Pre-pre-script: I wrote this in 2004. I posted this in 2007. I am posting it again in 2011. Blessed little has changed in seven years, and it had not changed in a long time when I was inspired to write it in '04. (Yes, there are some apps for high-end phones. For the rest of us, on the scale I envisioned 15+ years ago, nada.)
Navigating without a map
Current mood: impatient
This essay from April 2004 followed my Post-Gazette opinion piece from April 4 2004, itself still a viable explanation of public transit's ever-present funding issues. However, this one addresses the fundamental needs for proper transit information faced by riders, a problem still not yet addressed.
I want to solve this! I want to have someone pay me to solve this! Help me, someone, please!
Buying the Salt Truck But Not the Salt
Imagine for a moment that you just got a new job, hired through an agency, and now need to drive there for the first time. There is just one teeny-weeny problem: Yes, you have the name and address of the place, and you do own a map, but no road signs of any sort exist anywhere, and never did. The highway people said that sometime they will put up a few signs along the larger roads, but with all these recent layoffs in highway maintenance, that might be a long time in coming.
That could never happen, right? Quite true, it can't. Our highways are very well signed, thank you.
Such, however, is the lot of the transit rider. A vast need exists for truly useful rider information, but it is assumed that everyone who rides simply knows how to get from place to place. That is not a correct assumption. Commuters who drive, as a class, simply have no concept of what the rider deals with, nor do they care to. Well, as the song goes, there but for fortune go you and I.
To help illustrate this, in late August 2000, a friend lost his home and moved in with me for a few weeks. Though he was 100% transit dependent, I knew it was possible for him to bus to work from my house, since we worked in nearby buildings and I made the trip by bus myself each day. However, he was thrust into a very foreign commuting pattern. He needed to make the two-bus trip both ways without landmarks, without help, and without error, right away.
The biggest problem was his work schedule, which differed considerably from mine. While he worked a fixed-shift, five-day, 40-hour week, no two days' work times were alike, and his days off were Tuesday and Wednesday. The buses have entirely different schedules for weekdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Taking his work schedule and the printed timetable for every bus route that went within a mile of both my house and our worksite, I figured out everything he needed to know: local streets, bus stops, nearby routes, their routing variants, walking directions, walking travel times, Downtown transfer points, how to travel between those points, and landmarks to identify where to get off. He also needed alternative travel plans in case he had to stay late or he missed a connection. One thing I did not have to figure out was fares, since he owned a monthly pass. Without one, figuring out fares is a project unto itself, in addition to the travelling.
This was not a trivial task. It was a tedious, meticulous, manual process, even if it did follow a straightforward pattern. Two hours later, I had made a suitable set of maps and figured out the weekday schedule. Saturday's chart took over another hour, Sunday's yet another. After almost five hours work, I had him rolling for about a week and a half.
Then came September 10, 2000, opening day for the West Busway. Every route in my charts was modified. With new timetables in hand and a couple of new routes in the mix, I again returned to the charts, this time cranking out the three in a little over two hours. I didn't mind the work, as I also needed much of the information for my own commute.
This *must* be computerized for public use somewhere, I thought. With the right programming, those charts could be assembled in seconds. Port Authority had a website, but at the time it had little more than an on-line version of the printed schedules. In my graduate research, I knew that information in the form I needed was not available anywhere in 2000. Almost four years later, very little has changed. [Update, February 2008: Almost eight years later, very little has changed.] [Update, August 2011: Eleven years later, we are finally starting to see some apps for high-end cell phones, plus Google Transit is a nice start, but it is not what I want to see.]
I began to wonder just how often a scenario like this transpires. People move. People change jobs. People relocate here daily. Some workers travel to a different site every day. If it was as difficult for everyone else as it was for me, a graduate student with formal training in geographic information systems, is it any wonder that people prefer to drive if they have a choice?
Now again imagine if the tables were turned. No roads have signs, but transit information is available in forms aplenty, everywhere, embedded in people's psyches. Service abounds 24/7. Express and cross-town routes are everywhere. Vehicles are clean and properly maintained. And anyway, since it costs 10 times more to maintain a car than it does to ride buses, for a year, when all is said and done, why would anyone want to use a car?
Back to reality. Transit-dependent riders somehow figure out how to get around, or so we think. They have to, or they wouldn't have jobs, or so we think. But hey, wait a minute, could it just be that the reason this segment of the population often does not have good jobs, or cannot keep them, is precisely because of this information deficit? Or at least a major factor? For even when the service is there, if you don't know that it is, it cannot help you.
What does this all mean? Riders need information. They don't have it. When they do get information, it isn't enough, and rapidly becomes obsolete. Without the right information, they become stranded, lost, late, and have paid for the privilege. This failure to provide for people's needs persuades people to abandon transit as soon as they can, and dissuades them from ever returning.
Nor, with the on-going strangulation in transit funding, are they likely to get that information anytime soon. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, transit has been underfunded for decades. People may gripe about government subsidizing transit, but nary a thought goes to the trillions of dollars that have been and continue to be spent to build and maintain roads. Do we spend all this money on roads because it is the right thing to do? Or, rather, has it become the right thing to spend money on roads just because we can find the money? There is certainly nothing right about strangling transit, any more than it would be right to forego further road maintenance. But highways have a dedicated funding source; transit does not.
To remedy the information deficit, transit company staff must be hired to provide and maintain information systems. That requires money, money that Pennsylvania transit companies do not now have and cannot ever seem to get.
Highways have signs, even cameras, because of this dedicated source. Sure, transit capital projects get funded (busways, new buses, etc.), but not operations. It's like buying a salt truck, but never the salt. Every year, it's the same battle. Maybe they can run the buses, maybe not, but if funding is short, the first thing to go is support staff, thereby blocking or delaying progress in making things better. Then it's fare hikes and service cuts, year after year. Sound familiar?
What Pennsylvania legislators need to do is not just find the $110 million more to keep the buses running this year [FY2005] ($27M for Port Authority alone), not just set up a structure for dedicated funding for next year, but add to that enough to make transit better, and easier to use.
Think about that the next time you see a road sign.
[Post-Script: Port Authority of Allegheny County laid off dozens of white-collar staff in 2007, gutting its Information Technology department. Consequently, there is not even a hope of getting this project underway. Still.]