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Taking the Mystery Out of Taking the Bus : Transit: Computer expert has written program that, when operational, will give door-to-door instructions on bus travel.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Mines knows what it’s like to be a first-time bus commuter: The difficulty in finding out which bus takes you where you want to go, the uncertainty of knowing where and when to catch it, the puzzlement of special fares and transfers.

“I remember riding the bus as a (UCLA) student,” said Mines, easing into a chair in front of the three computer screens and two keyboards that dominate his compact mid-Wilshire office. “I remember people forgetting to get transfers or using the wrong transfer, not knowing where to get the right bus or when.

“That’s one of the things about bus transit, it seems so mysterious. People think it’s too expensive or too slow or too inconvenient, and it’s not.”

Mines got an opportunity to demonstrate that when he joined the staff of nonprofit Commuter Transportation Services Inc., the “Commuter Computer” people.

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Hired six years ago to rewrite the sluggish program that helped match commuters in new car pools, Mines has since tackled a far more difficult task--writing a computer program that can help car-weary Southern Californians learn to ride the bus.

He did it. The program, called TranStar, can write detailed, individualized door-to-door instructions on how to take public transit anywhere in Southern California, from Riverside to Redondo Beach, Santa Clarita to San Clemente.

When fully operational, the system will tell the fastest route, print out a simple map and even calculate the fare--including surcharges for express service and transfers, as well as discounts for seniors and handicapped riders. It will even tell precisely when, where and how to use transfers.

The task might seem impossible. After all, the region is served by more than 20 bus companies with hundreds of routes and thousands of stops. The combinations of possible origination and destination points are almost endless--each home, store, factory, office, public building and intersection in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

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Mines wasn’t intimidated.

Using information collected from sources as diverse as the Riverside Transit Agency and the U.S. Census Bureau, Commuter Computer’s computer whiz needed only four days to write a working prototype program.

“The more challenging a project is, the more fun it is for me,” said Mines. “That really makes it easier, because it motivates me.”

Indeed, Mines said, the programming was easy. All he had to do was network the region’s bus stops. The hard part was finding out where the bus stops are.

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For one thing, there are tens of thousands of them irregularly dotting Southern California.

For another, no one was certain where each one was.

Nor was anyone certain when a particular bus arrives at any stop.

That information is essential to writing a program that tells potential commuters where to find the bus and when to be there.

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“You would think that bus (companies) would know where all their bus stops are,” he said, savoring the logic. “Well, they don’t.”

Mines began unknotting the region’s bus lines by starting with smaller, suburban districts, such as Riverside County. Locations and schedules for each stop in the system were determined, slowly, with the help of route maps and bus drivers.

TranStar has been used for a year in Riverside County, where bugs were worked out, features added and computing time compressed.

Now Mines is preparing for the largest and most difficult step--incorporating the Southern California Rapid Transit District’s 208 separate routes, 2,518 buses and 19,668 individual bus stops into the system.

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The process is complicated because two companies developing a smaller system for the RTD claim the rights to the district’s information on routes and schedules. But the policy-making Los Angeles County Transportation Commission has ordered RTD to find a way to share the data.

Once the system comes on line--sometime in 1992--RTD passengers can access it by calling Commuter Computer.

Mines, who conceded that he usually commutes by car, said he wanted to make bus commuting seem as simple to others as it had been for him as a student.

“With this system,” he said, “you don’t have to know routes or geography or anything.”

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Mines himself knew little about public transit management when he came to Commuter Computer from a West Los Angeles company that developed new applications for scannable bar codes, those black-and-white stripes known best for replacing price stickers at supermarkets.

He learned quickly after being recruited to join Commuter Computer by a former boss at that Westside firm. He said he was inspired because he was no longer writing experimental programs; he was solving immediate problems.

“A lot of software sits on the shelf, then it dies,” Mines said. “That’s what is so nice about this job--my work gets used.”


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