RACINE — For area residents looking for an easy, digital way to navigate local public transportation, there’s almost an app for that.
In the coming months, administrators of the Belle Urban System hope to have a fully functional app that allows riders to use their smartphone to get bus routes, schedules and real-time estimates on when the next bus is coming.
The app — designed by computer science students at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside — answers three basic questions: when the next bus is coming, where to find the closest stop, and how to get from one place to another.
“Those are kind of the three questions that the students decided the app should answer, so it can serve people at the bus stops, it can serve people wanting to find a bus stop and it can serve people who are completely new and just want to figure out how to get from point A to point B,” said Derek Riley, assistant professor of computer science at Parkside.
“It’s presenting information in an understandable way that the digital generation can relate to,” he added.
Students have been working on designing apps for transit systems for about 2½ years, when the Kenosha Area Transit system requested help on an app.
Riley put the task to his students and also set up the “App Factory,” an interdisciplinary group on campus that allows students to get professional experience by working on app design.
Since the Kenosha app launched about a year ago, Riley said software engineering students have been working on an app that can be easily implemented for other transit systems. That’s about when Riley was approached by Belle Urban System General Manager Willie McDonald.
McDonald said he wanted a way to allow riders to get timely information in a quick, easy-to-use way, but he also wanted to lessen the call load on dispatchers.
“I would say 70 percent of the time they’re in that chair, they’re on the phone saying the bus comes at this time,” he said. “I’d rather that phone line be clear for people with issues, to handles those, versus saying the bus comes at this time.”
Riley explained that apps are often too expensive for small transit systems like the Belle Urban System, but the App Factory can provide that service at an affordable price while offering students paid professional experience. McDonald would not reveal the cost of the app, but said it was “very minimal.”
Kyle Zawacki, a 20-year-old computer science student from Racine who designed the Belle Urban System app to be compatible with iPhones, said being a part of the App Factory has taken him from a novice to one of the most proficient programmers on campus.
“It offers an excellent extracurricular activity,” he said. “I can do homework and school projects and all that, but it’s completely different than actually working for a real-life company and doing real-life work.”
As the app comes online, riders can expect to start seeing QR codes — which look like square bar codes — on bus stop signs around the city. Riders will be able to scan these to learn when the next bus is coming.
Riley said these codes currently give listed schedule times, but they are working on adding features that will give estimated arrival times based on the GPS location of the bus. He noted that they plan to continue tweaking the app as they can see how people are using it and what problems arise.
“This is about making riding the bus more efficient for the customer,” said Michael Maierle, city transit and parking system manager. “If it’s more efficient, there will be more people riding the bus, which has so many benefits for the rider, for the community.”
Although the app is still in its testing phase, the app is currently available for download on Android devices by searching for “Belle Urban System” in the Google Play app store. Riley encouraged riders interested in testing out the app to send him feedback firstname.lastname@example.org. The app is not yet available for iPhones.