On WMATA's RFP for real-time signs

In early March, WMATA released an RFP for "Customer Information Electronic Display Signs"—in other words, real-time passenger information for bus stops and Metrorail stations.


  1. Unlike WMATA's failed "Metro Channel" initiative, which was to be ad-supported, WMATA is funding this venture on its own.  The requirements are fairly simple: LCD displays, with wireless or wired connectivity, and the ability to display predicted and scheduled bus arrivals, along with service messages.
  2. Arlington County's Mobility Lab has been working on a project to develop a real-time passenger information system which is based on the use of open-source software and inexpensive, commodity hardware.  Compared to conventional passenger information systems, the signs are cheaper, more flexible, and don't run the risk of long-term vendor lock-in.
  3. MTA New York City Transit's BusTime provides real-time information for the buses on Staten Island (and, soon, the rest of the city) using the open-source package OneBusAway, with customizations developed by OpenPlans and Cambridge Systematics.  As with the Mobility Lab's real-time signs, because the underlying software is open-source, the agency can make changes without having to submit costly change orders to a vendor—and, more importantly, they're not tied to that vendor.  Because everyone has access to the source code, anyone can continue development of the software, not just the original developers.

    Not only is OneBusAway open-source (and thus free for agencies to acquire and use), it's also a lot better than some of the competition.  The conventional wisdom on open-source software—that it lacks support, is unreliable, missing features, etc.—is not borne out by MTA NYCT's experience.  On the contrary, BusTime delivers substantial value not just for the riders of New York City's buses, but for transit riders everywhere.  How?  The improvements to OneBusAway that OpenPlans and Cambridge Systematics developed for New York City will be contributed back to the open-source project, allowing other transit systems to benefit (including smaller systems that could never afford conventional passenger information systems).

    I wouldn't necessarily say that BusTime is groundbreaking, but it is certainly one of the most substantial uses of open-source software in transit that I'm aware of.  WMATA casts Metrorail as "America's Subway"—a system that is meant to be a standard-bearer for mass transit in this country.  The system has been failing miserably in that role for the better part of a decade, but with Metro Forward, the agency is trying to turn things around.

    As part of Metro Forward, WMATA should make a commitment to technological excellence, and part of that should include breaking away from the usual routine of squandering riders' dollars on IT vendors who will, inevitably, overpromise and underdeliver.

    True technological excellence includes avoiding vendor lock-in and building open, standards-compliant systems; one of the best ways to achieve this is to use open-source software, as the MTA did.  In the end, bus passengers in the region may not know what software powers the sign at their bus stop, but that should not stop us from demanding that WMATA make prudent decisions when investing riders' money in IT projects.