Context-free trip planning

Jarrett Walker was in town last week, and among other points he emphasized the value of grids, and the value of high-frequency transit services—“frequency is freedom”, as he says. While a regular grid of frequent services makes it easier to get around without having to consult an online trip planner before every trip, many riders still rely on Google Transit and local trip planners to figure out how to get around.

Matt Johnson argues that trip planners should show riders a wider range of options, illustrating how the schedules of connecting services (like bus and rail) mesh.

I’d argue, though, that for a transit system where most destinations are within reach of a high-frequency grid, that the best thing we can do to improve the usability of transit is show fewer times, not more.

If a person is travelling between two points that are served by the high-frequency grid, then what does it matter when they are leaving? When you provide a rider with a rigid itinerary—“here’s how to get there if you leave at exactly 5:17 PM”—you give them the impression that if their departure time changes, then they have to re-plan their entire trip. When high-frequency routes are used, that simply isn’t the case.

When a trip can be taken entirely using high-frequency routes, doesn’t it seem so much more liberating to tell the rider to “show up any time and arrive within 45 minutes”? Simplifying directions like this helps riders internalize the route network, and encourages spontaneity. Instead of having the sense that every transit trip starts with a visit to Google Transit, riders gain the sense that they can travel whenever they want. Once again, “frequency is freedom”.

In fact, the worst thing a trip planner can do is recommend that a rider take an infrequent, irregular service just because it happens to be there when the rider is starting their trip. A great example of this is the Route 305 bus in Los Angeles; as Jarrett Walker explains, it’s a low-frequency service which runs through a high-frequency grid:

That means that the 305 is the fastest path between two points on the line only if it happens to be coming soon. If you just miss one, there’s another way to get there faster, via the much more frequent lines that flow north-south and east-west across this entire area.

So, why should a trip planner ever recommend that a rider take a bus like the Route 305? Doesn’t it make more sense to show them to how to use the high-frequency grid to their advantage?

Our hapless, misdirected rider will doggedly wait for that infrequent route to come along, because it’s what is on their itinerary. But if they’d been given an itinerary which sent them along the high-frequency grid, they’d be on their way a lot sooner.

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Metro Forward: how you turn a transit agency around

Note: An edited version of this post was cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

Ten days ago, WMATA launched Metro Forward, a six-year action plan (and associated media campaign). The region’s transit infrastructure has suffered badly from decades of underinvestment and deterioration, and Metro Forward is all about changing that. Metro Forward is an ambitious plan: station rehabilitation, track replacement, new buses, and, of course, a new way of communicating with riders. It will take serious time and money, and riders will face disruption along the way, but Metro Forward is what this system needs for its survival. Right now, Metro Forward is more ambition than action; the program is barely a month old, and it will be some time before riders see real, tangible effects.

This is not the first time I have watched a transit agency try to turn itself around; Metro Forward reminds me very much of Mouvement Collectif, a similar program by the STM, the public transit agency in Montreal. When I arrived in Montreal in 2005, the STM struck me as being, well, good enough. The buses and metro ran (usually on time), and most buses ran frequently enough. I remember spending too long in a very cold, snowy bus shelter one time, but that was the exception, rather than the norm (and partly my fault, for not checking how often the bus ran). At the same time, there was still a lot of room for improvement. The trip planner was a fiddly home-grown affair. There was very little real-time information available for rail passengers, and no real-time information for bus passengers. This was before Twitter, but the STM didn’t post disruption information on its Web site—even in the case of major disruptions. The fare collection system wasn’t ancient, but it wasn’t modern, either. There were some new buses in the fleet, but no hybrids or articulated buses, and the new buses were catching fire (seriously, it was bad).
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More weekend closures, less single-tracking for Metrorail

Note: This article was cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

In 1971, an article in the IEEE Transactions on Industry and General Applications described service levels on BART as follows:

The BART system will provide service at 90-s intervals during peak demand periods, extending to as long as 15-min intervals during the low-demand early morning hours. At no time will service be discontinued; by the use of carefully placed crossovers and the control of trains in a reverse running mode, maintenance work on the roadbed can be performed without serious disruption of the service.

Of course, in 1971 BART had yet to open, and the Metrorail system had only broken ground two years earlier. Operating experience in the years since has shown that while single-tracking may preserve service, it does so at the expense of lengthened headways and disruptions along the entire length of the line. Today, taking this experience into account, WMATA has announced a new approach to weekend track work on the Metrorail system, in which entire sections of lines will be closed and replaced with buses. Single-tracking doesn’t just disrupt riders in the work area itself; it slows down the entire line, and affects riders throughout the Metrorail system. WMATA’s new approach to track work will preserve service on the open portions of lines, and avoid the follow-on effects which usually occur when trains are single-tracking.

Closing lines to speed repairs is, by itself, nothing new; in 2006, London Underground elected to close the Waterloo & City Line in its entirety for five months, in order to avoid a projected 70 weekend closures necessary to complete the major overhaul of the line. Because of the complete closure, weekday riders who would have been spared disruption under a program of weekend closures instead had to take alternate routes—but, because the complete closure was more efficient, the work was done (and the disruption ended) in five months, instead of more than a year for weekend closures alone. MTA New York City Transit has also been examining partial line closures as an alternative to frequent evening and weekend disruption. No decision has been made yet, but MTA Chairman Jay Walder seems to be of the opinion that it’s a strategy which has proven itself in London, and which may prove viable in New York as well.

So, how well will this strategy work for Metrorail? At the extremities of lines, complete closures will probably be superior to single-tracking; work will go faster with no trains running through the work areas, and the unaffected parts of the line won’t have to contend with the bottleneck caused by single-tracking. In the core of the network, though, where ridership levels are high even on weekends, shuttle buses may end up swamped with passengers, leading to delays for riders travelling through the closed areas. In the end, riders will face disruption whether trains are single-tracking or replaced with shuttle buses—but in this case, replacing trains with shuttle buses means a faster end to the work, and a quicker return to normalcy.

Station names are about system usability, not neighborhood identity

Note: This article was cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

Metrorail station names are long. Long enough, in fact, that they’re a source of frequent debate, whether it’s comparing Metrorail station names to those of similar systems, or proposing new station names. The consensus among many transit advocates is that the long station names do little to aid wayfinding, and if anything are probably actively harmful to the usability of the Metrorail system. Now, WMATA has developed a new set of station naming guidelines.

These guidelines were previewed at last week’s meeting of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, and a fervent debate on station names followed. When the issue of shortening certain station names was discussed, some RAC members proceeded to call for an elongated timeline, extensive outreach programs, public hearings, and more. There was even some discussion of not changing certain station names, out of a fear of political repercussions.
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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.