Frank LaNasa, a daily Baton Rouge bus rider, was thrilled two years ago when the Capital Area Transit System rolled out its GPS software, designed to give riders live updates of bus locations on their smartphones.
“It made my life,” LaNasa said of his first impression. “Before, you used to have to go online and go to a website, look up the schedule and just hope the bus was coming on that schedule.”
The promise of real-time bus updates meant LaNasa and other riders with smartphones could save precious minutes they were wasting languishing at bus stops.
Two years later, however, CATS has yet to deliver on its promise, LaNasa said. The service, which was among the many promises made by CATS in its 2012 sales pitch for the dedicated property tax, has been taken offline a handful of times over the past several months for updates and “tweaking” and still seems to fall short of its promise of real-time accuracy.
Baton Rouge Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who this past week called for the CEO’s resignation, cited the ineffective GPS bus tracking as one of the failures of CATS management.
For his part, CATS CEO Bob Mirabito stands by the technology. His own estimation is that it works “95 percent of the time.” He said the reason people don’t think it works is because it’s not user-friendly and customers don’t understand the technology.
The technology is multi-pronged.
The cellphone app is called Route Shout, which is supposed to tell riders how many minutes away their bus is from their stops. The website is called CATS TRAX and allows customers to see on a map where the bus is on a particular route. Both are provided by the company RouteMatch. The contract for the technology was valued at $1.4 million.
When the software was unveiled in a press conference in early 2013, CATS management said it would be accurate up to 15 seconds, a claim Mirabito has backed away from. He now claims it’s actually accurate within two minutes, which he contends is reasonable.
However, tests of the cellphone app by a reporter on a recent Friday showed the times listed for when a bus would arrive often jumped around and were inaccurate until a couple minutes before the bus arrived.
Oftentimes, the app said the bus was arriving at a stop, but the bus did not show up until several minutes later.
LaNasa, who uses an iPhone 6 to track the buses, said he doesn’t understand how CATS can claim the technology is any way connected to real time.
“The other morning, the GPS said the bus picked me up, but not only did the bus never come, it took a wrong turn because the driver went the wrong way,” LaNasa said. “If I’m sitting in a coffee shop and it says my bus is on its way, and I look out the window and the bus has already left, then that defeats the whole purpose.”
Marcelle, who has many CATS riders in her district, said she received many complaints about software. While the software was purchased by former CEO Brian Marshall, Marcelle said she questions why Mirabito didn’t reverse course while he still had the chance.
“He had time,” Marcelle said. “Now, we’ve paid them for a system that’s not working.”
Before he left CATS, Marshall had stated he was in the process of pulling RouteMatch’s performance bond for not delivering the GPS services as contracted. However, he resigned amid criticism of his performance before he could finish the job.
Mirabito said sometimes the tracking isn’t accurate because bus drivers aren’t logged into the system. But he said a recent customer satisfaction survey suggested most of CATS riders don’t use the app anyway, which has deterred him from upgrading the technology.
He said a new phone app could cost about $50,000, which would be an expensive investment if the majority of his riders don’t have smartphones.
“I’m satisfied with what we’ve done to make it work,” Mirabito said. “Am I satisfied that it’s customer friendly? No. But we have limited resources, and I’ve got to buy other things that are taking priority.”
One factor that could motivate him to upgrade the technology is if it would help CATS secure the LSU contract. CATS lost its 30-year contract to provide LSU bus services in 2009, after students complained about customer service. The loss of the service has cost CATS about $2.4 million a year.
LSU signed with First Transit for bus services, and students have said they are particularly pleased with the private company’s easy-to-use phone app, TransLoc.
“If in fact we’re awarded the LSU contract, that might be justification to spend $50,000,” Mirabito said.
Mirabito said the agency will review all of its technology issues in the coming weeks and, at that point, it could discuss issues with the GPS software. However, he noted, the bus tracking is only one part of several technology services provided by RouteMatch, which include electronic passenger counting and digital displays and audio announcements for the bus stops.
“RouteMatch is not a stand alone system, so it’s got to work with everything else,” Mirabito said. “Let’s just not rush into throwing it all out.”