Friday, July 2, 2010

Transit riders' priorities and transit agencies' priorities

If it's good for transit to have information available, then why do we have information black holes like in Northern New Jersey? Competing priorities, that's why. Maybe some complacency, too.

The City of New York is interested in development of the City. It recognizes that suburban commuters contribute to that development, but until recently has seen its role primarily as a facilitator of car commutes through its free bridges. Only recently has anyone in city government shown an awareness of the value of getting those suburbanites to take transit.

The State of New York is interested in the economic development of the State. Its agencies, including the MTA, have no incentive to make it easier for people to go to New Jersey. The MTA also runs subways and buses, and sees private bus lines as competition for its services.

New Jersey Transit sees part of its mission as getting commuters to Manhattan, but has no interest in anything that doesn't cross the river. It runs trains and buses, and is barred by law from destructive competition against private operators, but it doesn't want to give them free publicity, either.

The Port Authority is concerned with movement across the Hudson and economic development on both sides, but doesn't care about anything that happens too far from the river, except for the airports it runs. It produces maps for its PATH train service, but not for other organizations.

Small operators don't have the time or money to produce and distribute information about other services, but if they did, what would they get out of it?

It's a bit more of a mystery why medium-sized consolidated operators like Coachusa don't bother even printing a map of their routes on their websites. Of course, as commenter Busplanner points out, transit mapmaking "is a very slow and costly process."

Mapmaking certainly was a very slow and costly process, and I think a lot of transit operators are still thinking along those lines. But I don't think that's true any more, in this age of global positioning systems, geographic information systems and Google Transit.

Take your average college graduate and give them a one-month course in GIS. In another month, they could put out a very good county bus map, or a decent draft of a statewide map. Probably a lot less than a month, right? I don't know, but it seems likely to me.

Other reasons I can imagine are inertia and impatience. Coachusa is making millions off of its service. It's cheaper and faster than driving, so people keep taking it. It's pretty close to a guaranteed monopoly, so why bother putting in a lot of effort to get more? There's also no immediate reward for producing a map or any other kind of information product. You may get a bunch more single trips, and a number of investments, but it takes time for those to translate into habits. The value is not obvious, so it is often overlooked.

I'll talk about some possible solutions in a future post.


busplanner said...

Cap'n Transit - In response to your July 2 post on "Transit Riders' Priorities and Transit Agencies Priorities" and as someone with excellent knoweldge of NJ Transit and New Jersey transit issues:

1. I concur that the priorities of the transit agency do not always agree with the priorities of the riders. In particular, riders want more frequency and faster service to more places and transit agencies often have to address their most urgent needs (financial, political, maintenance, and others).

2. This, however, does not mean that "NJ Transit...has no interest in anything that doesn't cross the river." One need only look at the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line and the River Line. However, I would probably say that the top levels of NJ Transit have less interest in bus than rail because politicians and the media do not understand how the rather complex bus network works.

3. Given the complexity of the network, doing clear maps is difficult, even in the GIS era.
Many years ago (pre-GIS) I had a college intern and I needed him to map out bus routes by legislative district. He had so much trouble matching printed bus route descriptions with actual maps that he did not get a single legislative district done in his eight week stint.

In the GIS era, I know that NJ Transit has mapped its network and most private bus carriers. I say most because they discovered some private carriers did not have printed route descriptions. The problem is not the bus route data, the problem is scaling the map, deciding what the underlying base map should be (all streets, major streets, only streets on which bus service operates, how to depict multiple bus routes on a single street, whether to include major generators and other landmarks, whether to attempt to show major elevation changes, how to handle route branches, etc.) In addition, there is always much debate about the additional information to include on the map, days of service, span of service, frequency of service,how to handle a route whose trunk has frequent service but whose branches do not, etc. Then there is proofing, reproofing, and more reproofing. Then you pray that there are no system changes before you can get the map published and distributed for at least 3 months.

4. Actually, NJ Transit does have quasi-maps for all counties that have been updated in the past decade. They are called "Commuter Connection Guides" or affectionately "Bubble Maps".

A typical "Bubble Map" has a round circle for every municipality in the county and a line connecting the various bubbles that indicate which rail and bus routes connect the bubbles. There is also an index column showing each municipality and major generators within the municipality and the lines that serve each. For example, in Bergen County, if you were in Englewood and wanted to get to Hackensack you could use the index to see which routes served both Hackensack and Englewood and research on the NJ Transit web site which routes met your needs. If you were at Englewood Hospital and wanted to get to Hackensack Hospital, both sites would be listed as major generators and you would note that the 780 bus served both.

These indexes and bubble connections also included intrastate bus services of private carriers. Interstate bus services of private carriers are partially addressed by listing the municipalities that the interstate carrier served at the bottom of the index.

5. You note that Coach USA is profitable. But much of that comes from their charter business. In the past three years, they have been dropping many bus routes, especially in Hudson County (local and interestate) and from Rockland and Bergen Counties to the George Washington Bridge Bus Station. They have cut back on frequency on other routes. For political reasons, NJ Transit had to pick up some of the (unprofitable) pieces.

Helen Bushnell said...

I agree that mapmaking is becoming a lot easier. About four years ago, a group of three or four volunteers made an English-language map of all the bus routes in Daejeon, a city of one and a half million people in Korea. The city refused to make a Korean-language bus map, saying it was too expensive.

A couple of years later the city redid the bus system, and made a city-wide bus route map that they sent to every household in the city. What changed was not the cost of making maps, but budget priorities. The city government shifted subsidies from cars to buses.

A city that is using tax money to encourage people to drive is unlikely to have the money for things like maps, even if mapmaking become cheaper.