First published on March 2, 2013
TransLink, the Metro Vancouver transit authority, has run a very popular Next Bus service since 2007. In short, you send a text message with the number of the bus stop you are at to the 33333 short code and you get a text message back to tell you when the next buses will arrive. My friends have found it very useful but I’ve actually never directly used it because my cell phone service provider has never supported short codes.
Wind Mobile, Mobilicity, Speak Out Wireless, Petro Canada, Chatr, and other smaller wireless service providers either do not support short codes or charge extra to use them (on top of your normal SMS plan). TransLink has been repeatedly asked to provide a non short code access number to Next Bus but they say they have no plans to provide one. As an alternative, they do have a useful mobile site, but of course not everybody has a data plan.
I can understand that 33333 is incredibly easy to remember, but it is not entirely necessary if repeat users can store a normal phone number in their contact list. Also, it doesn’t provide any cross-regional advantage (that is, the ability to send an SMS to one number even if you’re in a different area code) if all of its users are in the same area. Adding a normal phone number should be quite cheap for TransLink to do (especially compared to monthly short code fees), since their back-end is already set up.
I’ve set up a phone number — 604-200-3373 — to provide such access. It acts like any normal number, so if you are on a pay as you go service, you will be charged for a normal text message, and if you have an unlimited texting plan, it should be free.
How it works:
Send a text message containing the 5-digit stop number and get a response such as this:
 8:46am* 9:01am* 9:16am*  9:02am- 9:28am 9:58am*
Send a text message containing the 5-digit stop number and a bus route number (example: 52606 112) and get a similar response but only for that bus:
 8:46am* 9:01am* 9:16am*
The estimated time might be appended with one of the following characters:
* indicates scheduled time
- indicates delay
+ indicates bus is running ahead of schedule
C indicates bus or stop is cancelled
I’ve tested those two use cases, but I cannot provide any official guarantees, and if you find any problems with it, let me know!
Although I find the Next Bus idea in general to be smart and complex, there is nothing particularly smart or complex about how my service is built: it uses the free TransLink API and the Tropo SMS service (which costs me a few cents per message).
If many people start to use the phone number I’ve provided, the usage will cost me more money than I can afford. Hopefully TransLink will add its own normal phone number or some generous donor can step in before that happens!