Noe Valley Voice February 2005

Tracking the J-Church: It's Best If You Live on 27th Street

By David Moisl

As local Muni riders know, a J-Church train is supposed to whistle down the tracks on Church Street every 8 to 10 minutes on weekdays and 15 to 20 minutes on weeknights and Saturdays and Sundays.

But life doesn't always go according to schedule. The watchdog group Rescue Muni reports that the J was late about 18 percent of the time in 2004.

A common tactic used by many of those waiting at the busy stop at 24th and Church streets is to look to see if there is a J-train on the horizon--and if there isn't, to walk or take another form of transportation, since the arrival of the next train is impossible to predict. Or is it?

Since 2000, the Emeryville-based company NextBus has been trying to tell Muni riders when their next bus or train will show up, and thereby significantly reduce their frustration. NextBus currently provides up-to-the-minute arrival times for all light-rail vehicles (J, K, L, M, N & F), as well as the 22-Fillmore bus. Over the next two years, the system is supposed to expand to all Muni lines in the city.

The company uses GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to track the whereabouts of individual buses and streetcars. Each vehicle has been fitted with a GPS receiver, which calculates the car's exact location via satellite. By coupling its "prediction software" with a wireless communication network, NextBus is then able to provide real-time transit information, displayed both on its web site and on digital signs in bus shelters.

At the moment, there are 31 NextBus signs in operation throughout the city, but only one in Noe Valley at the bus shelter at Church and 27th streets. The 5-by-18-inch sign, found on the inside of the shelter, notifies would-be riders when the next two inbound trains are estimated to arrive at 27th Street. The red LED display is "refreshed" (updated) every minute or so, and shows messages like "J-Church 6 min. & 18 min."

Meanwhile, the same information (and much more) is also appearing online at By using your home computer, Palm Pilot, laptop, or Internet-capable cell phone, you can check on the projected arrival times for J-cars at any and all stops along the route.

Of course, the system isn't perfect and has some inherent inaccuracies because of what Mike Smith, engineering director for NextBus, refers to as "stochastic variability--the indeterminable noise in the system" caused by traffic, stop lights, and passengers boarding the cars. Nevertheless, Smith thinks that generally, the predictions are accurate within one to two minutes. "And most of the time, passengers are not concerned whether the system is absolutely accurate to the minute, but are interested in knowing approximately when the next bus or train will arrive, so they can make informed transit choices," Smith says.

NextBus points out that not only will the system help riders plan their trips more effectively, but the new technology should allow for greater monitoring of Muni's overall performance. For example, there might be an occasion when the display shows that the next J-train isn't due for 40 minutes. Jotting down that fact might bolster one's case in a future complaint to Muni.

According to Maggie Lynch, Muni's public relations director, Muni currently has plans and funding for 400 additional displays. These are scheduled to be installed over a period of three years. However, there is a hitch: The new signs can only be placed at stops that have bus shelters wired for electricity, and these shelters are paid for and maintained by advertisers, not the city itself. Needless to say, the advertisers like to put the shelters at high-volume stops with enough foot traffic to make their advertising effective.

Viacom is the company that currently holds the contract with the city. According to Viacom manager Steve Shinn, the company has sponsored 1,100 shelters, 95 percent of which have electricity. He notes that new shelters will only be put up at a neighborhood's request.

Generally, Muni receives these citizen requests and then relays them to Viacom. "The decision of whether to install a shelter is a mutual process," says Shinn.

In accordance with city regulations, the sidewalk at the location of a shelter needs to be at least 10 feet wide. And there needs to be access to electricity in the vicinity, since Viacom will not bring electricity to a shelter "because that can make installing a new shelter cost-prohibitive," says Shinn.

The J-stop at the intersection of 24th and Church is not on the sidewalk, but rather on a boarding strip that has no electricity. So, even though the intersection is one of the most traffic-heavy of the outdoor stops along the J-line, it currently may be out of luck for a NextBus shelter.

What about a battery-powered display? NextBus says it has developed a prototype, but right now the company has no schedule for mass production.

In the meantime, your best bet to spare yourself a long wait is to go online and check your bus or train's estimated arrival time before leaving the house.