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.