Two graduate students seeking a better transit experience invented an app that is used by millions across the U.S.
The OneBusAway icon is at the top of my screen. I can find it the instant I unlock my phone. The app, which uses GPS data to tell transit riders when a bus or train will arrive at any given stop, is an indispensable tool for Seattleites like me who rely on public transportation to get virtually everywhere.
OneBusAway is the brainchild of Brian Ferris, ’06, ’11, and Kari Watkins, ’11, who were pursuing their doctorates at the UW in the mid-aughts, Ferris in computer science and Watkins in civil engineering. Unknown to each other and working in different departments, they nevertheless shared a love of public transit and a desire to make it more usable, accessible and predictable.
They soon found each other and, to the benefit of millions of riders, created OneBusAway. Launched in 2008 and currently operated by the nonprofit Open Transit Software Foundation, the app now serves more than 100,000 riders a day in the Puget Sound region, and millions more worldwide. Transit agencies from New York to Buenos Aires have adopted the open-source code to deploy local versions.
Recently, as I was leaving campus to meet a friend for dinner, I opened OneBusAway and began to strategize. The restaurant was easy to access by bus, and in the transit-dense U District, there were actually three routes that would get me there. The 372 stopped closest to my office, but OneBusAway informed me that I had just missed it, and the next one wouldn’t arrive for 15 minutes. By walking a few blocks west, I could catch the 45, which the app told me was just five minutes away. If I missed that, I’d still have nine minutes to hoof it a few more blocks to catch the 67. I stepped up my pace, arriving in time to catch the 45, which—to my delight—pulled up exactly when OneBusAway had predicted.
“I wanted there to be a tool where I could literally plug in some type of place I wanted to go, like a park, and get a list of places that were just one bus ride away.”
Such a calculation would have been impossible in 2004, when Ferris came to the UW as a graduate student. He planned to study robotics, but as a frequent public- transit user, he couldn’t help but turn his problem-solving nature to reducing the time he spent waiting for a bus with little to no idea of when it might actually arrive. And so, a side project was born.
Ferris gained access to the existing—if rudimentary—bus-tracking data that was collected by transit agencies but was invisible to riders. “I [was able] to improve the utility of the existing tracking data and combine that with a free service that hooked up a telephone number to a text-to-speech engine,” Ferris says. “I hacked together all this stuff into a demo where I could call in and enter a bus stop ID [number] and … it would read to you when the bus was coming.”
In those pre-smartphone days, Ferris’ tool connecting ordinary riders to transit data was novel, and as his side project gathered momentum, he started sharing it with colleagues and other transit enthusiasts. Eventually, a friend in the UW’s civil engineering department connected him with Watkins.
As the mother of two young children who needed a way to get around Seattle that minimized bus transfers, Watkins was already interested in a transit-data project of her own. “I wanted there to be a tool where I could literally plug in some type of place I wanted to go, like a park, and get a list of places that were just one bus ride away,” she says. When she met Ferris and they began exploring how to create better access to transit information, Watkins’ coinage of “One Bus Away” took hold.
Ferris and Watkins brought distinct and complementary skills to the project. Ferris knew how to write code and implement it, and Watkins had a deep understanding of riders’ transit behavior and transit agency operations. Soon, they were working with all of the major Puget Sound area transit agencies, which recognized the potential for a tool that would make their services more usable to the public.
“It has opened up a lot of doors for me career-wise, and it’s why I’m still in the transportation space.”
However, as doctoral students, Ferris and Watkins weren’t just building a useful consumer application, they were also earning Ph.Ds, and both are quick to credit Alan Borning, now professor emeritus in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, for his mentorship and support not only in realizing OneBusAway, but in guiding their work within an academic framework.
Borning served as co-adviser on Ferris’ doctoral thesis and serves on the Open Transit Software Foundation Board of Directors, along with Watkins. From an academic perspective, the project presented a research opportunity to explore how transit behavior could be changed, and to apply the theory of value-sensitive design to this innovative technology, leading to a few unexpected discoveries. “[We learned that people] would walk more … sometimes because OneBusAway showed them a bus that would get them home sooner a few blocks away … or if the bus was going to be a while, they might walk upstream to the next stop.”
Today, Ferris and Watkins continue to improve transportation and urban mobility. Ferris joined Google, where he works on transportation and urban-mobility technology, and Watkins is an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, specializing in transit planning and behavior. Both say that their time at the UW and the development of OneBusAway did a lot to shape their lives and careers.
“I’m a transit nerd at heart,” Ferris says. OneBusAway “has definitely been one of the most impactful things that I’ve worked on, and I think most people would be lucky to have anything like that in their lifetime. It has opened up a lot of doors for me career-wise, and it’s why I’m still in the transportation space.”
Since creating OneBusAway, “crazy things have happened to me,” Watkins says. She once met a mother and her teenage son from Seattle while on a wine tour in France. “So we’re chatting, and I tell them I’m a professor and I work in transit. And that I went to the University of Washington. The kid says, ‘Oh, there’s a really great transit app that I use in Seattle, have you heard of it?’ So then it comes out, and this kid is like, ‘Wait, you’re Kari Watkins?!’”
Within the small world of public-transit nerdery, Ferris and Watkins’ achievement as graduate students does confer a certain amount of cachet. But for millions more people who may never know their names, their influence is felt every time someone opens an app that tells them how long until the next bus or train takes them where they want to go.