Ghost Buses and How to Combat Them

27/9/23, 9:00 am

Public transport is the lifeblood of urban mobility. Yet, as passengers, we've all faced situations that question the quality and reliability of the solutions promoting themselves on how they’ll “streamline our daily commute”. Many of us have watched the ETA (expected arrival time) of a service countdown from 10 minutes, anticipating the arrival, only for it to jump unexpectedly to 20 minutes, then down to 5, and up again to 14. Such erratic behaviour isn’t just frustrating; it's an indicator of a deeper systemic problem known as the "Ghost Bus" phenomenon.

Unmasking the Ghost Bus

But what exactly is a ghost bus? It's when an advertised bus arrival never really arrives, or buses that, to the passenger, appear to vanish from the ETA system, only to reappear sporadically. Similarly, with the experience of the haunting “long minute” where an ETA appears frozen, stuck in time with the same countdown timer for an extended period. Another case is the missing or disappearing estimated departure times from the first stop on the route, aka the 'deadheading' bus.

The Zombie Connection

Closely related to the ghost bus is its undead counterpart: the “Zombie Bus”. A diversion can result in a bus becoming a zombie – it disappears for a while, and then reappears when it rejoins its original route. Sometimes, due to technical issues or other reasons, a bus might operate without being tracked; turning up unexpectedly, such buses have been endearingly termed “bonus buses” by optimistic commuters.

Root Causes of the Ghosting Phenomenon

Several operational and system-based reasons give rise to ghost buses. From an operational perspective, discrepancies between actual operations and planned trips, unexpected diversions, or incorrect route updates can cause such anomalies. Systematically, the rigidity of scheduling and arrival time prediction systems often take the blame. Some systems become locked for a week or month and resist modifications. When the traffic is unusually high, many systems are unable to predict when the bus will arrive, as their ETAs are not calibrated to consider the present congestion.

In other instances, auto-assignment logic mistakenly allocates an out-of-service vehicle to a particular route and many systems fail to estimate the departure of the vehicle from the first stop on the route, and even worse no estimates are published until the vehicle has started the route, leaving passengers with no ETD at the first stop or only a short countdown.

Identifying the Phantom Problem

Typically, prediction performance metrics exclude the data when there’s no corresponding actual arrival for a predicted one, however these are in fact the ghost buses. By analysing this unmatched data, transport authorities can pinpoint the onset and duration of ghost bus incidents. Heatmaps showcasing ghost buses offer intriguing insights into driver patterns, which, when combined with automated assignments, can pave the way for systemic corrections.

Tackling the Ghost Bus Conundrum

Technological advancements are offering some solutions to these issues. The NEC Smart Mobility Transit Management System for example, includes features allowing adjustments to operational duties in real-time, focusing solely on the current day. This is achieved through integration with dispatch systems, real-time updates, support for management of planned diversions, and accurate future trip ETAs. Moreover, features like Deadhead navigation using the recently released Bus Turn-by-Turn navigation system and one touch driver updates on the NEC MADT (Multi-Application Driver Tablet) allow for drivers to notify the system of route diversions or stop omissions.

Looking Forward

To completely dispel the ghost bus phenomenon, a multifaceted approach is vital. Supporting drivers and operational staff with the right technology can prevent undue assignments leading to ghost buses. Introducing real-time dynamic run-cutting and implementing visualisations to discern driver patterns can be potential game-changers. Recognising ghost buses as a key performance indicator (KPI) will also push authorities to address and reduce these occurrences proactively.

In conclusion, while the enigma of ghost and zombie buses can unsettle any regular commuter, the evolving tech landscape promises a future where public transport is more reliable, efficient, and ghost-free.