DOWNTOWN — Planning a trip around town just got easier.

The Big Blue Bus recently installed a series of new signs that notify awaiting passengers when their ride is scheduled to arrive, part of an effort aimed at improving technology and communication between the public transportation agency and its growing customer base.

Displayed overhead at four stops along Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard in Downtown, the new electronic signs relay real-time information to riders on which line is due next and the estimated time of arrival.

All motor coaches in the system have been outfitted to transmit information of their exact locations via radio channel to the Big Blue Bus, passing that along to select bus shelters. There are approximately 14 signs that have been installed at UCLA, the Rimpau terminal and in Santa Monica with plans to expand to Santa Monica College and other high volume stops, Linda Gamberg, spokeswoman for the Big Blue Bus, said.

“Our mission is to provide excellent service and innovation to our customers,” she said.

Dennis Lingard, a 64-year-old Santa Monica native and bus rider, said that other public transportation agencies have posted similar notifications for their passengers.

“It’s very helpful to get an estimated time,” Lingard said as he waited for a bus at a stop on Santa Monica Boulevard and Fourth Street.

The real-time sign is the first of a multi-phase effort to provide a direct feed of information to customers about where their ride is located, all part of the Advanced Fleet Management System project, which is estimated to cost $7.5 million. The signs cost about $3,900 a piece.

The agency is preparing to roll out the other phases over the next year, including the unveiling of the Info-IVR, which will allow passengers to call the Big Blue Bus and receive real-time automated information about specific lines and stops.

Passengers today can receive that same information from the Big Blue Bus but are restricted to customer service hours and also face the added inconvenience of being put on hold to talk to a live operator.

Gamberg said that the new application will be tested on focus groups next month. The target date to roll out the Info-IVR is February 2010.

The agency is also redesigning its Web site to allow riders to plan their itinerary online by entering their starting point and destination. Passengers currently have to plan their Big Blue Bus trips through the Metropolitan Transportation Authority site.

The new site will also allow users to set up alerts that will be sent to their desktop or phone when their line is about to arrive.

Officials are also working with Google to add the Big Blue Bus to its Google Transit trip planning application, a process that was delayed because of issues that the agency faced with its software provider. Gamberg said she expects the Google Transit feature for the Big Blue Bus to be ready before its own Web site is relaunched.

The Big Blue Bus has also began the design process for a group of bus shelters that will be redeveloped. All 328 stops in the city have been assigned to one of four categories, receiving certain amenities depending on if they are considered high volume, medium volume, lower volume and special high volume, which have more than 1,000 daily boardings. The only stop to fall under the latter category is located at Pico Boulevard and 18th Street.

The redesign project will place new shelters at the 48 high volume stops, which have more than 100 but less than 999 daily boardings.

Glenda Phillips, a long-time bus rider who commutes by bus almost daily from West Los Angeles, said the signs haven’t provided much extra help since she’s pretty much figured out that her bus — line 7 — comes just about every 15 minutes.

But what she’s looking forward to is the Info-IVR, allowing her to better estimate when she should leave home, which is located about 15 minutes from the nearest stop.

“It would be a great thing to have to call and not have to guess,” she said.

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