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Bus tracking returns to Chapel Hill after delay, community now able to rely on GPS routing


DTH Photo Illustration. Chapel Hill Transit buses now have live tracking again. Riders can check bus locations in real-time using applications such as TransLoc.

After what Chapel Hill Transit director Brian Litchfield called a "frustrating" year, people in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area can once again track the buses in the local transit system. 

The GPS routing information for transit users returned on March 13 while UNC students were on Spring Break, according to a press release from the Town of Chapel Hill. Tracking on apps like TransLoc, which gets real-time information from NextBus, will now work for customers. 

The last time CHT passengers had access to real-time bus tracking services was February 2022. The original announcement from the Town estimated the deactivation would last around four months.  

The tracking systems receive tracking and GPS information through AT&T’s 3G service. When AT&T discontinued these networks, the 3G modems stopped sending bus location data to tracking apps. 

After delays in shipments and other setbacks, the buses now have 5G modems. 

Litchfield said the delays in bus tracking services put the Town in a difficult situation.  

“It’s also a proprietary component, so it wasn’t something where we were able to go to or to Best Buy and just purchase,” he said. 

Litchfield said NextBus is one of the most common tracking systems and provides real-time information about bus locations, routes and wait times.

The system has only provided scheduling information, not geographical data, while tracking has been down. Transit users had to rely on schedules that could have unpredictable and unexpected delays, he said. 

“It’s really easy to be like, ‘Hey, even though I don’t know too much about the area, I know the bus is coming and I can hop on and ride,’” Litchfield said. “When you’re just given a schedule and you don’t have any way to look at that information, it makes it really difficult.”

Updated tracking has allowed students and community members to again use TransLoc and other tracking apps. For some, the change has made a big impact.

“I’ve noticed that buses are tracking, and it does make it easier to tell when I should get to a bus stop or not instead of just guessing based on scheduled time,” UNC senior Kaden Blalock said. 

Blalock often rides the NU or NS bus routes to get to and from class. While he noted the apps are slightly delayed now, Blalock said the bus tracking also lagged before CHT's modems stopped working and the tracking was shut down in February 2022.

He also said the apps were working “pretty well back to normal” after the tracking shut down and that being able to see where the buses are has saved him time in getting to the bus stop. 

Thien Kim Pham, another UNC student who uses TransLoc, said having tracking available helps her make commute decisions like whether she should walk or ride the bus. 

“Before tracking, I was very confused on when the bus would arrive. But with the tracking, it really helps me know when the bus will come,” she said. 

But for others, like UNC student Jenny Qiu, the tracking has not affected their commute. Even though Qiu can now see bus locations through tracking apps, she said the previous system of checking bus schedules worked well for her.

“Usually when I take the bus, it comes around the scheduled time,” Qiu said. 

The Town of Chapel Hill recently announced it is planning to further upgrade its real-time bus tracking technology with a system developed by GMV Syncromatics.

"The GMV platform will improve data accuracy for automated passenger counts, real-time arrival information and provide us with on-time performance feedback," an announcement for the Town said. 

This updated system is on schedule for completion this summer. 

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