Ben at Second Avenue Sagas says that the change is an improvement, but not really sufficient, and I agree with him. He observes that for frequent lines (roughly, less than twelve minutes between trains or buses), adhering to the schedule isn't the most important thing:
New Yorkers don’t really expect subway trains to run "on time" because the schedules, while available, are rarely used and aren’t considered gospel. The better indication of on-time performance involves train wait times. If I just miss a B train during the day, I expect to wait 8-10 minutes for the next one. If I’m waiting longer than that — no matter what time the schedule comes — I consider the next train to be late.
Let's go back to our goals for transit. First, it should work towards access for all; this is pretty much achieved by offering frequent, safe service. Then, it should get people out of their cars. If the train or bus is slower or less reliable than driving, people are going to drive instead. speed and reliability (and sometimes comfort) are where good management can make a difference, and that's how performance should be measured.
On-time performance has something to do with speed and reliability, but not enough. Let's imagine a bus route, the Q200, that runs every five minutes. The most popular trip, from the Statelee Apartments to the Hitek Office Center, is scheduled to take thirty minutes. The intended customer experience is to wait no more than five minutes for a bus and spend no more than forty minutes door to door.
In practice, the passenger crush at Statelee Apartments means that by the time everyone gets on, the next bus is right behind. This leads to the all-too-familiar bus bunching phenomenon, where Bus A is late - and packed - and Bus B is early and empty. So some passengers wait up to ten minutes for a bus, and then it can take 50 minutes door to door.
In terms of our goals, bus bunching is awful, because it reduces not only speed, reliability and comfort, but frequency - which means we're no longer providing access for all. But in terms of on-time performance it's not so bad: the leading bus may be late but the following bus is on time.
Now let's imagine that the bus operator institutes some kind of pre-boarding payment collection at the Statelee Apartments, reducing dwell time and eliminating the bunching. That's a major coup, improving frequency, reliability, speed and comfort. But they won't get that much credit for it, because in on-time estimates it's just a small improvement.
In the years before computers were everywhere, it may have made some sense to use on-time performance as a metric, but now that anyone can plug some numbers into a spreadsheet it's really lazy. So what could we use for a better metric?
- Average wait: The MTA calculates its subway wait assessment as "percent of instances that the time between trains does not exceed schedule by more than 2 minutes (peak) or 4 minutes (off-peak)." I would instead say, "If someone arrives at the bus stop (or train station) a minute after the last bus leaves, how long do they wait for the next available bus?" I would also make sure not to count buses that were too full to pick up people as available. Note that this has nothing to do with any schedule.
- Average trip time: Pick a popular trip. How long does it take, on average, door to door?
- Practical frequency: How often do available buses come? Bunches of buses (less than one minute apart) count as a single bus.
- Crowding: How many buses have one of the single seats available? This may not be cost-efficient, but it's still good to know.