Mid-sized city public transit: why it sucks
Last year as I was applying for jobs, I did some research into the public transit options at the places I was applying and also tried to get a feel for what’s available in the US more generally. Doing so was difficult, because by and large, public transit websites suck ass. The biggest problem I found was that it’s very difficult to find something as simple as a full system map, which is arguably the first thing someone is going to be looking for. For instance, on the Kalamazoo Metro Transit page, you have to first find the “Bus Routes” link and then the system map is available in the middle of one of the paragraphs there. The map itself is of course virtually unreadable [PDF] — though to be fair, the seemingly random nature of the bus routes merely reflects the fundamental arationality of the street layout in Kalamazoo. They also, somewhat inexplicably, have a map of the main transfer center at the Amtrak station, listing which bus routes typically stop in which bays. A good alternative to looking at this map would be to go to the station and look around, since all the bus bays are visible from the other bus bays — if anything, providing this map only adds to the confusion.
Richard pointed out even worse difficulties on the Indianapolis “IndyGo” site: to find the map, you need to go under “Fixed Route” and select “System and Route Maps.” Once on the resulting page, I spent five minutes poking around before realizing that the huge white space wasn’t the bottom of the page but a “decorative” element separating the system map from the other maps. At least the map [PDF] is more attractive than Kalamazoo’s. Best of all is the Grand Rapids site, whose map is a nice Google Maps overlay (when I looked at it the first time, the routes were different colors — now it doesn’t seem to be working…).
And in what will come as a surprise to no one, this is what you get in place of a map of Flint’s bus routes.
The quality of the web sites might seem like a small matter, but I’ve found that it’s generally reflected in the quality of information available by other means. For instance, at the Kalamazoo transit center, I’ve been unable to find a printed system-wide map — maybe there is one, but I am there pretty often and it’s a bad sign if I haven’t been able to find it yet. In both Flint and Kalamazoo, bus stops are simply labelled “Bus Stop,” with no indication of what routes serve it, while in my brief experience of Grand Rapids last night, bus stops all seemed to be clearly labelled by route and to include route maps right there (this might not be universal, though).
I’m no public transit expert, but it seems to me that providing better communications and information would be the most cost-effective possible way to make public transit more useful to people — it would make life easier for those who have to take transit, and it would go a long way toward making transit seem like a viable option for those who are on the borderline. Even the best service expansion isn’t going to be of much use to people who find the system baffling or intimidating. I think it’s already been proven that providing something like Chicago’s “bus tracker” system, which people can check with their phones or before they leave the house on their computers, improves users’ experience even in the absense of any real improvement in service levels — other midwestern transit agencies have a lot of room to improve the user experience by doing simple things that don’t cost much in the grand scheme.
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