The Dark Side of NextBus

11 Feb

Or at least, sometimes it FEELS like this...

I swear, I’m no longer certain that NextBus is an entirely good presence in my life.

For those who don’t live in SF, NextBus (or, NextMUNI), is an online service that lets users know when to expect the next bus on a certain line to arrive at a given stop.  You can access it on your computer or your cell phone, and the site even comes with a map that tracks buses via GPS.

It’s all very slick and convenient, particularly when you’re out and about on the town – when I first got an iPhone, mobile access to NextBus made the phone worth the purchase price all by itself.

But even if I disregard the times when the service doesn’t work properly, I’m starting to see how constant access to bus arrivals isn’t an entirely positive thing. Don’t get me wrong – on the whole, I still think it’s great, but I’ve also noticed that it’s adding a lot of stress to my daily routine.

I’m a regular MUNI-rider – I work odd hours, and most days find me doing things in various places around the city.  So, I get a hell of a lot of mileage out of knowing exactly when and where the next bus will be arriving.

But I’ve begun to notice that having that knowledge divides up my day into ten-to-fifteen minute chunks (the average length of time between buses), and that knowing when a bus is coming but being powerless to change that arrival time can be as stressful as it is convenient.

Example: I’m at home, getting ready for school, banging out a few emails and working on some  project or another. I have to run a rehearsal in 30 minutes, so I’ll check Nextbus, and will see that there is a bus coming in 3 minutes, and one in 11 minutes.  The 11 minute bus will get me to school on time, so I sit back and continue my work for a few more minutes. However, I now have that 11-minute deadline in the back of my mind, so I’m also calculating how much I can get done before I have to gather my things and get to the bus stop.

It’s a little thing, but it is also constant, and starts to add up. Say I’m at school, making some copies, and need to get downtown in a half hour. I check and see that I have 2 minutes and… 38 minutes. Shit!  I grab my things and haul ass up the hill to the stop, barely catching the bus.

Or I’m hanging out at a friend’s house and it’s getting late. Instead of letting the conversation run its course and wind down naturally, I check my phone and see that unless I want to get home at 1:30, I need to leave like NOW.  I stop mid-sentence, apologizing and saying “I gotta catch this bus,” grab my things and book it. My friends nod understandingly.

There are countless other examples of this kind of thing happening, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice how stressful it can be.  I’ve been living my life via NextBus for over three years now, and it’s really getting wearying.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten out of the shower, looked at the screen, seen “3 minutes,” and spent the next 2.5 minutes of my life whirling about my room like a harried Tasmanian devil, throwing on shoes and combing hair and grabbing computers and instruments and sprinting out the door.

And I know that it’s really on me – NextBus is just giving me information, and I’m the one who has to figure out how to use it. And without it, I’m sure I’d wind up standing on the corner, waiting for a bus to come, cursing under my breath and stressing out ten times more than I would if I just knew when to one was coming.

But as with many time-saving new technologies, I can’t deny that for all the waiting it saves me, the little tolls it takes on my mind can really add up.


5 Responses to “The Dark Side of NextBus”

  1. Anne February 11, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    Knowledge = dark, horrible fruit.

  2. Michael Smith February 12, 2010 at 9:02 am #

    You are actually pretty lucky. You get stressed by you seem to usually make it to the bus on time so you don’t waste time waiting. But for a few people NextBus has a really perverse effect. They see 3 minutes and they know it only takes 2 minutes to walk to the bus so they put on their shoes, and then brush their teeth, and then comb their hair, and then end up missing the bus every time by a few seconds. That means they always end up waiting the maximum amount of time for the next bus. Exactly the opposite of the intended effect.

    Thankfully those people are few and far between, but the agony!

    Mike (Director of Engineering at NextBus)

    • Kirk February 12, 2010 at 9:13 am #

      Hi, Michael!

      Thanks for the comment – you are indeed correct; I am not really doing so badly. I’m fortunate to live near the top of my bus line.

      I’m reminded of a bit on Prairie Home Companion from a loooong time ago – one of their sound-effects bits that depicted a man, running down the street, running into the subway, jumping the turnstyle, sprinting down the stairs….

      …only to be just early enough to know that he had barely missed a train. The moral of the story being that when it comes to public transit, sometimes ignorance is bliss, or at least it seems like it is, since we don’t know any better.

      I think you guys are doing a fantastic job. The stress I describe in this post is entirely on me.


  3. James February 19, 2010 at 11:37 am #

    I use nextbus all the time and cannot imagine living without it.

    What you said though reminded me of a story Nassim Taleb told in his book “fooled by randomness.” It’s toward the end, where he discusses some of the effects that random events have on our lives, and how to deal with them. He talks about having dinner with a friend who after the meal has to catch a subway home. In one scenario, the friend knows at exactly what time the last train leaves. Knowing that there wouldn’t be another train for another 35 minutes, he lets the schedule of the train dictate the pace of the meal, and he’ll probably be rushed at the end and stick you with the bill.

    In a second scenario, the train doesn’t have a schedule, but they run about every 35 minutes. In this scenario, when one just doesn’t know which moment will be better than the other, the dinner can proceed at a more leisurely pace, and he leaves when the meal is over.

    These would be two very different meals. The knowledge of the exact time of the train allows us to be optimizers, rather than satisficers, in his lingo. Even though any time gain would probably be around 15 minutes, we let that basically dictate the length and tone of our entire meal.

    When I first read that book, it made me think of nextbus.

    The main difference is, of course, with Muni, you can’t assume that they run every 35 minutes. Trains can be 4 minutes apart, or 45. Leaving us with more randomness, or at least a greater deviation.

    • Kirk February 19, 2010 at 11:46 am #

      That’s a great articulation of the issue, James, thanks!

      My sister and I were discussing this, and came to the same conclusion that when it comes down to it, the issue isn’t NextBus at all, it’s that Muni itself doesn’t run on a regular schedule. Nextbus is a band-aid over this problem, and a fairly effective one, but a consistent bus schedule would be far preferable.

      (Note to readers: I am fully aware of how difficult it would be to make that happen. I actually can’t imagine how to make it work without dedicated bus lanes).

      She pointed out that in France, the buses all just run on a set schedule. So when you’re having dinner with your friends, you can watch the time, content in the knowledge that you can either catch the 11:30 bus home, or the 11:50 bus, depending on where the conversation is at. The inconsistency of Muni adds an x-factor that breaks the flow, but better to have NextBus then not to know at all.

      “Oh crap, I gotta leave to catch this bus” is better than “God, I guess I better leave, because who knows when I’ll get home.”

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