Thursday, July 1, 2010

Information, social networks and the single trip

Adirondacker12800 has a lot to disagree with in my post about New Jersey, one of our local Transit Information Black Holes. There are basically two points that Adirondacker makes: that the bus networks in New Jersey are too complex to provide a useful map for, and that people get around just fine, so why make maps?

The reason is that, in order to achieve the goals listed above, we want to expand transit's reach past the current social networks. Even if it's true that only spatial navigators read maps, and only "foamers" try new transit routes on a whim, these map-reading transit buffs are one way that the use of a new transit system can spread from one social network to another.

But this is only one kind of mode decision, habit. As I wrote before, there are three others: single trips, investments and subsidies. Glamour has a much bigger effect on these decisions than on habits, and so does information.

Transit information can influence how people see themselves and their neighborhoods. Think of how ubiquitous subway bullets and maps are in media relating to New York, and Underground symbols in London. The "freeways" and boulevards of Los Angeles fill a similar role. People who live in a neighborhood without a subway station, like Maspeth, think of it as a neighborhood for cars, but people who live in Ridgewood think of it as a transit neighborhood.

A person who's heard about a particular destination and wants to visit will usually take transit if it's presented as a reliable way to get there, which is why restaurant reviews and entertainment listings should include basic transit information, especially in suburban areas where transit use is not assumed.

If someone's moving to, say, Fairview, where they can't see a train line on the map, they may assume that no one takes transit and buy a car. Once they've got the car they have an incentive to use it. People who don't want to drive may avoid Fairview altogether, depriving those buses of farebox revenue.

On the other hand, if people see that there is frequent bus and van service, they may choose to move there and not own a car, contributing to the critical mass of transit riders.

Information can also influence subsidies. If politicians don't see their districts on a transit map, they may conclude that all their constituents drive. As a result, they may cut transit funding or push for driving subsidies.

Adirondacker also mentions several attempts to map buses in New Jersey that failed to stem the exodus to cars. No examples of such maps were provided, but given that people have succeeded in producing relatively readable bus maps of Queens and the Paris suburbs, I think they can do it in New Jersey.

One strategy that Jarrett has mentioned several times is a frequent network map. While I think the concept has some limitations - if your goal is for every route to have frequent service, what happens to your map when you reach that goal? - it's a good start.

Today, Jarrett mentions the excitement he felt as a teenager, watching the buses in Portland's Fareless Square:
I remember that because it's the same excitement that many of us have felt in an airport, or a great European train station, when we see a departure board showing all the exotic places to which people are departing. In the entire passenger transport experience, this is the moment that offers the most visceral sensation of freedom -- look at all the places I could go, from right here! -- and as the car industry can tell you, creating a sensation of freedom is the key to success. Urbanists need to think more about this sensation, because it could help them describe transit mobility in a way that connects it to things that we all value. Things like freedom, and joy.

I would argue that maps have the same glamour effect on people - and not just spatial navigators. Don't discount the value of that sense of the possible in transit: whether it's a map, a timetable, a departure board, a view of a bustling transfer point, or an announcer's voice on the PA, we see transit as full of possibilities. We could go to Basingstoke or Reading! Massapequa, Massapequa Park! Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga!


saosebastiao said...

All good points, but I want to add to it just a bit.

Lets say I just got a job in New York City, and I will be selling my car and moving from Idaho. My building is a block away from the Atlantic Avenue Pacific Street station. This means that realistically, I can live anywhere along the following lines to have a nice short commute: 2,3,4,5,B,D,N,Q,R

Should be an easy task to find a place to live, right? Wrong. If I go to any real estate website, including classifieds listings, I can search for apartments based on price, I can search by neighborhood, hell if the site is really good, I can even search for nearby subway stations. But I can't search for specific subway lines. The process to find an apartment close by any single one of those multiple lines is so tedious and work intensive that I am likely to just find a place that is cheap and transfer if I have to.

Maps and signs and such do a great job for someone who is visiting town...but there is still potential to create massive amounts of value in transportation networks, if only we worked at getting the right information to the people who are looking for it. This can be real estate listings for people who want to live close to specific lines, or it can be frequent network maps or express service maps. It can be real time updates in bus position, but it can also be step by step directions.

The role that information plays can be a role that will make or break some transit networks, and it would be a shame if a brand new shiny light rail system became a failure because we didn't spend the time or money to create useful information so that people can plan their lives around it.

BruceMcF said...

Even if we reach the point where all buses are "frequent" by today's standard, based on patronage there will still be some that are more frequent than others. Every network will have its trunks or its dominant hub connectors.

A broad scale map that shows the trunk network, and then blowups that show the local networks with the trunk network routes going through in double width, is an effective system because it provides a stereotyped system picture that is not as complex as the whole system.

Indeed, as opposed to trying and failing to pursue BRT as "trains on streets", providing "quality buses" with their own livery, distinctive stops with electronic next bus display, etc., is an effective strategy for information management.

The trunk network bus stop will have the network overview and the local blow-ups. The local bus stop that connects to the trunk network will have a network overview and the local blowup for that area underneath, with the routes serving that bus stop highlighted.

Kevin Seymour said...

@saosebastiao: Actually, one of the main real estate websites in NY, Streeteasy, allows you to search for apartments based on how many minutes it takes to get to a specific address by bus and subway. So, in your example you could just put in the address of the office near Atlantic/Pacific and see listings that are, say, 30 minutes away. The trip time includes walking to and from the stations and takes both buses and subways into account.

busplanner said...

As someone with direct knowledge of New Jersey:

1. Bus maps have been produced for Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Passaic, Union, Middlesex, Monmouth, Mercer, Morris, Somerset, Hunterdon, Ocean, and Burlington/Camden/Gloucester Counties at various times since 1980. The only one I would consider reasonably current and reasonably legible is Middlesex.

2. Severe budget cutbacks within NJ Transit (hidden for the most part prior to this year's fare increases and service cutbacks) have gutted efforts to produce more public bus maps.

3. However, for NJ Transit's services, there web site has numerous features that will help you find transit in a given area. Thus, if someone is considering relocating and wants to find out what transit is available for their needs, the web site helps. And, for example, if you were looking for a home in, let's say, Fairview, you would see all the bus stop signs with the routes and destinations identified to help you with your research and decision making.

(Note: I'm spatially oriented and try to obtain area bus maps when I travel; but I have also been involved in proofing maps and in participating in the debates of what should and should not be included on them and how to display information. It is a very slow and costly process.)

saosebastiao said...


I haven't used streeteasy and I'm not moving to New York, but I have found the exact situation I mention for both Salt Lake City and St. Louis.

The problem with websites like HopStop (the site they use to look up their information) is that they typically make no accounting for the frequency of networks.

Sure, a bus and transfer to another bus might get me where I need to go in 30 minutes, but if the routes are not frequent then by being 1 minute late to a bus stop I can easily extend that 30 minutes to an hour or more. With a transfer, the waits can get even longer and riskier due to the need for coordination between two independent buses.

For me, time is important, but so is frequency and reliability, and that is something that a generalized commute time calculator can't account for.

Adirondacker12800 said...

that people get around just fine, so why make maps?

I didn't say that. If you want to go to X from Y the solution to your problem is to find out what buses go to X. Much much faster than trying to figure out if there's a bus to X passing through Broad and Market. Or Journal Square.

It's too bad the buses in New Jersey aren't neatly arranged in tidy little corridors that are amenable to something like a subway map. Most cities in New Jersey are radial and in places like Newark that means there's too much going at the hub to create a useful map. They've been trying to since they converted the cable cars to electric trolleys. Amazingly they've been doing since then without the help of computers or GIS.

Go to Newark at 4 in the afternoon. Spend ten minutes watching the buses head west on Raymond Blvd. Then spend ten minutes watching the buses head west on Market. Take one of the buses or walk a few blocks to Broad Street. Watch the buses on Broad Street for a while. Go back to Penn Station and see if the rack of bus schedules is full. Grab one of each. They all have detailed maps of the route. ... have a good time trying to squeeze that onto one map. Better mapmakers than you have given up. There probably won't be schedules for the crosstown buses or the buses that go to New York City without passing through downtown Newark. That would add all sorts of interesting things to a map of Essex County.

Simpler. You are at Broad and Market and you want to get someplace served by the 94 crosstown on the border of Newark and Irvington, Do you take the 13, 25, 42 or 70 to get to Irvington Center for your transfer? Maybe taking the 31 would be better and transferring on South Orange Ave in Vailsburg. Personally I'd take the 1 to Stuyvesant Ave and walk the few blocks to my destination.

Map makes the 42 look like the great choice. Unfortunately the map won't tell you that the 42 only runs rush hours. You might figure out that the 70 is the scenic route. You won't figure out that the 70 is a low frequency line compared to the 1, 13, 25 or 31. Map might not tell you where the zones change. Might though. 1 and 31 are within one zone. The 25 and 70 are just past the zone limit,,, unless you want to walk the two blocks between the fare limit and the transfer. 13 might be faster if you aren't precisely at Broad and Market but on Broad - City Hall for instance. Rush hours the 25 has expresses. ...

You are done with whatever it is you had to do and want to go to Livingston Mall. Decisions decisions. Take the 70 from Irvington Center or head to South Orange Ave and the 31?

To make all of those decisions you need detailed information for each line. Put that all on a map, the map and the service guide on the back of the map would be the size of basketball court. .... Figure out what serves your destination and work backwards. You'd find that the 1 and 94 are close to your destination and you'd then see that the 1 runs frequently and walking a few blocks makes up for the transfer to the 94.

Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, but in this post I'm not just talking about people who want to go from X to Y. I'm talking about people who want to know whether there will be good transit connections on this block where they're thinking of renting an apartment, or whether they should spend a lot of money on parking or highways because people in this area don't have good transit options.

Allie Cat said...

I just want to know where you can catch a bus to Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga all in one place. The closest would be, I think, trains out of Union Station, but that won't get you to Azusa until 2013 when they finish the Metro Gold Line.

Cap'n Transit said...

JN, that was a reference to an old running gag that Mel Blanc did on the Jack Benny Show, and occasionally revived. According to Wikipedia, there was never a single train that went to all three destinations, but I think you could get to them all from Union Station.