mr. Madsen said, only benefits the TTC.

"Open sourcing is definitely the way to go," he said, noting that multiple teams working to create the best app works to consumers' benefit. "It drives innovation."

Mr. Ross said that the bus-arrival data will continue to be made available to developers for free, even if the TTC begins to charge for text messages.

Next-bus information is also provided on LCD screens at five subway stations, as well as bus shelters at Bathurst and Adelaide Streets and Queen Street and Spadina Avenue. The commission intends to expand this to all subway stations.

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