Friday, February 27, 2009

Snow Postmortem

In case you missed it, it snowed yesterday. As you might imagine, this played havoc with Metro and was basically a replay of the December Snowpocalypse in miniature. It is, of course, ironic that OneBusAway set a new single-day traffic record on a day when the underlying tracking data was most suspect. We appreciate the links from Seattlest and even the Seattle Times (our first official mention by a Seattle newspaper) that made it happen.

In the Seattle Times piece, there is a quote from King County Council Member Dow Constantine (and candidate for King County exec?) that rang true:
"Given the increasing sophistication of modern phones and wireless Internet providers, I encourage Metro to take immediate action to use instant messaging, Twitter, neighborhood blogs, and customer self-reporting systems to keep Metro operators and riders connected."
Hmm... if only there was someone working on a set of tools that made it easier for people to find the status of their bus using a variety of phone and web devices. Say hello to OneBusAway. Specifically, we are looking to integrate real-time service alert disruption information into the system so that when you call in on the phone, it lets you know that your bus has been delayed, rerouted, or canceled completely.

In fact, OBA actually already has this feature; we added it for the last snow event. We can set routes as rerouted or canceled in the system and you will get an appropriate warning with both the web tools and the phone system. The problem is knowing which buses are rerouted.

It's pretty clear that Metro's Transit Service Status page is not an accurate reflection of what's going on in the field and it's not hard to see why. With 100s of buses live in the field at any given time and only four radio channels for communicating with dispatch, there is not enough bandwidth to get accurate reroute information and road conditions from buses to dispatch and back, let alone get accurate information from that communication up on a website.

What you get instead is confusion. I live NE of the University District and routes like the 30, 65, 68, 74, 75, and 372 provide the bulk of the coverage for my neighborhood. I watched yesterday morning as buses serving these routes each put their own personal spin on how to handle the snowy conditions. Some buses took their appropriate adverse weather reroute while others boldly soldiered on their normal route. The net result is that even when riders know the adverse weather plan for their route (that's a big if), riders had no way of knowing if the next scheduled bus would be sticking to its normal route or taking its reroute.

There are technological solutions to detecting reroutes. GPS is obviously the first choice and Metro has plans to put GPS on all buses. However, given the current budget situation for Metro, I am less than hopeful that they can make it happen in the next year or two. Given the coverage of radio beacons in our current real-time positioning network, it's actually possible to detect most reroutes using the current tech on the buses. However, it would take some hacking.

However, I'd argue that this isn't a technology problem but instead a policy problem. Being able to detect reroutes using technology is actually of little use if there is no consistency in rerouting from one trip to the next for a given route. Riders really don't need to know if the current bus is on reroute, since it's often too late to walk to a different stop if the bus is doing something different than what they expected. Instead, riders really need to know if the bus coming 30 minutes from now is on reroute, since that will help riders plan which stop they need to walk to. Unfortunately, no amount of technology will help us predict what a driver is going to do in the future.

However, technology might help us tell the driver what to do in the future. Metro currently doesn't have the radio capacity to communicate with all the drivers in the field, but many drivers carry cellphones. Much like OBA allows riders to call in to get real-time arrival information about what their bus is doing, we can imagine a similar system that allows drivers to call in and get real-time information about what their bus should be doing. With a little bit of software glue in the background, Metro could more easily manage feedback from drivers, determining which routes should be on reroute, and then pushing that information to drivers in an automated way. It would reduce the amount of human intervention required in the system and be pretty cheap to build. Pretty cool, huh?

It's pretty clear that there are a lot of interesting technical solutions that can make it easier for drivers, transit agencies, and riders to effectively communicate what is going on in chaotic situations like a snowy morning commute. While we can never fix the fact that it's just plain hard to drive in the snow, there are a lot of things we can and should be doing to make everything else easier.


Andrew Davidson said...

"Metro currently doesn't have the radio capacity to communicate with all the drivers in the field,"

Brian, are you sure about that?

I've been on many buses where I hear a message on a speaker near the operator like, "All operators, please pick up your handset for a message."

Where would that be coming from?


Brian Ferris said...

You're correct that Metro has the ability to broadcast a message to all its drivers. What I think they are missing is the ability to handle a lot of two-way conversation with drivers, which makes negotiation about road conditions and reroutes difficult.

news said...

I'm glad someone has thought of a more useful solution than twitter (at least just one twitter for all of Metro). I just checked Metro's Twitter feed and found this useless tidbit:# Good morning! Our pet of the week is a sweet, curious rabbit named Toby. Rabbits can be litter box trained. AM Apr 13th from web

My thought (and this probably should be shared on the Sea Transit Blog) is that citizens should be posting road conditions and bus spottings themselves. Though the bus drivers texting a reroute is a better idea, that doesn't stop avid bus supporters from doing something like a reverse-onebusaway post.
Rather than asking when a bus is coming, reporting that a bus has arrived at a stop would be helpful to those down the line. Some example messages: "onebusaway 15@200" (The 15 just showed up at 1st Ave & Pine) or "onebusaway 24@13800 snorr" (the 24 I'm on just left 15th Ave & Dravus because it's on a snow reroute). Maybe it needs a new domain like "onebusfound."

On snow days I've taken to getting online early to look for delays. But I also live on my bus line, so I can hear when they pass by. I pretty much know which bus route is going which way just by what time it is when I hear it. It's funny, the 5:30am buses usually have fewer reroutes/delays.
I wish I could shovel my whole block and commission my neighbors to do the same, but while I save up for a neighborhood plow, I could report bus activity on your site (or your next project "onebusfound"), or even better report snow conditions to Metro so that they don't have chain up when the pavement is dry! Should I be setting up a bus stop web cam?