One of Seattle’s least-known secrets is a magical app for your phone.
It can make you more efficient, reduce stress, give you more time, save you money and help the environment.
Best of all, it’s free.
You don’t even need an expensive smartphone or one of those wireless plans that cost as much as a car payment.
I’m talking about OneBusAway, an app that tells people when their bus is arriving. It started in 2006 as the side project of a University of Washington student and grew into a transit app platform used by software developers, researchers, transit agencies and 50,000 commuters a week.
Brian Ferris, a computer-science graduate student from the Tri-Cities, began hacking it together in 2006 after getting frustrated by the spotty arrival times of the Metro Route 44 bus he’d take sometimes when he missed the 46 commuter route from Ballard to the UW.
This was before the iPhone and the frenzy around mobile apps. Ferris thought you should be able to use a phone any time to find out when the next bus arrives.
With a collection of free software and services, he built a system that lets people with any kind of phone dial 206-456-0609, enter a stop number and get the estimated arrival time.
Ferris kept at it, often writing code on buses. He built fancier versions that blend with Google Maps and run on the iPhone, and collaborators built apps for Android devices and Windows phones.
At the end of 2008, Ferris persuaded academic advisers to let him make this his full-time project, instead of a Wi-Fi location technology he had been pursuing.
Among the research published since was a 2010 paper by Ferris, civil-engineering student Kari Edison Watkins and Professor Alan Borning that found using OneBusAway made riders feel safer and less stressed. They spend less time waiting, ride more frequently and are more satisfied with transit in general.
Ferris, 30, said they also observed that people’s sense of time changes when uncertainty about their bus is removed. A 5-minute wait can seem like 10 if you don’t know for sure when the bus is coming. If you know it’s coming in 10 minutes, the time can seem like it’s going by faster, he said.
Knowing when the bus is coming also can make people more productive, because they can do something instead of just waiting. Ferris has favorite places he visits — coffee shops and bookstores — when the system tells him he has extra wait time.
OneBusAway gets about 27,000 unique visitors a week who are using iPhones, 18,000 from Android devices and 18,000 from the Web.
Only about 2,000 weekly visits come from the dial-in service, which is surprising since most people don’t own a smartphone. About 31 percent of the population had smartphones as of December, according to Nielsen research.
Ferris said people with basic phones probably aren’t aware of the service.
The trickiest part of the dial-in system is finding the number of a bus stop.
It’s a five-digit number printed at the top of posted schedules or painted on covered stops. But schedules sometimes are missing or the number is obscured.
Ferris has tried to persuade King County to change the way the number is displayed. He rode his bike to 800 stops in the south end of Seattle last summer, discreetly applying vinyl stickers displaying each stop number.
You also can enter your location or a route number by punching through the phone menu. The system remembers your number and can bookmark regular stops.
Arrival information isn’t exact. Accuracy depends on information provided by the bus system.
OneBusAway works with Metro Transit, Pierce Transit, Sound Transit and Community Transit.
King County uses an older system that calculates arrival times as buses pass certain points along their route. This information is sent over bus radios to Metro.
Several earlier UW projects exposed this location information over phones and the Web, and Ferris built on top of their work.
Metro is upgrading bus radios and adding new location-tracking technology, including GPS. It intends to give developers like Ferris access to data from the new system after it’s fully installed in 2012.
Transportation apps are hot nowadays.
Search giants, app developers and transit agencies are working on new tools for mapping and tracking different means of transport, drawing on government’s newfound enthusiasm for sharing streams of data such as bus locations.
Metro holds workshops for app developers, about 100 of whom have asked for access to its data.
It’s all part of an explosion of creativity ignited by mobile devices and fast wireless networks.
But what’s refreshing about OneBusAway is that it’s a pure service, created simply to make life better for commuters of all stripes. It’s not trying to sell you anything, ping your friends, track your whereabouts, deduce your buying patterns or point you toward a nearby store.
It just tells you when the next bus is coming, so you don’t have to stare down the road, wondering and hoping.
Bus ridership is growing. Metro provided an average 375,000 rider trips per weekday last month, up 3.5 percent from a year ago.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s outrageous combination of tunnel, bridge and viaduct projects, road diets and other construction is making bus schedules elastic and tracking systems more important than ever.
The timing couldn’t be worse, but now the future of OneBusAway is in limbo.
Ferris will finish his Ph.D. next month then work for Google at its Zurich, Switzerland, office, with a team that works on transit and direction services.
Local supporters are looking for ways to keep the project going. King County is talking to companies about contracts to support and extend the project.
At the UW, Borning hopes to raise enough money from transit agencies and others to hire a part-time developer to maintain the system.
“An extremely high priority is to make sure it keeps running — we need to figure it out,” Borning said.
In a way, the project will continue in Zurich, where Ferris hopes to keep working on it while building more tools to help people find and use all kinds of transportation.
“My goal,” he said, “is to go to Google and do this worldwide.”