Timed Travel: Amateur transit spotter tries to fill PAT's real-time information void | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Timed Travel: Amateur transit spotter tries to fill PAT's real-time information void

"From a macro perspective, what [Andrew] is doing is very valuable"

click to enlarge Amateur transit-spotter tries to fill PAT's real-time information void
Photo by Renee Rosensteel
Andrew updates the @PGH_BUS_INFO Twitter feed

Andrew's idea of prime Downtown real estate is a crowded rush-hour bus stop. It doesn't have much of a view, and every few minutes a bus belching diesel fumes roars past. But he's too busy to let any of that bother him.

"It's a really good spot for transit-spotting," he says, his face buried in a pristine white iPhone 5s.

Settled into a green fold-up captain's chair at Fifth Avenue and William Penn Place, he cranes his neck to watch a 71D Hamilton pull away across the street.

"There are people who mock me for the chair, but if you're at a bus stop, and it's hot, you want a seat," he says. His fingers race across his phone, which tells him the bus is running six minutes late.

He pauses, unsure if it's worth inputting the 71D's tardiness into Tiramisu, an app that lets riders track buses with information gathered from other users. Buses often run behind schedule during rush hour, and six minutes isn't that late. But as he's done thousands of times before, Andrew decides more information is better than less, and plugs the update in.

It hardly seems like subversive activity, but Andrew requested that his last name be withheld from this story due to tensions with the Port Authority and "unforeseen repercussions [from] people who don't like the service." The agency has claimed that at times his "customer service" has bordered on impersonating transit workers.

Nevertheless, for the past decade, Andrew, now 26, has spent much of his day tweeting and answering phone calls about basic scheduling information and service disruptions. He doesn't have another job — he uses the public assistance he gets to take care of Internet and phone costs, but he's quick to point out his lifestyle is hardly lavish: He lives in subsidized housing in Penn Hills and often doesn't have enough money to even afford a monthly bus pass.

The information he provides is the center of "Mobile Bus Information Hotline" — an all-purpose phone number (412-759-3335) and Twitter account (@PGH_BUS_INFO) that he runs after the evening rush into the early morning hours when Port Authority's own customer-service center is typically shut down.

Port Authority has lagged behind larger transit agencies in providing real-time information about delays and other disruptions. "There's definitely a demand for it," Andrew says, proudly adding that he's fielded roughly 30,000 calls; as of press time, his account had sent out nearly 24,000 tweets and had 924 followers.

But technological changes at Port Authority could force Andrew to change the focus of his operation. The agency has installed an automated phone system that gives out scheduling information during off hours. And by year's end, Port Authority plans to completely launch real-time tracking — allowing anyone with an Internet connection to track Port Authority's 700-bus fleet.

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