Saturday, February 2, 2008

One more rant: Public Transit

Huh. It appears that, for whatever reason, people seem to actually be listening to me rant. I suspect I just stunned them with sheer volume of wordage and they haven't quite figured out that I am making things up as I go along. So to continue that trend...

I've brought up the subject of public transit either vaguely or in very specific instances recently, but the fact is that it's a big subject that is very important to me. I don't own a car. I have never owned a car, and if I can avoid it I never will. This remains dependent on where I live, where I work in relation, and what other options are available to me. And I know people to whom this is an even more relevant subject. My father, for example, spent his last few years before hitting retirement age making his way toward being mostly blind. He can function, get around without a cane, even use a computer with great proficiency, provided sufficient screen zoom. But he certainly can't drive a car.

(He was in the first stages of this when I was 18 or so, preparing to take my driver's test. I tell you what... it is an interesting experience learning to drive with someone who is unknowingly losing their depth perception.)

The point is that there are those of us that use public transit because we feel like it's the best option. And there are also those of us who use it because it is our only option. But there are also many people for whom it could be the best idea who will never know it. Much like the problem of increasing visitors and foot traffic downtown, it's not about convincing me that I'm doing the right thing. It's about dragging the rest of the world, the driving world, to a point where they see the advantages of other options. So how do we do that?

We know it's cheap. We know it's healthy. Now make it easy.

How much does Pierce Transit, Sound Transit, any transit in the area spend on add campaigns comparing buses to cars, pointing out the pollution that cars give off, the cost of gasoline? Do they genuinely believe they are providing anyone with new information? Go out and ask 20 people, non-bus riders, whether they think it's cheaper to ride the bus or drive everywhere. Ask another 20 people what creates more pollution, ten cars or ten people on a bus. People know the answers to these questions. They don't drive because they think it's cheaper, nor because they think it's healthier.

So why do people eschew the bus? Convenience. We live in a culture of convenience, of one-stop superstores, online shopping and instant communication. Any blow against the ease of use of your product or service can be crushing. Once people have cars, those become easy. And the transit system here is, frankly, not.

I can forgive minor scheduling complaints. That's something that people simply have to learn to deal with: you cannot always get a bus at exactly the moment that you want it. But generally life can wait 15 minutes until the next one rolls around. This is not my concern. My concern is ticketing. At the moment there are three means of ticketing. You can buy the monthly bus pass, you can buy a booklet of tickets or you can pay cash. First off, the booklet of 10 $1.50 tickets I didn’t even know about until yesterday, and I'm an avid rider, so I'd say that could probably use a little publicity. Second, the monthly bus passes, while great for some, have severe weaknesses. At $54.00, they are priced at the cost of 36 local Pierce Transit fares. So anyone who rides the bus 36 times or more in a month is set (when I was taking the bus to work I rode it up to 50 times a month). Likewise, the people who ride a bit less but find it worth a couple extra bucks to not need exact change are alright.

So what about everyone else? People like me who can walk to work but would like to take the bus to eat a hot dog and drink a beer, or go across town to the comic shop on a Saturday? There is no other non-cash option.

I've had a chance to travel around quite a bit over the last few years, and so I've used a number of different transit systems: San Diego, Minneapolis, New York City and London. The two that strike me the most are NYC and London. These places have evolved quite efficient ticketing methods out of pure necessity. I was in London with a number of people, and was able to buy a week-long pass for the tube and coach services. Frequently commuting residents could buy monthly passes. Those with less regular schedules (like me, here) can simply top up their card with a certain amount of cash. Simply the ability to not be worried all the time whether you have correct change is a great boon for the system.

Which brings me to...

The rest of the world achieves convenience through technology. You can, too!

The varied system in London works because it is electronic. I bought my Oyster Card (I don't know why they are called that, but whatever) within minutes of getting off the plane, so it was in their system as a week pass. To enter a tube station, I scanned the card. To get on a bus, I swiped the card. Nine days later I had to take the tube back to the airport, so I walked up to the machine, filled with with a single three zone fare, and swiped the card. This allows everyone to have the same card, and use it as they see fit. The technology makes the system flexible.

NYC was similar. Every station had a ticket machine that you could pay in cash or card, and even the paper tickets had magnetic strips. Day passes, three day passes, timed passes, all handled by computer. Guess what? Our Puget Passes have magnetic strips. And there are a few buses in King County Metro that have a swipe system (though they'll still let you just show them your pass), but no consistency. I know there have been tests and focus groups and what-have-you done on Pierce Transit recently about actually introducing the card swipe, which would be a great first step. Once the tech is in place to read the cards, it's a relatively simple matter to set them up as more than just monthlies.

Your website is bad.

I've been talking a lot in the last couple days about economic issues. I have no background in this. I don't know how much things cost to achieve. I wrote quite a bit in favor of light rail extensions based on convenience issues, but have had it pointed out by others (who have done more research) that this would be financially prohibitive and perhaps even irresponsible. So I am no expert on this. What I am an expert on is websites. They are what I do for a living. And the Pierce Transit website is simply awful. To the point of making the whole system harder to use.

It would be great if everyone, no matter where they were, only had to take one bus to get anywhere else. It would be great, and it will never, ever happen, neither here nor anywhere. This is why taxis are more expensive. What you can do is make it easy to determine how to do what where. Yes, you have the trip planner, but that only works for a straight point A to point B jump. If I want to go from home to the comic shop to the mall and back home, I am fortunate enough to know that I can take the 41 or 42 out to 72nd, the 56 to the mall, and the 53, 57 or 3 back downtown. Many people would not know that. There are so many little things that could be done... links from each timed stop showing a list of nearby connections at that time (the closest they've got now is the map with links to nearby routes... you still have to dig through for the times). Hell, any sort of general listing of other routes so you don't have to go back to the Schedules page and pick another.

These are easy things to achieve and they increase usability drastically. And the easier it is for people to use the system, the more likely they are to do so.

You don't have to wait until there's no other choice.

The best transit systems around evolved, as mentioned, by necessity. There is too much traffic and too large a population in Manhattan and London to have a ticketing system that doesn't run smoothly most of the time. Yes, they suffer plenty of delays for a variety of reasons, but the system of figuring out how to get somewhere and paying for it works well, because otherwise everyone would go nuts trying to manage it.

The problem is in assuming that because we don’t have the congestion and the population, we have no use for the progress. Will your system break down without these advancements? No. But if your only goal is to stay just above the disaster line, I don’t think you're looking at it the right way. You don't just want to keep your customers, you want to add new ones. You want to take innovations that others developed because they had to, and use them because it's just a good idea.

Anyway, I'm winding down on rant fuel, so I've just got one more thing...

Those buses you have doing most of the Seattle/Tacoma runs? They are shit.

You know the ones I mean, Sound Transit. They are tall and narrow. Tall and narrow is why SUVs have a high rollover rate: high center of gravity tends to want to become a low center of gravity. That the 594 doesn't flip over every few days is a testament to the quality of your drivers and the lack of tight curves on I-5. Tall and narrow also means that 1) the steps are way too steep and 2) the walkway is way too small. What else do you use these buses for? The airport express. Have you tried carrying a suitcase onto one of those? It is not fun. Especially since the overheads aren't even big enough for my carry-on.

While we're on the subject of the steep stairs, who came up with that system for taking on wheelchair passengers? Anyone who can't make it up the stairs has to wait for the elevator seats to be moved and the lift to come down. That's alright for a wheelchair, I guess, since you'd have to take the time to strap them in regardless, but what about someone with a walker who just wants to shuffle up a ramp and sit down? For that matter, what do you do when someone is already locked in and you need to pick up a second wheelchair? Surely this happens on occasion. I just can't quite figure how it would work.

Who pointed out all these problems to me? Annoyed commuter? Grumpy wheelchair owner? Nope. Friendly bus driver. Who detailed the experience of Sound Transit buying a couple of the buses to test, asking all the drivers for their opinions, and then promptly ignoring them and buying the cheaper tall skinny buses anyway.

Thus ends my run of poorly researched, hastily cobbled together rambles on topics I know little about. Stay tuned later for my return to blogging about beer, food and music.


freelance said...

the Transport for London site is absolutely amazing. taking a gander at the toronto transit site was so completely painful in comparison.

i realize transit at the best of times have tight budgets, but i think if you made the system more easy to access from home people would be more inclined to take it.

Anonymous said...

You are becoming quite the editorialist, dude. I am not surprised people are reading this. It is well-thought and well written. Good job.

Anonymous said...

And yes, cash cards are the thing I miss, next to a sign that tells you which one the next stop is, and buses being on time (there have been times when my 594 has just not shown up, and I had to wait for the 45-minutes-later one.) It's not that damn difficult.