Sunday, June 24, 2007

It's Coming Up Roses: Can Good Information Trump Short Headways?

I've passed through Portland, Oregon, the Rose City, in recent travels. Tri-Met, the local transit system, is quite impressive. (Fact sheet here.) The Tri-Met rail system is growing steadily. Ridership has been increasing over the years. It appears that a payroll tax levied in the three-county area served by Tri-Met, has provided a solid funding base, so that transit fares provide under 25 percent of Tri-Met's operating income.

What really impressed me, however, was the quality of customer service. Tri-Met has done a good job of supplying its customers with accurate next bus/next train information through its Transit Tracker system.

From your desktop you navigate to your bus or train line and then to the stop nearest you. Transit Tracker will give you the real arrival time for the next two vehicles. You can even get a countdown in a pop-up box. Simple, neat, fast and, in my limited experience, accurate. No clunky maps. Just information.

Tri-Met does just as well for its customers in the field. Each of its bus stops has a number. Many of these bus stops have bus shelters with a nice easy-to-read schedule and route map. Some others have poles with schedules in a compressed format. But Tri-Met does not stop with posted schedules. Simply call a phone number listed on all bus stop signs and punch in the bus stop number at the prompt. Within seconds a recorded voice will tell you when the next vehicle will arrive.

It is a very cool system. Once I was dawdling at the hotel and found that a bus I wanted was arriving a block away in two minutes. I dashed out of the hotel and high-tailed it to the bus stop, arriving just in time for the bus. When shopping one rainy day I took note of the bus stop number nearest the store. When I was wrapping up on the shopping I called in the bus stop number and timed it so I had to stand outside in the rain for under a minute.

It appears that the private sector may be getting involved. I noted one establishment next to a streetcar line had a scrolling sign showing next train arrival information in a location easily seen by its customers. What a great convenience for transit customers, and it probably didn't cost Tri-Met a penny.

In a past post I've suggested that accurate next vehicle arrival data is more important to customers than service frequency. In many cases, customers can plan around a 20-60 minute headway if they know with certainty when the next vehicle will arrive. They will be infuriated, however, if they just miss a bus and have no idea when the next one will be arriving even if the scheduled headway is less than 20 minutes.

It remains to be seen if the new CTA administration and the possibly "reformed" RTA will be willing to roll out a similarly customer-friendly transit tracker system in this region. Will they make the data and their application(s) open source so that third-parties can develop custom-friendly applications (e.g., next vehicle arrival screensavers and widgets)?

Would you trade say a 10 percent reduction in service on your bus or train line if you had easy access to next vehicle arrival time information like that available to the good folks of Portland?

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can Good Information Trump Short Headways?

In a word, NO!

Portland is a city where a majority of the population drives cars. The main point of transit in Portland is to offset rush hour driving traffic loads. Not to provide a full time alternative to driving.

In contrast, Chicago is a city where transit is an important part of life, not just a second class alternative to the car. Here people use transit for all there transportation needs, not just work commutes. Greater frequency allows people to have greater flexibility in there schedules. No amount of next bus information can compete with that.

Further the real sticking point of longer headways is at transfer points. Lower frequencies mean longer transfer times. Even with good planning they still lead to much higher trip times.

Many people in Chicago enjoy not requiring a car. Increased headways and trip times would probably cause these people to use cars instead. This would further worsen Chicago's traffic, parking and pollution problems.

Should the CTA provide Next Bus information? Absolutely, but not at the expense of headways, that would be a real step backwards.

jackonthebus said...

I don't agree with the prior poster, because if bus bunching is as bad as some indicate, a route with a published 4 minute headway actually has a 12 minute interval, with three buses then appearing almost at once. I have seen situations like that, where the trailer is an empty articulated that is following two standard buses. In that case, the transfer intervals have already been affected, so just run the articulated bus. A study of actual intervals (the data are now available at least on a next day basis from information downloaded from the gps system) would indicate what the actual service interval is.

The question also is whether BusTracker, as being implemented by CTA, will only be used as a notification device to not wait on the corner because the bus will not be coming for 20 minutes (followed by two on its heels) or antiquated operating rules will be modified so that the real time information can be used to establish regularity of service. Apparently, bus bunching is is not remedied by rules that require that the leader stop at all stops and force the rider to decide whether another bus will immediately follow, and also apparently prohibit the trailer from leapfrogging the laggard.

Anonymous said...

SickTransit: I appreciate the fact that you're writing this blog, but I have to wonder if you regularly take transit. The obvious answer to your question for anyone who regularly has to wait for a bus (whether it be part of the trip or the full trip) is no. I don't care if the screen is telling me that the bus will be there in 15 minutes. It's cold and the street is likely unpleasant to have to stand on given the noise and ugliness of traffic, and I really just want the bus to be there asap. I could take a cab but I'd prefer not to have to waste my money. And I could walk but I'm tired and bet that as soon as I start walking the bus will roll up. I have no desire to own a car, and I'm not going to call someone to pick me up. I just want the darn bus to be there when I need it.

The real use of open source data is real time customer feedback on problems and suggestions that the transit agency can use to continuously improve its performance. But the agencies have to be willing to be open to more messy feedback from actual people; if they are, they'll win more loyal customers.

pc said...

Did you notice that the PDX system is also integrated with Google? Try google.com/transit.

These nifty IT solutions, however useful to the wired yuppie set, won't help Grandma Jefferson get down 79th Street. She, not I, is CTA's typical customer.

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