“Vanishing buses”: Which transit apps to use in Chapel Hill

Five minutes. Three minutes. One minute. Due.

Not a bus in sight.

When you look back down at the phone that just lied to you, it says the bus won’t come for another hour.

In Chapel Hill, your bus may be more prone to “vanish” like this depending on how you get your schedule.

If you frequently travel on Chapel Hill Transit, odds are you use one of a few different apps. NextBus, TransLoc, Google Maps, and Apple Maps, among a few others, all provide bus schedules for the Chapel Hill area, but they are not equally accurate.

UNC-Chapel Hill student Lindsey Pegram discovered that fact when she was headed to an aerial silks class in Carrboro one chilly evening and opened Google Maps to find the best bus route.

“The app routed the best way to get there and said the bus was five minutes away,” she said, “I waited at the stop and the bus never came.”

“I will definitely use the Rider app in the future,” Pegram said.

TransLoc Rider is recommended by UNC-CH’s Transportation and Parking website, so it should be a much better choice.

But what separates it from Google Maps?

Brian Litchfield, director of Chapel Hill Transit, says that they are directly partnered with both TransLoc and NextBus.

This means that these two services can use GPS to track buses live and estimate arrival times, according to Chapel Hill Transit’s website.

“They are making predictions based on what the bus has done on the route like thousands and thousands of other times,” Litchfield said.

For example, a bus’s GPS indicates it has just arrived at point A. Partnered apps will look back on data from thousands of prior trips along that route, average it out, and give the phone of someone at point B an estimated arrival time.

Other apps are not guaranteed to be this accurate.

Google Maps and apps not partnered with Chapel Hill Transit use a different system. They are sent schedule updates through a General Transit Feed Specification, or GTFS, a form of public transit data that many applications can read, according to GTFS.org.

These apps can update their information whenever there is a schedule change but, Litchfield said, “some do not access the updates as often as others.

This can lead to our “vanishing” bus phenomena.

For instance, without being updated, a GTFS app might give you the arrival time of bus that ran in the summer but does not in the fall.

Some users still find Google Maps to be reliable.

UNC-CH student Riya Anand said, “Google Maps is actually the only thing I use for buses. Other than once or twice, it’s actually pretty accurate for me.”

Litchfield said that Google Maps has improved a lot over the past two years and that he imagines it will eventually be as accurate as NextBus or TransLoc.

It should be noted that Google Maps is not measurably better or worse than Apple Maps or any other application. It is simply one of the most widely used GTFS-based programs and, therefore, the example used in this story.

Google was contacted for comment but no response has been received.