Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Lets Go! Automated Bus Information System

Many may not know about Let's Go!, an automated system developed at the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The system, which received federal funding in 2002 and first went online in 2005, offers bus information for Pittsburgh via an automated voice recognition system. It's a really useful system, and I'm going explain some of its quirks here.

First of all, you can reach the system 24 hours a day by calling 412-268-3526. Please note that busy signals sometimes occur. Calling the main Port Authority phone number (412-442-2000) after hours will also transfer you to the system.

According to the system, only the following routes are available:

28X, 54C, 56U, 59U, 61A, 61B, 61C, 61D, 61F, 64A, 69A, 501 (which was eliminated last June)

I'm skeptical of that list, which is also given by the Port Authority when it refers you to the system. I have been able to get information on 71A, 71C, 71D, and the 500. I even received information about the 77F.

To try it out, give a call. It'll ask "What can I do for you?" Answer by saying where you are and where'd you like to go, or what bus you'd like to take. All of the following questions work:
  • I'd like to go from Oakland to the Pittsburgh Zoo.
  • I'd like to go from Oakland to the Airport.
  • I'd like to go from Forbes and Morewood to Murray and Forward.
  • When's the next 61C?
Most will be followed by questions, such as "Where are you leaving from?" "Where are you going?" and "When would you like to go?" A wide variety of answers work, whether they are intersections or neighborhoods. You can also say any time you'd like to depart, whether it is tonight at 9pm or Thursday at 11:30am. Asking about Saturdays and Sundays does give you information according to those schedules, but I have not tested Holidays. And it understands you saying "NOW!" by responding "I think you want the next bus. Is that right?"

Sometimes you have to repeat yourself. Sometimes it even seems to get something right and then asks again. Some tips for avoiding this are to speak clearly and concisely. If you don't understand what it is saying, say "What?" and it will repeat itself more slowly. Say "Start A New Query" when it goes down the wrong path.

Another problem is that your origin and destination must be on one route. This means the system does not handle transfers. It also does not handle walking: a query for Fifth and Morewood to Squirrel Hill came up with no options. The correct answer would have been to walk one block on Morewood Avenue to Forbes Avenue, where the buses go to Squirrel Hill. So you have to have some knowledge of the system before calling, unlike Google Transit which figures out walking and transfers for you.

Even with its problems, the system is very useful, and a great number to put into your phone when Google Transit isn't handy. It's great to see the Port Authority use the talent of a local university to help their customers. Please note that the information is from schedules, and does not adjust for weather, traffic conditions or detours.

Another system also developed at CMU is MyCMUBus, which has a better number (1-866-MYCMUBUS) but only offers information for buses between Oakland, Carnegie Mellon University, and Squirrel Hill. It has limited use, but if you take a 61C between Oakland and Squirrel Hill you'll see it's a large constituent of riders.


  1. As one of the two grad students who created and maintain Let's Go, I'd like to clarify the issue of which routes are covered. Actually, the system can recognize any stop that is on any of the 11 routes listed. If both your origin and destination stops are recognized by the system, it will provide you with the schedule for any route between the two (not only the ones listed). However, don't expect the system to understand the name of a stop that isn't on the listed routes (for now...). So for example, you can get the schedule of the 71D from Fifth and Bigelow (which is also on the 28X) to Fifth and Negley (which is also on the 64A), but not to Fifth and Hamilton (the system will not understand you when you say Fifth and Hamilton). As you can see, this is a bit complicated to explain, which is why we don't bother putting the details in the system's messages. Anyway, thank you for your nice report! We really appreciate getting feedback from our users to help us improve the system.

  2. Thanks for your response! I understand the issue now, as you wanted to list routes that were covered in entirety by the system. What an excellent project, I hope it continues to develop.