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Students board SafeRide at Student Center on the evening of March 3, 2008. SafeRide’s ShuttleTrack system may soon be replaced by a new, more efficient, more reliable system called NextBus.
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Starting July, GPS tracking will return to MIT’s shuttle buses.

After years of using the student-written ShuttleTrack GPS software to display shuttle locations, MIT has signed a contract with GPS tracking company NextBus to take over tracking of its fleet of 13 vehicles, according to Lawrence R. Brutti, operations manager at MIT’s Parking and Transportation Office.

In addition to tracking buses using a live Google map on its Web site, NextBus also predicts arrival times and provides data to the transportation office to help make routes more efficient.

As a trial, NextBus has been tracking the Boston Daytime shuttle since March at http://www.nextbus.com. Brutti said that positive feedback from fraternities and sororities encouraged him to sign the contract, which was finalized on April 4th.

ShuttleTrack, which was first implemented in 2003, also allowed students to view shuttle locations on a real-time map of the campus. But the service was written by students and wasn’t maintained after they graduated. Despite a comprehensive rewrite in 2005, the service remained buggy and was often unavailable. “ShuttleTrack being down was one of our chief complaints,” Brutti said. “We knew we needed to get stable tracking up.”

Aside from being unreliable, ShuttleTrack did not allow the programming of new routes and could not accommodate more than one vehicle on each route.

Brutti began seeking commercial alternatives to ShuttleTrack in October, and was impressed by NextBus’s ability to forecast arrival times. “We looked at 3 to 4 companies … one was the one that Harvard uses,” Brutti said. “But most of them just show where a vehicle is on a map. They don’t do predictions.”

Of NextBus, Brutti said, “It is state of the art, top of the line. We feel like we’ll have a nice stable system, which ShuttleTrack was not.”

When the new 28-passenger buses arrived in January to replace the cramped, older vans, Brutti chose not to install ShuttleTrack hardware, anticipating the change to a new system. For that reason, most routes this spring lacked GPS tracking.

In the next few weeks, NextBus technicians will install GPS hardware into the buses that serve on the shuttle routes. For a month or so, the system will have to learn the routes to help it make more accurate arrival predictions. Brutti expects the system to be fully functional by July.

The Nextbus system is also capable of counting the number of passengers entering and leaving a bus. Brutti hopes to enable this feature in the fall, which would provide information about how full a shuttle is.

MIT will pay $45,000 for the installation, and $10,000 a year for the service, which runs completely off-site. Previously, ShuttleTrack had to be maintained by the Transportation Office.

The transportation office will also receive two portable briefcase-sized GPS trackers with magnet-mounted antennas to use in a pinch on replacement buses. “With ShuttleTrack, if we were missing a bus and another one came in, we couldn’t track,” Brutti said. “Now we’ll be able to track constantly.”

NextBus also provides bus tracking services to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the University of North Carolina.