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New vehicle-tracking system will let TTC riders judge whether it's worth the wait


September 8, 2008

Almost everyone who rides public transit in Toronto, or anywhere, has experienced the rising tension of peering in vain down the street for an approaching bus or streetcar, knowing the longer you wait, the longer it will have taken you to get home if you eventually give up and hail a cab.

Psychologists, apparently, have a term for it: the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern effect,” named for the Tom Stoppard play about two minor characters in Hamlet, who, essentially, do a lot of waiting around. It is also called an “approach-avoidance conflict,” meaning something we are attracted to as a means to achieve a goal and also repelled by because it simultaneously appears to hinder our ability to achieve that goal.

Now, after waiting around and talking about it for years, the Toronto Transit Commission has finally signed a $9.9-million contract with Toronto-based technology firm Grey Island Systems Inc. to try to alleviate these psychological quirks at TTC stops. The company, which owns the U.S.-based NextBus system used in more than 40 cities, collects global-positioning satellite information and forces it through a predictive algorithm that churns out expected arrival times for buses and streetcars to electronic signs at stops and stations or even to your BlackBerry or cellphone.

Once a local family start-up that developed software to track ambulances, the now public Grey Island firm has 85 employees - including former TTC chairman Paul Christie as a director - and has been growing rapidly.

InterFleet, its fleet-tracking system used in various cities, traces everything from armoured cars to every detail about New York City garbage trucks, even remotely checking their oil, gas mileage, amount of coolant and whether their unionized drivers are taking extended breaks. (Billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has even used the system to track the cars of his two daughters for security reasons, company executives said.)

Grey Island, which has revenue of about $20-million a year, has been sniffing around the TTC ever since buying out NextBus in 2005. (Toronto, in fact, already uses Grey Island’s GPS vehicle-tracking system to monitor the movements of its contracted-out snowplows and salt trucks. The TTC already uses it to watch a small fleet of armoured cash trucks.)

Work on the new TTC system, which is just about to begin, will start slowly with a pilot project on selected streetcar routes, said Grey Island executive vice-president Brian Boychuk. (A similar but separate system for subways will launch sooner.)

Obviously, knowing how long it will be before the bus or streetcar arrives will give waiting passengers more control over their lives, letting them know whether they have time to grab a coffee, or whatever. The company says that in other cities, riders are even developing their own widgets for their computers or iPhones that pop up and remind them when their bus is due at the end of the day.

The new system may also help transform the TTC, which, to most riders, seemingly gave up trying to adhere to any sort of set schedule for its surface vehicles years ago. All of this minute-by-minute satellite tracking will lay bare, in mountains of easy-to-access data, not just how often buses and streetcars are supposed to come but how often they actually do come, down to the smallest route. It could get interesting.

“It really sheds a light,” Mr. Boychuk said. “… Your ridership will let you know if there’s a problem.”