514 Buses –
get Montreal bus schedules via cell phone

October 11th, 2011 by ant6n

Warning: I am currently transitioning this app to a new format so the schedules are not up to date (as of 2013). When I built the app, it relied on scraping the data from the STM's website, a painful process. I am now migrating to their GTFS feed, which will take some time.

If you are one of the two thirds of Canadian cell phone users who do not have a smart phone, you might find yourself late at night at a bus stop, waiting a very long time for the next bus home. If you had a smart phone with a Google maps app or the new STM app, you would probably have checked when the next bus comes, and waited longer inside that warm bar, or at the party where you were.

Sure, you could get the paper flyers of the relevant bus schedules, if you know where to get them, but it's still all very cumbersome. You could also use the phone service of the STM, telling you the next buses for one given stop. But it will only tell you the schedule if you know the 5-digit stop number and bus line - and you'll only find those once you are at the stop, so you still gotta wait there. And you won't find out about other nearby lines and stops.

So at last weekend's Back to School Hackathon, I thought it would be a good idea to try to make life a bit easier for those of us who still have that dumb phone, and developed a simple sms-based application that will tell you the next buses near a given address. You can just text your current address, intersection, postal code or point of interest to

514-600-1287 (that's 514-6001-BUS)***

and it will find nearby bus stops, and give the next scheduled departures.

Try the web-version:

As you can see, the app returns a very compact result**:

  • At the top it shows the time relative to which the schedule is displayed
  • It will show a compact name for each bus stop, with the distance (in metres) from your supplied address
  • for each bus stop, it will show the buses, together with their direction (W,E,S,N), and the next couple of buses, in minutes relative to the displayed time

The app properly deals with weekend days, holidays, night buses. It will also deal with special characters that show up in the original schedule (">" or "+"). They will be displayed, and usually mean that the bus is taking some alternate route. The system knows 96% of the bus stops (although some might be located incorrectly). and supports the following options:

  • the first word can be set of option characters. W, E, S, N will display only buses in the supplied direction, H will display wheelchair accessible buses using '*'. Multiple characters can be used in one word. Example: "WEH 688 Sherbrooke" will show all westbound and eastbound buses, and show handicapped access.
  • You can add a trailling "in number", where the number is in minutes. This will provide the schedules relative to a time in the future. Example: "h3a 2t5 in 30" will show buses near postal code H3A 2T5 in 30 minutes.

This application, given the 160 character limitation, naturally does no actual routing. It just gives scheduled departures. You still have to know your lines. This fits the idea that many people do know the routes of buses that are relevant to them, even if their don't know the schedules. This complements the idea of the frequent service network - you know how to get there, but you would like some independence regarding schedules. By making this an sms app rather than a smart phone app, I hope for this to be useful to more people.

Some argue that smartphones are not a game changer for transit. But tools like this should help reduce some of the stress associated with taking buses - the wait at the stop - and maybe will make some travelling a bit more enjoayble.

disclaimer: This is currently beta. The phone number may change. The phone system may not respond at times (in which case try resending your request).

**Update: Due to a recent outage at tropo, the sms service, I changed the system to respond via another service, twilio. So the system will now respond with a different number (which should also accept requests - but it is a US number). Along with this change the format of the response changed to show absolute times rather than relative times.
***Update: After the service called twilio started offering canadian phone numbers with sms support, I have switched over the service to this new number. The old number ((514) 418-0428), should still work for a while.
****Update: As per the warning above, the schedules are out of date.

11 Responses to “514 Buses –
get Montreal bus schedules via cell phone”

  1. Domenico Cotugno Says:

    This is quite amazing! It would be nice if texting 514-AUTOBUS would return these results. The STM should buy this technology from you!!

  2. Thomas James Says:

    Very cool. Ich bin sehr beeindruckt.

  3. Joseph Alacchi Says:

    Wow! Awesome! Thanks so much ant6n! This app will change my life! The city owes you immeasurable thanks and admiration!

  4. Sarah Says:

    Would love to chat with you about this program for our news website.

  5. Alex Dergachev Says:

    Awesome. Maybe you could work on it during the next Montreal Ouvert hackathon.

  6. Ash Says:

    Great stuff!

  7. Simon Says:

    I hope you know the STM already has an SMS bus schedule service 🙂

  8. ant6n Says:

    Yes, but just like the telephone service mentioned in the article, they require the bus stop ids. So unless you want to memorize those…
    (Also if you have a cheap pre-paid phone, you may not be able to send an sms to their short code).

  9. Jony Says:

    There is another iPhone/iTouch app, “mymontreal”, which supports offline stm bus schedule. Search and favorite features are also supported.

  10. Jonathan Says:

    Thank you for this. I plan to use it when out late and far from home 🙂

  11. Damian A. Jennings Says:

    2. If you wait at a bus stop that is not well lit, carry a flashlight. Carrying a flashlight has two purposes, it can be used to protect yourself if you are attacked while waiting for a bus, and you can use it to signal the bus driver who might not otherwise see you that you are there.

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