Sunday, May 13, 2007

CTA Service Cuts and Bus Tracker

Ron Huberman, the CTA's new President, stated that Mayor Daley told him to make consistent service, cleanliness and courtesy the CTA's top goals.

Huberman has started by cutting managerial job positions and implementing some other efficiencies. These moves will save $12.5 million, which is a small fraction of the amount of additional operating subsidies that the CTA is seeking from the General Assembly.

Unless the RTA's Moving Beyond Congest initiative bears rich fruit for the CTA and the other service board--an unlikely prospect at this point--Huberman is going to have cut back on CTA service levels significantly. The Auditor General, after all, found that over the past five years the CTA added more service when it lacked the funds to pay for that service.

Perhaps the CTA's Bus Tracker system provides an opportunity to make substantial service cuts without seriously inconveniencing customers.

When customers have no information about when the next bus (or train) arrives they must stand out at the bus stop and wait for the bus to arrive. This wait time lengthens the total trip time significantly. Consequently, in order to have any chance of retaining a significant number of customers public transit operators like the CTA have to run buses at no more than a 15-20 minute interval. As a result, during off hours and on less heavily patronized routes we see buses running at regular 15-20 minute intervals carrying relatively few people. The CTA must lose a great deal of money on such routes during these low-patronage periods.

The Bus Tracker system allows the CTA much more flexibility to cut service on these low-partronage/off peak routes. So long as people can readily access Bus Tracker and know for certain when the next bus is coming, bus intervals of say once an hour become possible. Sure there are fewer buses, but with Bus Tracker people will have the assurance that they can catch a bus without an extended wait. It may be irrational, but I suspect people can more easily accepting planning around a one hour interval if they know their maximum wait at the bus stop is 5 minutes than if the buses are scheduled at 20 minute intervals but the customer has no idea if and when the bus will be arriving.

Bus Tracker in its current form is clunky and slow. It took some time to load on both Firefox and Safari browers via a DSL line. (It is obviously decaffeinated Java they are using.) But it is a start and it will take only $24 million to roll it out system wide.

Now imagine some folks (open source community?) who know how to create simple, elegant user-friendly software got a crack at the Bus Tracker software with the goal of making bus arrival times ubiquitous:
  • Screen savers that show arrival times for your selected bus route(s) and eliminate the need to navigate to the CTA Tracker site and wait for software to download.
  • Email notifications of bus arrival times that customers can set up easily by computer or cellphone.
  • Automated phone call notifications set up in the same way.
  • Dashboard programs (Windows Vista has a knockoff) that provide easy access to bus arrival times.
  • A phone number customers can call and use text or automated voice systems to get bus arrival times.
I'm not a geek, so I'm sure there may be other ways to push bus arrival time information out to the public with the goal that no one is farther than a computer or cellphone away from accurate, real-time bus arrival times.

Let's say that it takes another $24 million to implement these initiatives and that the CTA gets away from the proprietary software model and leverages the talent of the open source community to develop some decent software. For a total investment of about $50 million, the CTA gets much more than than just a new customer service tool. It also gets a way to cut service without adversely impacting the now much better informed and empowered customer.

I suspect that over the course of a 2-3 years the CTA could realize at least $50 million in savings by scaling back bus intervals throughout its system. This would be an attractive ROI for the investment in Bus Tracker. It would give Huberman a chance to show that the CTA is responding appropriately to the Auditor General's finding that the CTA's service levels are excessive relative to its financial resources. And if Bus Tracker realizes its promise of making bus arrival time information ubiquitous for the customer, the CTA's customer service reputation will not take a hit.

In other words, Bus Tracker might just deserve being one of the top three items on Huberman's priority list.

Next up in this area: Just in time bus dispatching in response to customer on-line "orders" for transit service. Let folks who need a bus use their cellphone or computer to say when and in what direction they need a bus. When there is sufficient customer interest on a route the CTA dispatches a bus and sends each customer a notice it is coming. If interest is insufficient to warrant a bus, then the CTA tells them to use alternative means--e.g., another bus route in the area, a taxi, or the friendly neighborhood jitney service (but that is another story as well).


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