Tommy Wells, the D.C. Councils top transit booster, checks his iPhone transit app.s top transit booster, checks his iPhone transit app. Credit: Photo by Michael E. Grass

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Think fast!

You’re about to step into the Dupont Circle FreshFarm market. But there’s little time to pick up salad greens, tomatoes and locally sourced mozzarella. According to the bus schedule app on your cellphone, the ride to your apartment is scheduled to depart 20th and P streets NW in five minutes. You figure that leaves about four minutes to buy produce. That’s a mere 240 seconds.

What do you do? Pick up food? Go to the bus stop? Can you do both and still make the bus?

This is me two Sundays ago. Indecisive, I begin to trot through the market. I’m looking for a relatively empty vendor so I can grab, pay, and go. No such luck. And now, as I walk past the guy selling probiotic yogurt drinks, I can see my bus cruising along Q Street. It’s pulling into its terminal stop at Connecticut Avenue, where it will idle before heading back around to P Street for the return trip to Glover Park.

I quickly do some mental math to complement the information from my phone. From experience, I know the bus typically idles for a couple minutes before commencing its return trip. This more or less backs up what the app is telling me: three minutes until my bus hits 20th and P.

I figure I can walk toward the stop and maybe grab some produce from the vendors along that stretch of the market. But as I’m strolling—my, that heirloom tomato looks juicy!—I become nervous about missing my bus. If I miss it, I’ll have to wait at least 15 minutes for the next one, probably longer. And I want to keep to the schedule I’ve sketched out for my day, which includes taking a two-hour nap.

I check again. Two minutes left. Screw this. My reusable bag is leaving the market empty.

At the bus shelter, it starts drizzling. My phone comes out again. But before I check my Weather Channel app, I check the D2 bus’ status: just one minute until arrival. I hit refresh. “Arriving” flashes on the screen.

But then a minute goes by. No D2. I check again: 16 minutes, the app announces. Sixteen? Is that a mistake? Maybe the bus just hasn’t left its idling spot on Q Street? Should I walk over there and check? Do I have time to dash back in the market to grab the salad greens after all? Or should I stay put, just in case the D2 magically appears?

So I wait and fume.

After about 15 minutes—and four NextBus checks—the bus pulls up. Glory be! I go home to my nap, but not to my fresh salad.

This is our marvelous, technologically enabled transit future, where the unpredictable huffing and puffing of yesteryear’s city bus is corralled into a helpful program that will maximize commuting efficiency, minimize transit-stop waiting, and slash the uncertainty that surrounds getting from one place to another. As I come home to a produce-free refrigerator, it doesn’t feel so magical.

Even if the predictive technology had worked perfectly, I’d still have spent vast chunks of my Sunday afternoon puzzling over bus timing, possible traffic jams, and the relative merits of immediate vegetable purchases versus delayed naps. Where I might have enjoyed a leisurely, somewhat inefficient Sunday, I had instead fallen into the App Trap.

And, as it happens, I’m not alone. From suburban car commuters OCD’ing on up-to-the-second traffic info at TBD.com to Metro riders staring up at the nearest arrival-time information display, we’ve become a region of logistics obsessives. Once the stuff of folk wisdom and secret shortcuts, the morning commute is now suffused with real-time data to be checked—and re-checked, and worried over, and second-guessed, and then discussed around the office water cooler a few hours later. For a hassle-free future, it’s awfully stressful.

A decade ago, my trip to the farmers’ market would have been a lot simpler. For bus commuters, there was no NextBus, the GPS-enabled bus arrival predictor that I check like a mercurial loon. Drivers had no Google Traffic to track roadway congestion. Metrorail’s brown message boards weren’t yet displaying train-arrival predictions.

Instead, for transit riders, there was just this: Schedules. You took them home and put them on the freezer door. Maybe you checked the details before heading to the stop, maybe not. Savvy Metrorail passengers might know that, say, Blue Line trains come every 12 minutes on Saturday afternoons. But to others, trains were just like buses: They came when they came, perhaps on schedule, perhaps not. The only advance warning you got was via those flashing platform lights that once dazzled tourists.

Things started to change after 2000, when Metrorail introduced the Personal Information Display System (PIDS) message boards. In January 2005, the PIDS were reconfigured to display the next three trains at the same time. It all seemed very convenient—here was some useful information about your ride.

Studies have found that arrival predictions make customers think transit service has improved, even if it hasn’t. London’s transit agency found that for one bus line where arrival predictions were tested, 65 percent of those interviewed “felt like they waited for a shorter period of time when [the] Countdown [system] was present, with the perceived waiting time dropping from 11.9 to 8.6 min,” according to a report from the Transportation Research Board.

Additionally, 64 percent thought service had improved, despite the fact that “service reliability had actually decreased since the signs were deployed.”

No wonder Metro has made more and more of its information available online. Today, with NextBus and similar schedule apps, you can sync your life to public transit. In an ideal world, this means you can minimize wait times at bus stops, work in quick errands to optimize time, and decide to transfer on the fly, depending on where the buses are. (As I ride my D2 from Glover Park toward Dupont Circle most mornings, NextBus helps me decide whether I should transfer to either the 42 or the L2, both of which drop me near Washington City Paper’s Adams Morgan offices.)

Before NextBus, I memorized bus timetables for the routes that I used most often. It was a fun party trick: I was the guy who would boldly—and accurately—predict when the next bus would arrive. Now, my special powers have been replaced by a smarter machine. And, in a lot of ways, it’s terrific. The availability of information has abetted my car-free life. It’s made me more efficient. And it’s allowed me to be impulsive in the face of a new logistical variable: The D2 won’t come for 15 minutes, but the N6, arriving in five, will get me within a 10-minute walk of my apartment. So it’s no surprise that nationally, transit applications like NextBus have become steadily more popular.

But even as real-time information can feel liberating, it can also feel enervating. On Metrorail platforms—where locals often only see the PIDS information once they’ve gone through a station faregate—the data can just as easily take the form of a taunt to long-suffering riders, who complain about the bad news that gets displayed.

Take this tart comment from one of Dr. Gridlock’s washingtonpost.com readers in a March online chat. “Has Metro started to take trains off the early morning schedule?” the reader asked. “I arrived at Union Station this morning at 6:30 and the next three trains westbound were 10, 16, and 19 minutes apart. This hasn’t happened when I arrived at Union Station at that time.” Had there been no PIDS sign, there might have been no gripe.

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As I learned at the farmers’ market, the information itself can also be flawed. NextBus is only 78 percent accurate, according to Metro data on its reliability released in May. That’s probably not good enough to reliably sync your personal timeclock to—even if it’s better than simply going by a printed bus schedule that may or may not have been updated in the months since you snatched it from that rack in a Metrorail station.

The telling thing about real-time transit culture, though, isn’t that the technology still fails us. It’s that we spend so much time talking about it.

Witness the occasional growls of Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, the council’s biggest supporter of public transit and smart growth. His Twitter feed is peppered with NextBus observations. Here he is on Sept. 28: “Nextbus says the 34 bus is here. Not true.” And here, two days later, on Sept. 30: “Nextbus worked this AM. Made me run.” Wells explained to me that after the app informed him that the bus was on its way, he sprinted to the stop, and found that his ride was, indeed, approaching.

It’s a strange sort of trade-off. On the one hand, there’s technology that is supposed to make urban life more efficient. On the other, both its successes and its failures tend to make us gripe. If the point of all of this to make transit as hassle-free as walking—and as therefore as unworthy of commentary—then something’s going wrong.

What I can’t figure out, though, is whether that something is the technology, or us.

D.C.’s first popular cellphone-based transit-arrival prediction tool ran off of a cheap Nokia cellphone with a cracked screen in Tom Lee’s apartment in Shaw. In late 2005, Lee took published train schedules from Metro’s RideGuide and plugged them into a text-based SMS service. You could text in a station name, and in Lee’s apartment, the crappy cellphone would spit back the scheduled arrival time.

Lee released his system, dubbed Last Call, in December 2005, as part of a public service from DCist.com. Soon, Lee could sit at home on a Saturday night and see the crappy cellphone flash every time somebody texted Last Call for information—hundreds of requests over the course of the average weekend. (Disclosure: I co-founded DCist in 2004.)

To abet his own commuting, Lee, a Web developer, connected his system to a picture frame whose display board had red, yellow and green lights. A green light meant there was enough time before the next train for him to walk from his apartment to the Mount Vernon Square Metrorail station “at a comfortable pace.” Yellow indicated that time was running out to make the next train. Red meant the opportunity to catch the next train had passed. Among Lee’s other transit technical experiments: dissolving a SmarTrip card in acetone to examine its RFID chip, all documenting it step by step on DCist.

Why go to all the trouble? Mainly, to not waste time—especially when you’re trying to get home from the bar. “Bars were opening in parts of the city that I wanted to visit, like Wonderland” in Columbia Heights, Lee says. “But it was difficult to get back. Nobody wants to wait 20 minutes on a Metro platform.”

Alas, Last Call was unstable, its information imprecise and error prone. Last Call was dead within a few months; today’s technology makes SMS-based transit information look about as modern as a telegraph. But it was clear that the delivery of transit information was a public good worth fighting for. Over the next few years, activists lobbied Metro to release more of its transit data. Among the results: NextBus-enabled cellphone apps. “All of these efforts are part of making the city an extension of your central nervous system,” Lee says.

The technology is still advancing. This past June, Metro announced it was creating a larger application programming interface (API) to allow third-party developers, including Google, to tap a broader offering of transit information, including train-arrival predictions, bus locations, and elevator and other service disruptions. One local Web design shop, nclud, recently posted a video of one of its experiments, a snazzier version of Lee’s train-predicting picture frame. Displayed in nclud’s office on Florida Avenue NW are train arrival predictions and estimated walk times to the three closest Metrorail stations.

So it’s a pretty good bet that, before long, even bigger brains are going to come up with even more accurate systems to tell me just when I should walk away from the tomato vendor and catch the D2. But I suspect it will be a while before anyone reaches Lee’s goal of turning the infrastructure of the city—the streets and trains and buses and elevators—into something we trust as much as we trust the nerve endings that tell us when it’s getting colder, or we need to pee, or we’ve just dropped a rock on our foot. The more information there is, the more checking we’ll get to do. And the more checking we do, the more we look like mildly compulsive seventh-graders instead of efficient urbanites.

Wells, for all his occasional unhappiness over erroneous bus predictions, may well be D.C.’s greatest proponent of our cloud-enabled transit future. “It means I can have an extra cup of coffee if I know the bus is 17 minutes away,” says the councilmember, who lives on Capitol Hill and usually bikes or takes transit to his office in the Wilson Building downtown.

During a rainy commute this past Monday, Wells shows up at the corner of 4th Street SE and Pennsylvania Avenue with a bright multi-colored umbrella in one hand and his iPhone in another. He quickly checks the app’s transit predictions, which indicate that the next bus won’t arrive for another seven minutes. He does a quick cost-benefit analysis and decides it’s better to take Metrorail from Eastern Market to Federal Triangle.

Wells’ cloud-commuting doesn’t end with WMATA. He’s recently started using his phone to access the Capital Bikeshare program, which has bike docks scattered across the city. “I have two apps that show me where the bikes are and if there are empty docks” available, he says. When I ask him if he ever checks Google Transit to see if there’s any significant congestion on Independence Avenue before he hops a bus to work, his eyes brighten—I’d just given him a new transit tip. “I’m just fascinated.”

It all fits Wells’ idea of a livable city. “It’s part of the lifestyle that people are choosing when they’re moving into the city,” he says.

Of course, the digital divide over transit apps still remains, cutting along both generational and class lines. All the same, recent data from Nielsen notes that apps for navigation and mapping are among the most popular out there, along with those for news, weather and gaming.

The local media, at any rate, has gone all-in. The Washington Post’s Express newspaper—where I once blogged about transit issues—released its D.C. Rider mobile tool this summer. The Post’s new local rival, TBD.com, debuted in August by showing off a savvy transportation app of its own.

But is it actually helpful, if you’re stuck on the Orange Line near Clarendon, to know there’s a malfunctioning train at Farragut West? Metro users often complain about a lack of communication coming from the agency in such situations. Knowing why things are jammed can relieve some amount of stress. All the same, no magic transit app can actually get the trains moving again. All it does is put another piece of information into our brains—brains that could otherwise be occupied with reading a book in a stuck subway car, or, for that matter, stewing over an unexplained delay.

Having options and weighing variables on the fly can create stress or eliminate it. It depends on the person.

So let’s do the counterfactual. How would my day at the farmers’ market have gone if I’d had nothing to plan with except a printed bus schedule? Assuming it didn’t rain any harder than a light sprinkle, I would have spent more time at the market, gotten all my salad fixings, and probably would have picked up something I didn’t set out to buy. That’s half the fun of a lazy Sunday at the market. But for whatever reason, making efficient use of transit was more important to me than passing another 20 minutes amid the tomatoes and arugula. The immediate availability of the information clouded my abilities to think rationally about the choices available.

Which is all just to say: Even in an information-saturated world, the unexpected happens. Or so I was informed on another Sunday, not in so many words, at that same P Street bus stop. I was en route home from a weekend in New York. As usual, I’d whipped out my phone right around the time my Amtrak train passed the Washington Times building. Should I brave Union Station’s wretched taxicab queue? Or was there a way to take the Red Line to Dupont without having to wait too terribly long for my transfer to the D2?

The apps said there was. And, 78 percent of the time, there might have been. But this was one of the other 22 percent. So I found myself at the bus shelter at 20th and P, next to an old duffer in a Navy cap. “Have you seen the G2?” he asked. It was the sort of question that was once commonplace at D.C. bus stops. I pulled out my phone for a prediction.

“It should be coming in 31 minutes,” I said, pointing to my phone.

“It should be coming right about now,” he replied. “I know the schedule.”

Pointing to my phone again, I said: “Sometimes, this thing lies.”

Within 30 seconds, the G2 pulled up to 20th and P. As the man stepped up to the curb to board the bus, he turned around to me and smiled: “I’m glad your phone lies to you.”

I suspect his commute was a happier one than mine.