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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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October 24, 2009 - Posted by | public transit

11 Comments

  1. “That don’t cost much in the grand scheme” is probably the rub. When you’re chronically underfunded, it’s difficult to make those kinds of investments. It’s also a lot easier to focus on more measurable qualities (on-time performance, say) than nebulous “usability”. Most of these web sites were probably developed under contract to someone else, and there’s now one or fewer people at the agency trying to keep even the bad layout still working, and updated with schedule changes and the like.

    Comment by Nathan Williams | October 24, 2009

  2. Grand Rapids offers bus tracking and possibly integration at Google Transit. I think of most agencies in Michigan during the past 10 years, Grand Rapids has been the most faithful to its customers.

    Comment by Appledail | October 25, 2009

  3. Surely Yglesias will pick up on this post shortly.

    Comment by ben | October 25, 2009

  4. That would imply that he either reads his blog or takes seriously the recommendations of someone who does.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | October 25, 2009

  5. I think it’s appropriate that my comment about Yglesias contains a typo. It should be “this,” not “his.”

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | October 25, 2009

  6. Mm, I want to take the Flint blue line. Looks pretty direct.

    Comment by hugh | October 25, 2009

  7. To be fair, there is a fairly decent-looking map here for Flint, but it’s too small to be useful — if you click on the link that you’d expect a larger version on, you wind up with the blank page.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | October 25, 2009

  8. Man, the more I look at the Kalamazoo map, the less sense anything makes.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | October 25, 2009

  9. [...] Kotsko correctly observes that improving the job mass transit agencies do of conveying information to the public is one of [...]

    Pingback by Matthew Yglesias » Better Transit Information | October 26, 2009

  10. It worked!

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | October 26, 2009

  11. [...] Kotsko correctly observes that improving the job mass transit agencies do of conveying information to the public is one of [...]

    Pingback by Better Transit Information | Matthew Yglesias | October 26, 2009


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