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Metro Transit’s NexTrip service is extremely popular, accessed nearly 80 million times last year by transit riders seeking real-time schedules for buses and the Northstar commuter rail.

But dependable? Not so much. It accurately predicts bus arrivals and departures just 65-75% of the time on good days — and performs even worse on days with bad weather or when heavy traffic delays buses.

That’s why the transit agency will spend $972,000 on new software to provide more accurate schedule information for riders.

“We know customers depend on information, and it’s really important to meet their expectations for accuracy,” said Laura Matson, Metro Transit’s program manager of real-time customer information. The ability to find detour information was the second-lowest rated item on Metro Transit’s 2018 customer survey.

“It is something we definitely hear about,” Matson said. “Customers are reasonable in expecting reliable information.”

Mark Thomas, who for the past 11 years had taken Route 764 from his home in New Hope to his job in downtown Minneapolis, would welcome the upgrade. He said he gets bus information from other sources like the Transit app, which is not affiliated with Metro Transit, after several people told him NexTrip was not reliable. But that could change if NexTrip were more accurate.

“If they can make their ‘Show My Bus’ [feature] better, I just might go there first,” Thomas said. “If I can throw an app away, I’m all for that.”

Precise arrival information is a lifesaver in the winter, said Thomas, who walks two blocks to his stop. When he has it, he said, he can “time it perfectly.” When information is not available, “I just have to wing it and hope I’m there when the bus comes.”

The most frustrating part, he said, is never knowing if it’s accurate or not.

NexTrip debuted in the late 2000s and has been tweaked here and there. But the new software from Cambridge Systematics Inc. will be the first major upgrade to the system in about a decade, Matson said.

Metro Transit chose the firm from Medford, Mass., after its product outperformed another company’s during a two-month trial last fall. The Cambridge Systematics software made accurate predictions 80-85% of the time. Metro Transit’s NexTrip was the worst performing system of those used during the trial.

The existing NexTrip system is basic, Matson said. GPS units on buses send information about the location of a bus to NexTrip about every 8 seconds and predicts arrival times at future stops based on that location. But it can’t adjust predictions if a bus gets stuck in a traffic jam or spends extra time at a stop.

The new software would have more input points and use an algorithm that can better recognize how quickly other buses are passing specific checkpoints. If traffic on Snelling Avenue near the State Fairgrounds is stacked up and buses are not moving, the new software would be able to recognize that and adjust its predictions, Matson said.

“It would see the A-line [rapid bus] is taking a long time to get through in a place that normally takes three minutes,” Matson said. “It will learn based on how other vehicles are traveling through the area.”

The new software will also give Metro Transit the ability to push its data to Google — an industry standard that NexTrip can’t meet now, Matson said.

“That is a huge benefit,” said Matson, who noted Google is a popular tool for riders seeking Metro Transit information.

The upgrade won’t be a cure-all, but Matson said it will be a “meaningful improvement for our riders” at a time when bus ridership is declining. Ridership is down at least 16% from 2015, according to an agency spokesman.

The Metropolitan Council approved the contract with Cambridge Systematics on Wednesday. The software could be installed and operating by spring, Matson said.

Staff writer Janet Moore contributed to this report. Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768

Correction: A previous version incorrectly said NexTrip was the second lowest rated item in the 2018 customer survey.