let’s fix MBTA: Introduction

7 October 2005, 12:33 pm

Hurricane Katrina has several things to teach us, if we have the courage to learn from it.

One hard lesson is that our fossil fuel use is much too close to the production and delivery capacity.

Forget for a moment arguments about how finite the resources are or aren’t. This fluctuation in production/delivery had a severe effect on our economy. It hit every driver square in the wallet. Our oil dependance places the U.S. at risk both from economic extortion by fuel-suppliers and terrorist actions intended to disrupt fuel flow. It is imperative that this nation reduce its fossil fuel consumption immediately.

One of the best ways for individual citizens to reduce gas consumption is to use public transportation where it’s available. In my years of advocating increased use of available public transit options, I’ve encountered two arguments over and over again:

  1. It’s not reliable enough. Commuters lack the confidence that public transit will provide for consistent timely arrival:
    “I can’t afford to be late to that meeting. My job is on the line.”
  2. It’s not flexible enough. While public transit may satisfy the needs of commuters with fixed schedules, it doesn’t support variations in the normal routine:
    “What if I need to stay late one night? Go in early? Or run an errand on the way home?”

(There’s also an attitudinal problem that I think of as the “only losers take the bus”-syndrome, and I don’t have ideas on how to combat it effectively. But I think the wallet-hit of increased gas prices will erode it a bit.)

Conventional wisdom seems to be that in order to address these issues, the quality of service needs to be improved by adding capacity to the system (more routes and/or more frequent trips).

This creates a catch-22 for public transit administrations: they need to increase service to increase ridership, but they need to increase ridership in order to get the funding to increase service. It’s a no-win scenario, particularly for administrations competing with transportation infrastructure money pits like the Big Dig.

In these essays, I will propose specific ways in which the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority could improve its overall quality of service without adding capacity. My fundamental argument is that improving the quality of information about the behavior of the system will make it functionally more predictable, comprehensible, usable, and viable. Initially, I’m going to focus on approaches which should not require large capital investments or major changes to existing services. Suggestions with broader implications will follow.

I’ll talk specifically about MBTA, but I’ll also draw on first-hand experiences in other major metropolitan areas (notably Washington, D.C. and San Francisco) and discussions with public transit users and non-users nationwide. I think several of my suggestions could improve the quality of service in other cities. (Some cities actually already implement a few of the approaches I’ll recommend for Boston.)

I welcome discussion and debate. Some of my suggestions might not be as workable as they appear to someone outside the system. You might have a great idea that I’d never think of.

If anyone finds my suggestions useful, I must share some credit with author Donald Norman (The Design of Everyday Things) and the staff of a certain nameless lunch counter, who first inspired me (in very different ways) to think about how usability lessons from computer interfaces could be applied to real-world systems.

5 comments on “let’s fix MBTA: Introduction”

  1. loudfan

    At bus stops in Stockholm, there’s a digital display that shows exactly when the next bus will be coming along. Love that!

  2. summervillain

    Controversy already! Excellent. I saw a prototype of a next-bus display system in Arlington, Virginia. I thought it was a enormous waste of money: expensive, inaccurate (the predicted arrival time kept changing, presumably as the bus sat in traffic), and fragile. The prototype was also only for one bus line, which had the effect of instantly making everyone else at the (major transfer) stop feel like second-class citizens.

    It seems like the sort of approach that could work much better in Europe, but it’s emphatically not the sort of thing I’m going to suggest for Boston buses. The “next train” displays on the DC Metro and the SF Muni rail work fairly well, and I’m generally in favor of those. But they need to be in far fewer locations to be effective, they’re easier to protect from weather/vandalism, and although trains can get delayed by crowded platforms and mechanical problems, they’re not affected by variations in surface vehicle traffic flow like buses. The DC train information system was much more expensive than anything I’m initially going to recommend for MBTA. It was also seemingly designed for people with perfect eyesight.

  3. 2fs

    People are still screwed, though: people who live in remote areas or who otherwise are both dependent upon cheap gas (and the country’s whole infrastructure is built on it) and too poor to do anything about it in particular. See the cover story on the latest issue of The Nation. One problem with public transportation generally is it’s built on a large-crowds-going-the-same-place-at-the-same-time model that decreasingly matches people’s actual schedules today. So one solution is smaller, more modular transportation: smaller buses instead of the behemoths we have in most cities, light rail cars that seat a handful rather than huge crowds. Obviously there’s still need for the big vehicles at some times - but I’m dubious about the energy savings of buses that drive their enormous, black-smoke-spewing, nearly empty selves back and forth from one end of their route to the other all day long.

  4. summervillain

    2fs — You have valid points, but they’re beyond the scope of my recommendations for MBTA. I’m primarily interested in ways that MBTA can spend a few thousand dollars to increase the efficacy of the systems in which it’s already invested millions of dollars.

  5. loudfan

    I will say that the “next bus” display in Stockholm worked perfectly; if it said the bus would be there in seven minutes, it was there in seven minutes. But obviously a lot more public money gets invested in transit in Europe than it does here, and there are more disincentives for people to drive in urban areas, such as London’s tax on cars in the city center.

    One thing that seems to be catching on in Berkeley & SF is car share programs like City Car Share. You pay a membership fee and then you can rent a car whenever you need it from one of several centrally located parking lots. That way, you can make those big runs to Costco once or twice a month without needing to pay the insurance, maintenance, parking, etc. that comes along with owning a car.

    I agree with 2Fs, though, that MOST people in the U.S. are screwed. Even in the SF area, which is blessed with buses, light rail, subways, casual car pool pick-up spots, dedicated bike lanes, etc., the majority of commuters are sitting alone in a car, day after day. Ditto in Boston, I imagine. I guess the issue here is, what can we do to get THOSE people out of their cars. What works here might work elsewhere on a smaller scale.

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