Tar River Transit: not the ‘alternative’

Tar River Transit bus stop flagOver the weekend, I found myself in the service area of Tar River Transit, a transit system operated by First Transit for the City of Rocky Mount, North Carolina (population 57,010). I don’t have any hard numbers on TRT because they were exempt from reporting to the National Transit Database as of 2009. However, from their Web site, we can find out that they operate a total of nine routes, which all connect at the Downtown Transfer Center (which doubles as TRT’s headquarters). Many of these connections are timed transfers (a good strategy for route design), although the agency has rider-unfriendly and arcane transfer rules. But for a small transit agency, on the whole, the service is not that bad. There’s a distinct lack of evening service, and no service at all on Sunday, but those are issues which I’m sure could be addressed with increased funding.

While I’m not an expert in service planning, I know from reading Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit that there are certain techniques which can be applied to even small transit agencies to improve usability and the quality of service. Looking at those guidelines, TRT gets a lot right—they operate a ‘pulse’ service, and make use of through-routing, in which a bus ending its run on one route immediately begins a run on another route.

So, then, what’s the verdict on TRT? Continue reading Tar River Transit: not the ‘alternative’

Reflective vests: not a target for terrorists; good for safety

In late May, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on an ongoing dispute between SEPTA and the BLET, the union representing SEPTA’s railroad engineers. As reported by the Inquirer, this dispute (which is itself part of broader contract negotiations) centers on the requirement that engineers wear reflective vests on the job, not just while on or about the track, as is already required, but at all times.

SEPTA’s request doesn’t seem unreasonable, but the union’s not having any of it. Their first argument is that the vests are unfashionable; one engineer claims that “[w]e look like the Fruit of the Loom lemon in those things”. But they don’t stop there; the union also claims that engineers should not have to wear reflective vests because “[t]hey have identified for any potential terrorist who the locomotive engineer is”. The idea that a terrorist would single out an individual in a reflective vest sounds like what Bruce Schneier would call a movie-plot threat. Bluntly, it’s just not a credible argument against the vests—and neither is complaining about them being unfashionable.
Continue reading Reflective vests: not a target for terrorists; good for safety

Social media engagement when things go wrong

Note: An expanded version of this article was cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

Early on the morning of May 17, MTA New York City Transit experienced a derailment which snarled subway service in Brooklyn. Instead of trying to cover up the incident as WMATA might have done, the MTA tweeted about the incident, including photos of the re-railing:

Dan Stessel, are you listening? Social media engagement isn’t just about your successes; it’s about your failures, too. The more transparent you are, the more riders will trust you and the agency when you communicate online. Derailments happen—there’ll inevitably be more on the Metrorail system—and how you react to them and other incidents matters. Creating a “climate of openness and transparency” means tweeting about the good and the bad, acknowledging when things go wrong, and being open about the recovery process. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here: @PATHTweet and @NYCTSubwayScoop (among others) serve as excellent examples of social media done right by transit agencies, and WMATA would do well to model its social media initiatives after those of the Port Authority and MTA.

Rider feedback for transit systems: the good and the bad

In July 2010, I attended a briefing for developers put on by WMATA, in advance of the launch of WMATA’s open data initiatives. One of the points expressed by developers at the meeting was a desire to give riders an easy way to provide feedback to WMATA from within mobile transit apps. So, while I was browsing the MBTA‘s developer resources page recently, I was interested to see that they have a pilot program to allow developers to communicate rider feedback to the MBTA from within apps. The program, called Commuter Connect, offers a web service which accepts text and images from riders. It looked great to me, until I checked the documentation. Rather than offering riders a simple free-form comment field, riders must give their full name, email address, home city, state, and ZIP code (what about non-US residents?), among other fields. Worse, riders must select a ‘topic’ and ‘subtopic’, choosing from dozens of cryptically-named options, like “Insensitive to Cust Needs” and “Passenger Bypass”.
The FAQ for the program says:

Why so many required fields? Commuter Connect is built as a part of customer care center′s management system. For us to follow-up on comments, we need all required fields. For full details of how to use the system please closely review the documentation.

Simply put, the problem with Commuter Connect is that it communicates with riders in the vernacular of the transit system, and expects them to do the same. There’s no absolute reason that riders have to classify the problem they’re submitting (least of all in the transit agency’s specialized vernacular); that can be done by the transit agency’s staff. More to the point, it exemplifies the sort of tone-deafness which perpetuates communication with riders by mass transit agencies—an inability to use plain language and communicate clearly. WMATA’s customer comment form exhibits the same problem—essentially ignoring rider feedback if the rider cannot be bothered to jump through all of the transit agency’s hoops—along with an expectation that riders will describe their problems in the same terms the transit agency would use. Perhaps the only redeeming factor for the MBTA’s Commuter Connect program is that it makes it easy to upload a photo (but accepting video as well would be even better).

By contrast, the approach taken by DDOT with the DC Circulator is a model for making rider feedback easy. Every Circulator bus has stickers prominently applied with a QR code and URL which allow riders to provide feedback; the feedback form is simple and uncomplicated:
DC Circulator feedback form
The mobile site requires no specialized software, and works on any device with a Web browser. Riders are not required to provide their personal information, nor are they required to categorize their comment according to the narrow confines of the transit agency’s schema. At the same time, if a rider wants to provide their contact information, there’s nothing stopping them from including it with their remarks. DDOT’s approach is designed to accept as much feedback as possible, rather than rejecting potential valuable feedback based on technicalities (like failure to include one’s home ZIP code, or classify one’s comment into arcane categories).

In short, transit agencies should be responsive to rider feedback even though it may come in a range of forms, and they should make the process as straightforward as possible—more like the DC Circulator, less like WMATA and the MBTA.

ABBey 1234: 1938—2010

For many young people like myself, it may be hard to believe that there was an era before Google Transit, when planning a journey to an unfamiliar place on public transit meant sitting down with maps and timetables and working out the exact details by hand. If you didn’t have a complete set of timetables and maps on hand, then you had to call the transit agency’s information line. There, you’d speak to a staff member who, armed with maps and timetables, would give you the information you needed to complete your journey. Later, they had access to computers—primitive versions of today’s trip planners—but before the Internet, you couldn’t access those databases directly; you still had to call the call center first. (For a discussion of this type of system, see this article by David Maltby in Transport Reviews on a system used by Greater Manchester Transport in the late 1980s.)

In London, the number to call was 020 7222 1234, until October 25, when Transport for London withdrew that number from service and replaced it with 0843 222 1234. This may not seem like a big deal, until you realize that in doing so TfL has thrown away more than seventy years of history. For many years the number to call was 01 222 1234, which became 071 222 1234, which then became 0171 222 1234, which finally became 020 7222 1234 (this was part of the great renumberings of the 1990s). In fact, the history goes even further back than that; before the introduction of subscriber trunk dialing, 01 222 1234 would have been “ABBey 1234″—and that number goes back to April 2, 1938, according to Mike Horne’s history of telecommunications on the London Underground.

There’s more than the lost history, though; the 020 number was a local number, and the 0843 number is not. In the US, the only non-local domestic numbers which cost more than a normal toll call are 900 numbers, but in the UK, there’s a whole class of so-called “non-geographic numbers” which cost more than a normal toll call, and for which the rate charged depends on your provider and the number you’re calling, and the 0843 number is one of those non-geographic numbers. TfL has a really fantastic journey planner, but for people without Internet access, or with more complex travel needs, the best option was to call for information. Now, they’ll be connected to “a voice-activated service that will deal with simple A to B journeys between stations, hospitals, major landmarks or points of interest within the London area”, and they’ll be paying for the privilege of doing so, no less.

According to a post in uk.transport.london, this change came about as a result of infrastructure changes by TfL—but infrastructure changes alone do not strike me as sufficient reason to introduce a service which costs more, does less, and does away with 72 years of history.