Wednesday, June 20, 2007

I gave the MBTA a Piece of my Mind

I like going to public meetings for the MBTA. I get to be the "reasonable" guy in the group. :-)

So on Tuesday I attended the T's PMT/Service Plan Workshop in Cambridge. It's one stop on the Red Line from my job, and it is rather fascinating to see what people, and the T management, have to say. Like most things in life, it's hard to hate the T when you see there's just regular people working there. People who, by and large, are pretty nice and are actually trying to do a decent job.

Anyways, when you're in Cambridge at a public meeting, you're guaranteed to get some passionate people there, sometimes unreasonably so. Tuesday was no exception...the meeting is supposed to be about the MBTA looking for ideas to guide the next 25 years of operation. When you're talking 25 years, that's a pretty "macro-level" discussion. You can't get mired in the nitty-gritty details.

Well, so much for that idea...the discussion of our 10-person group almost instantly devolved in a giant bitchfest about how lousy the MBTA service is. I give the discussion leader credit, she didn't stifle it, and did try her best to interpret the griping into long-range planning ideas. So it certainly wasn't a loss...far from it. I think some definite themes arose that can guide the plans for the next 25 years:
  • Communication: Riders are annoyed at buses (and subways) that are late. But they're really annoyed that they have no idea how late until the bus finally shows up. Everyone feels there's no excuse to not to track buses and subways and do two things: put a countdown timer at the stops, and map the buses/subways in real-time on a website. After all, several metro systems in Europe and Asia do least for the major routes
  • An "Urban Ring" is desperately needed: Nobody working for or riding on the T denies that the "spoke" system of subways and trolleys is hideously inefficient, and that "rings" that connect all the lines at points outside the downtown area are needed. The problem is that most of those areas are densely inhabited and there are precious few right-of-ways already. Any subway built in a ring is going to have gigantic construction costs and disruptions. Regardless, people DON'T want the "Phase II" Urban Ring that is mostly bus lines; the buses are considered too unreliable (Boston traffic IS pretty bad). People would rather wait longer for the payoff and just skip the bus part, and spend the time and money on subway lines instead.
  • The CharlieCard ain't so bad: Widely derided when it was installed six months ago, people have come around to the CharlieCard. At least the regular commuters have...I still argue that the CharlieCard system is more unfriendly to limited-use riders (tourists, especially) than the old token system, but these meetings are dominated by regular commuters so I hope that the MBTA planners are adjusting for that.
  • Need more buses! People will ALWAYS suggest a subway over a bus, but when that's just not going to happen, there needs to be more buses. I can get behind this...many of the buses run extremely infrequently...scheduled for every 20 or 60 minutes during off peak times, and the exact times vary wildly due to you could end up waiting (literally) hours for a bus on some lines. That's worse than useless.
  • Need more customer service training: The rudeness of T employees was a surprisingly oft-quoted problem. I fear this is one of those things that will never change...not until the management gets more power to just fire employees that suck. Fat chance with the unions we got in this town. Not that I'm anti-union, but the Carmen's Union is outta control.
I had two suggestions myself that I thought were rather useful: the first would be to add a CharlieCard scanner at the rear doors of Green Line trolleys and at buses. That way regular commuters can enter quickly and easily, without having to wait behind cash-paying riders. I don't begrudge cash-paying riders, but the fare collection boxes on buses & trolleys forces you to enter the money VERY slowly. But, you say, who makes sure people who go in the rear door are actually paying? Well, how is it really any different than the "Show-n-Go" system now? And when you get a few cash-paying fares, the driver often waves everyone in because the bus/trolley is suddenly way behind schedule. Anyways, the MBTA managers there seemed to like this one. Probably because it's pretty simple, relatively cheap to implement and is a highly visible service improvement.

The other suggestion is a bit more wide-ranging; I've often felt that a major delay on the Green Line's B, C and E branches is that they have to wait for traffic lights at street intersections. So install a system that lets the trolley override the traffic light and immediately let the trolley through. Yeah, it buggers the car traffic up badly, but hey...more incentive to use public transit! Anyways, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that such a system is in trials right now on the Silver Line buses through the Washington Street corridor. Unfortunately, it breaks down a lot, so results have been inconclusive. To me, this says that something's been done wrong with the system...either poorly made, poorly installed, or poorly maintained...but regardless, it's good to know that this isn't a "sacred cow"; the MBTA is at least trying the idea.

If you have ideas you want to share with the MBTA for them to do over the next 25 years, there's still one public meeting left: Thursday June 21st at 5:30pm at the Newton City Hall. Technically this is for the western "spoke" of transit, but they'll listen to ideas about any area of the MBTA.


Anonymous said...

The uncertainty of buses is one thing that drives everyone crazy. Has anyone looked at the DC-area Metro system's approach?

They've figured out how to incorporate their GPS system with a phone accessible access system. Each bus stop has a unique code, so you dial a number, enter the code, and are told how far away the next bus is.

Seems like a relatively simple fix with only incremental costs.

Aaron Read said...

I'm not trying to pile on here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the problem is with employee unions again. I suspect there is fear that any tracking system will be used against drivers/operators who fall behind schedule.

I have no direct evidence of this, but I'm reminded of the fight the city's snowplow drivers put up against having GPS-enabled cellphones in their the city could track their movements and make sure they were plowing where and when they said they were. IIRC, suddenly a lot of routes got plowed a lot better...which would imply that some drivers were indeed slacking off on the job.

Admittedly, this analogy does not apply perfectly to MBTA operators (we know that the road traffic is bad and that's why buses are late - nobody blames the bus drivers for that)...and for the subway it won't work with GPS alone because of the tunnels...but it does seem like there's no excuse to not have a system in place for the buses already; the technology has existed for nearly a decade.

The MBTA's silence and reluctance to talk about this idea is at best confusing and at worst somewhat sinister. I just don't understand it.

Eddie said...

I agree 100% about the uncertainty of buses. I honestly don't care if the bus is late, as long as I know when it will arrive. I just don't want to leave work and stand at a bus stop for 45 minutes. A GPS-enabled system that would let me check where the bus is in real-time would be a godsend, and would probably be enough to make me a regular bus rider.

Jeff said...

This was interesting. Thanks for posting it.