Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Black Hole of Transit Coordination

In my seven recommendations for integrating commuter vans into New York City's transportation system, number 4 is integrated fare payment. Commuter vans currently only accept cash, no Metrocards, no PayPass.

As I wrote, last month, transit benefits from good coordination. These can include a centralized information clearinghouse for routes, fares, schedules and policies, schedule coordination to minimize transfer times, and a single fare system to make transfers cheaper and more convenient.

These functions could really be performed by any entity, public or private. But in order to provide access for all and get people out of their cars, they need to be done effectively and sustainably. Surprisingly enough, that is not always a given. In fact, many people have done an astonishingly shitty job of it.

The best example is probably the Information Black Hole of New Jersey. Although New Jersey Transit has a good map of its rail lines, and both rail and bus schedules posted online, other carriers tend to get left to their own devices. The Port Authority has only recently posted links on its website to the bus companies that serve its bus terminals. To find out where the buses go and when, you have to consult the individual company websites. There is no information about buses and vans that pick up at the curb. Most shamefully, there has never been a comprehensive bus map for any part of the state, until 2008, when an individual volunteer began putting one together - which still includes very little besides New Jersey Transit buses. The New York transit map includes very little information about transit in NJ, just the main terminals and the PATH stations, and nothing at all about buses.

There may be some schedule coordination between New Jersey Transit buses and trains, but I don't think there's very much among any of the other bus carriers. There is most definitely none between NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road. Both train companies serve Penn Station, but you can't get departure information for both at the same time unless you're standing on the border between their two territories inside the station. If you're trying to get from Queens or Long Island to NJ, you have to spend a lot of time matching up schedules.

The only fare integration in the entire New York metropolitan area is the Metrocard, used among the various local MTA transit agencies and the Westchester Bee-Line bus system. It is accepted by the Roosevelt Island Tram and by the Port Authority for PATH trains and the JFK Airtrain, but only pay-per-ride, not monthly passes. Significantly, the MTA commuter railroads do not accept Metrocard, and neither do ferries, commuter vans or taxis. The Port Authority has introduced a contactless smart card on the PATH trains, which it hopes will be used regionally, but it has not implemented it on the Airtrain or on any of the buses that serve its terminals. The MTA has essentially ignored this smart card, instead running a pilot using Mastercard Paypass.

In a future post I'll talk about why information, fare and schedule coordination sucks so badly in this area, and what can be done about it.

17 comments:

JMD said...

It seems that most transit systems have a tunnel vision and cannot see the importance of a well coordinated transit system. I did a multi-part series on the lack of coordination a few years ago as it applies to transit agencies and Amtrak.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, JMD! I like your blog, and would like to read your posts on this issue. Can you post links?

Adirondacker12800 said...

Go ahead, give it a shot, drawing a bus map of downtown Newark.... Even worse when you try to draw a single map of what leaves the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Surprisingly most people when they want to get from Maplewood NJ to Great Neck NY don't really care all that much when a train gets to New Brunswick or Valley Stream. They look at the options in Maplewood and the options in Great Neck and take the train. They have to look at two two train schedules. If they can't cope with two train schedules maybe they shouldn't be venturing from Maplewood to Great Neck.

Cap'n Transit said...

Adirondacker, there are ways to present information about buses in New Jersey. Just because it's complicated doesn't mean that we should just give up and keep the information secret.

People who can't figure out two schedules will go from Maplewood to Great Neck, but they're more likely to drive instead. Of course it's possible to read two schedules yourself, but it's a pain.

More importantly, the transit agencies give no thought to how many people might want to make a connection like this, and coordinate their schedules to minimize layovers.

JMD said...

Here is a link to the series of articles. While primarily dealing with Amtrak and the commuter rail networks, it also shows the problems with the transit agencies that run the commuter operations and do not coordinate them.

Integrating Rail Passenger Service

George K said...

In this age of technology, the Internet connects the schedules of publicly-operated lines. For example, I could type in an address in Great Neck and New Brunswick and Google Transit would tell me the quickest way.
However, not everybody is technologically literate, and would have trouble matching up LIRR and NJT schedules.
But, you have to consider that the people who would take public transportation between 2 agencies would probably just take the 2 trains without worrying about connections. They would just take an LIRR train to Penn Station, and take an NJT train to New Brunswick, and hope that the transfer time isn't a lot.
Inversely, for most of the people driving, it probably isn't because the schedules don't line up, it is probably because they can't be bothered to transfer between trains. (Which brings us to the point of through-routing)

Adirondacker12800 said...

Bus information isn't particularly complicated. In downtown Newark you are probably going to change buses at Broad and Market. If not there, Penn Station. It's not particularly useful to know that the Central Ave bus, the South Orange Ave bus and the Springfield Ave buses all run on Market Street along with all the other buses that use Market Street. If you want to get from Nutley to South Orange it is useful to know that the 13 will get you between Nutley and Downtown and the 31 between Downtown and South Orange. ...there's too many bus lines on Broad or Market to make an easily read map. They've been trying to do it since the trolleys were electrified. Using color coded trunk lines might work for a map but then the clueless wouldn't realize that the blue bus to Orange isn't the same as the blue bus to Irvington and wouldn't get to their destinantion. Or get on the blue bus to Jersey City...

Transit foamers love to talk about integrated schedules and ticketing etc. What's the compelling destination between suburbs that makes it a high priority? Is the Rite Aid in Great Neck all that much better than the Rite Aid in Maplewood that someone is going to take two trains to get there? When the few people a week who have a compelling need to travel between Great Neck and Maplewood get to the station being able to buy a through ticket or two tickets would be nice, avoid the lines at the TVMs in Penn Station.

Cooridinating schedules in someplace like Penn Station is pointless. Get the train from Port Washington to meet the train to Trenton and people in Douglaston who want to get to Ridgewood aren't being served very well. Cooordinate so that people in Bayside have an easy transfer to Ridgewood and the people in Flushing who want to go to Elizabeth aren't being served. Timed transfers etc work well with simple systems, not where multiple lines low frequency lines cross multiple low frequency lines.

Alon Levy said...

Timed transfers etc work well with simple systems, not where multiple lines low frequency lines cross multiple low frequency lines.

Wrong. Frequency doesn't change how well you can time transfers. The Swiss network timed transfers on rural lines with one-hour takts. As for "simple systems," the Berlin S-Bahn is full of timed transfers, even though it has multiple trunk lines, many kinds of transfers, and higher ridership than all three New York-area commuter systems combined. And if that's not complicated enough for you, then consider all the local/express cross-platform transfers in Japan, which are timed with seconds to spare...

What's the compelling destination between suburbs that makes it a high priority?

Maplewood isn't an important edge city, and neither is Great Neck. But the Metropark-Edison-Woodbridge-New Brunswick complex is, and so are White Plains and Stamford. There actually are some people whose daily work trip involves crossing from a suburb on one side of Manhattan to another; none of the suburb-to-suburb markets is that big, but together they add up to a lot.

But forget edge cities for a second. People in Maplewood might want to go to Flushing and Jamaica. Once you arrange schedules, routes, and fares to make this possible, you get good service to Great Neck for free. And in the opposite direction, people in Great Neck might want to go to Newark.

Cap'n Transit said...

Exactly, Alon! There are also a number of colleges in the suburbs, and you have students living in Ridgewood who go to Hofstra, or who live in Valley Stream and go to Rutgers.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Frequency doesn't change how well you can time transfers.

It does when you are trying to coordinate ten branch lines on each side of Penn Station. Whoever gets a great transfer screws someone else.


then consider all the local/express cross-platform transfers in Japan, which are timed with seconds to spare.

A local to express transfer is relatively simple. Timing the transfer between a Port Washington Branch train and a North Jersey Coast express is too. But timing the Port Washington to the NJCL doesn't help someone on the Ronkonkoma Branch who wants to get to a station on the Pascack Valley line. Make it so the two pairs of lines coordinate well and someone on the Port Washington branch who wants a Pascack Valley train or someone on the West Hempstead branch who wants to get to Plainfield.... You aren't going to make everybody happy when you have that many branches trying to sync up.

But the Metropark-Edison-Woodbridge-New Brunswick complex is, and so are White Plains and Stamford.

Metropark-Stamford is a wonderful example because trains run between the two now. You can even buy one seat ride tickets between the two now. Best time I see on the Acela schedules is 1:30. There's never going to be great demand for that trip, It takes too long. Not to mention the lack of compelling destinations at either end. ...and no people in Piscataway aren't going to be looking for work in Stamford when their commute would take them right through the biggest job market in the country, Manhattan. ANd to get to Manhattan they have to pass through the job markets in Newark, Elizabeth and Jersey City or head a few minutes south to New Brunswick Princeton and Trenton. Philadelphia is closer too.

But forget edge cities for a second. People in Maplewood might want to go to Flushing and Jamaica.

They do, all the time, events in Flushing Meadow,usually at the stadium. Two choices either the 107 bus to the Port Authority and the 7 train or a MidTown Direct train to Penn Station and a Port Washington train. There's other arcane options like the 25 or 31 bus to Penn Station in Newark and then NJTransit to Penn Station in NY inbound and PATH and a taxi outbound. Or drive to Secaucus. There aren't going to be many compelling destination in Jamaica itself that move a New Jerseyan to go there. And since almost all LIRR trains go to Jamaica it's easy to make a connection, if you miss it, except in the dead of night, there will be another train to Jamaica in a few minutes.

Alon Levy said...

It does when you are trying to coordinate ten branch lines on each side of Penn Station. Whoever gets a great transfer screws someone else.

It's not ten branch lines. On both sides, most ridership is on about two lines, and some can have a transfer away from Penn Station. On the LIRR, the two most important branches - Babylon and Ronkonkoma - can interchange at Jamaica, leaving Penn for PW or PJ. Once ESA opens, Sunnyside could become a natural transfer point, too, if the MTA bothered opening a station at the junction instead of further west.

On NJT there are fewer transfer points, but conversely, there are effectively two lines serving Penn Station. The Gladstone Branch and Montclair-Boonton Line have so little ridership that they should just connect to the Morristown Line off-peak. The Erie Lines interchange at Secaucus, which needs to have the internal faregates torn down but is otherwise okay (however, it would need a nontrivial dwell, say 2 minutes. This is a minor delay compared to untimed connections.)

Metropark-Stamford is a wonderful example because trains run between the two now. You can even buy one seat ride tickets between the two now.

Yes, an overpriced one seat ride... but that's beside the point, because I'm not talking about Metropark-Stamford. I gave Metropark and Stamford as examples of destinations that people from suburbs on the other side of Manhattan may want to go to.

and no people in Piscataway aren't going to be looking for work in Stamford when their commute would take them right through the biggest job market in the country, Manhattan.

You'll be surprised. Pull up the county-to-county commute numbers; there are more people than you think commuting from LI/Queens/Brooklyn to Jersey and vice versa, or from Queens/Brooklyn to Westchester and Fairfield Counties. The total is about 150,000, if I remember correctly, which means serving those trips is a 40% boost in ridership, of which most is effectively reverse-peak and thus has zero marginal operating cost.

They do, all the time, events in Flushing Meadow,usually at the stadium. Two choices either the 107 bus to the Port Authority and the 7 train or a MidTown Direct train to Penn Station and a Port Washington train.

Exactly: those two options are usually horrible. Port Authority makes Penn Station look nice, and involves a lot of underground walking and a double fare. Penn Station depends on whether the schedules happen to work in your favor or not, and on whether you don't mind paying two fares for a trip.

busplanner said...

As someone who was a citizen activist in New Jersey and who has been a professional transit planner, I have to vote with Adirondacker12800 in this discussion. There are way too many potential connections to make them all work. In addition, NJ Transit hs to live with Amtrak and Conrail restrictions on how it schedules its trains. (I do note, however, that there is a timed transfer at Trenton between NJ Transit and SEPTA.)

Similarly, there are a few timed bus/rail or bus/bus or rail/rail connections within the NJ Transit system.

In both the intra-NJ Transit examples and the NJ Transit/other system examples, cycle times and costs associated with them often impact how well coordinated connections work.

In terms of NJ bus maps, NJ Transit either issued or subsidized a number of county maps about twenty years ago. However, funding was cut limiting their updating and reissue. (And anybody who could make sense of the last edition of the Bergen County map, which included the private bus carriers, is a map genius.)

Actually, my experience has been that the most transit-dependent population (lower income) learned about their transit options through word-of-mouth from neighbors, relatives, or co-workers. Maps really only work for those who are spatially oriented (see Jarrett Walker's discussion at humantransit.org of 6/16/10).

Adirondacker12800 said...

Exactly: those two options are usually horrible.

And running Port Washington trains through to South Amboy solves that problem how?

Alon Levy said...

And running Port Washington trains through to South Amboy solves that problem how?

By allowing transfer timing at multiple places.

Adirondacker12800 said...

By allowing transfer timing at multiple places.

Trains from Maplewood will probably stop in Newark but since those trains stop on Broad Street and the trains from South Amboy stop at Penn Station that's not going to be particularly useful. Except in the dead of night trains from Maplewood won't be stopping in Secaucus, leaping off a train that's going 60 or 70 isn't a viable alternative. If they aren't stopping at Secaucus they will be going to the annex which means at best sometime far in the future they'll continue on to Grand Central not to Woodside. So today you have to change trains in Penn Station. Someday in the future you'll have to change trains in Penn Station.

Wanna pick another set of station?

Alon Levy said...

In a long paragraph, you've said what can be summed in one sentence: "trains from Maplewood don't stop at Secaucus today, so I can't imagine them stopping there to allow transfers in the future."

You need to stop thinking of New Jersey as a model for anything other than how to waste money. Think of the state's operations as a blank slate, with fixed infrastructure but nothing else. Then ask yourself how a German or Japanese or French railroad would run trains on it. The sooner you disabuse yourself of the myth of the competent American transit agency, the sooner you'll stop peddling ideas that make it impossible to serve non-CBD destinations by transit.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Okay, when NJ Transit is running 45 trains an hour through Secaucus how many of them should stop? Every 5 minutes would be 12 an hour. Every 2 and half minutes would be 24 an hour. People in Maplewood don't need to take a Midtown Direct Train to Secaucus to transfer to Hoboken they can just take a train from Maplewood to Hoboken. Pick another pair of destinations.