Technology and Mass Transit

I have not seen a formal study of the impact of technology on mass transit but I believe that it has made it profoundly more valuable and useful. And I accidentally participated in an experiment that partially proved this statement in the inverse.

In Chicago they have a CTA “bus tracker” that tells you when a particular bus will arrive at your stop. Or you can program it so that you can see all the buses from various routes that are coming past your stop (this is useful because in Chicago you can often take many different routes that go to the same place over shorter distances). It works on your phone and many of the newer stops have the bus tracker programmed into the canopy so you don’t even need to look it up on your phone.

Sadly enough most days rather than looking up the street for buses I check the bus tracker. I can usually get from my condo down the elevator and past the lobby in 2-3 minutes so 4 minutes is the cut off time. One morning I looked and I thought I had missed the bus entirely because the next one was ten minutes away on my phone. However, instead of just trudging off, I looked up, and a bus was right there!

I got on the bus and it was completely empty! Not a soul was on the bus. While it was a nice day, usually this bus line was crowded during rush hour, often so crowded that I don’t even bother getting on because I have to stand right in the front past the yellow line where you aren’t supposed to stand and then get on and off with every stop (to let people on and off) until the crowd thins out.

The driver was totally bewildered too. I sat with her up front and I guess they had changed the bus she was driving to this route (from another route) and they hadn’t updated bus tracker. I said that because she didn’t show up on my bus tracker. Thus no one was on the bus – because if it wasn’t on bus tracker, it didn’t exist.

I am sure that the River North area is one of the most technologically sophisticated areas of the city and probably in other parts of town people just wait at the bus stop for the bus to show up. But in River North – everyone has been trained to use bus tracker and rely on it and they wouldn’t contemplate a bus existing that wasn’t on bus tracker.

For me, the bus tracker has made the Chicago bus go from something marginally useful to a highly useful way to get around town. When I lived in Bucktown we used to wait for the #50 Damen bus and 3 of 4 times we’d give up and grab a cab after waiting 15-20 minutes and the 4th time 2-3 buses would show up in a big bunch full of angry riders. If you took the bus you weren’t happy about it; it was an unreliable and slow way to get around.

However, bus tracker is very reliable and now you have visibility of what is coming and you can plan ahead so that you are whiling away your day standing outside in the rain or snow waiting in vain for a bus that seems like it will never come. I don’t have statistics but I would bet that bus tracker increases utilization of assets for the CTA and has become a known and reliable method of transportation for those that give it a chance.

Cross posted at LITGM

24 thoughts on “Technology and Mass Transit”

  1. Unreliability – in the sense of the customer not knowing when, or whether, the next bus will come – is the bane of bus services. So these systems (which we first came across in NZ ten years ago) are wonderful. But with a couple of strain gauges cunningly installed, they could surely also give you a running estimate of how many passenger spaces remain. In rush hours that matters very much.

  2. The central problem, at least in big American cities, is that bus services are usually municipal monopolies with unionized staff and subject to utility-style regulation of routes and fares. Privatized bus service with no barriers to entry (other than perhaps basic safety regulations) would likely be more responsive to customers’ needs than even the most high-tech municipal monopoly can be.

  3. Seattle’s “one bus away” app is similarly very useful, and I often use it alongside the Uber app to decide what is the best way to my destination

  4. There are some private buses in Orange County that go to LA. It would be useful for regular commuters. I sometimes take the train to Union Station and USC runs shuttle buses to the two campuses from the station. The trouble is that the commuter service runs only in morning and afternoon rush hour periods so, if I teach a half day, I have to take Amtrak home and there is only one train near noon. If I miss it, I am there for another three hours.

    So, I mostly drive. To my two day a week job, I have to drive.

  5. That’s frustrating when you have to drive. Maybe Uber would work but you’d have to ditch your car entirely to make the math work and that probably is impossible in LA. In Chicago I could potentially go without a car but instead I just have a very inexpensive car (a Jetta) that is reliable and I will have it probably 10 years.

    The real issue is that Chicago could run a very effective and likely profitable mass transit system but they serve 2 constituencies… those that take mass transit because they have no other options (the poor) and those that do it out of convenience / choice (the rich). The system to serve the poor sprawls across the city and is likely underutilized and profoundly unprofitable. The one that serves the rich areas is likely (more) profitable and bears a heavy load during rush hour.

    But agreed that private groups could accomplish the same thing. You could even get private buses on these routes with wifi and other amenities for a better commute. But then there would be nothing in the poorer areas unless it was subsidized in some manner.

  6. ” You could even get private buses on these routes with wifi and other amenities for a better commute.”

    They exist and there are commuter vans but they only work for five day a week commuters. If monorails were run along the freeways with parking lots at terminals, it could work but Jerry Brown is all about bullet trains to nowhere.

    He is also passing lunatic legislation that pays $300 million for “flood control” to help the drought.

    But most—$660 million in general-obligations bonds—is for flood control. According to Mr. Brown, climate change makes “extreme weather events” more likely. “All of a sudden, when you’re all focused on drought, you can get massive storms that flood through these channels and overflow and cause havoc,” he explained last week to dunderheads in the press too thick to understand this connection.

    The real reason for the spending is that the bonds that voters approved in 2006 for flood protection expire next year.

    Only in California are flood control bonds for drought relief.

  7. The “mass transit” article is interesting.

    “you get to pass all the solo drivers”

    Not in Los Angeles. On the 405 freeway at 6 AM the HOV lane is jammed with solo drivers. There is no enforcement of any traffic laws that early as far as I can see. Maybe that is a decision to let traffic flow as best it can. I tend to drive 75 mph in the fast lane when traffic is light (around 5 AM) but, when I get to congested areas, I move into the two right lanes as the HOV and “fast lane” jam up quickly.

    Thank God, I only work two days a week. I spent 40 years working 10 minutes from my office or the hospital. Now that I am retired, I commute.

    I do take the Metrolink commuter train to the medical school one day a week. The university runs shuttle buses from the train station to the campus. I can read on the train but it is inconvenient if I want to stay a little longer or have anything else to do.

    I don’t expect to do this more than another year or two. I still have a couple of daughters on the payroll. Once they are truly launched, I will retire again.

    We could talk about adolescence sometime. For me, it ended at 18 but that was 60 years ago. Not any more.

  8. I hate mass transit.

    1. You can’t relax.
    2. You’re dependent on their schedule.
    3. It’s slow.
    4. It’s boring.
    5. If you’re in a bad neighborhood, you need to be very vigilant for trouble.
    6. It’s dirty.
    7. You have no choice in the company you get.

    I will always drive or walk or bike if possible.

  9. @ Roy and Mike Hiteshew:

    IME the arguments or mass-transit advocates always are variants of one or more of the following assertions:

    -I use mass-transit and like it.

    -We should get people out of their cars.

    -People prefer driving over mass-transit because driving is unfairly subsidized.

    -Mass-transit is cheaper than driving.

    -Trains are more efficient than cars.

    All of these arguments boil down to either unsupported generalization from personal preference, attempts to rationalize ideological positions favoring mass-transit, or assertions about the relative costs of different travel modes that ignore the actual costs (i.e., beyond ticket prices) of mass-transit. Further, mass-transit proponents typically assume that mass-transit systems must be owned and operated by govts. But above all, mass-transit proponents generally ignore the value that travelers place on their own time and convenience as revealed by their behavior.

  10. I am also ideologically opposed to HOV lanes. I have to pay to build and maintain a highway I’m not allowed to use. That seems wrong.

  11. When I lived in the city, I would occasionally take the bus to sporting events or once in awhile for meetings downtown. Most of the time, however, I drove, and found myself dodging those buses along main thoroughfares. They’re all too wide for most of the old roads, and many are double length with a flexible connecting section. I heard some are now burning “clean” fuel, but the buses I know belched a black smoke screen obscuring the line of site of the cars behind it.

    The key to getting through the Chicago traffic was always to cut them off and get ahead of them. Otherwise, you would never get anywhere, stuck behind them stopping every 400 yards. I was reading somewhere that the average speed of a CTA bus in the loop is something like 3 mph.

    If Elon Musk ever figures out his hyperloop, I’m sure it would go over big downtown.

  12. Mike Hiteshew:

    Toll lanes with congestion-based pricing are being substituted for HOV lanes in many places. Some people don’t like them because of the direct charge to users, but they provide options that didn’t exist before, and they eliminate preferential treatment for multi-passenger vehicles.

    One feature that I’d like to see on urban highways is some kind of dedicated rapid-response service to clear accident scenes quicker than is now done. This would cost, but any reduction in the amount of time lanes are closed due to accidents would save enormous amounts of time for individual drivers.

  13. I have been taking CTA trains to work since 1987 and they are very reliable and reasonably clean.

    Without waiver of my ideological objection to all government, everywhere, all the time, the CTA has worked well for me, and gotten me to work on time, my entire adult life.

  14. Chicago is almost an ideal city for mass transit, or at least was when I was growing up. The violence that we see now will make mass transit a lot less attractive. Bernard Goetz comes to mind.

    Los Angeles is not amenable to mass transit. They are trying but the distances are great and the emphasis is on ridiculous projects like the “bullet train” which goes nowhere.

  15. Trains in Atlanta are cleaner and less menacing then those I spent time on in NY and Boston, but a lot of people still can’t be bothered and sit in traffic. Many are transplants who want nothing more to do with anything that resembles strap-hanging and the rest are locals who ain’t havin’ it. Thankfully, I live and work in a surrounding county and only have to drive or ride MARTA very occasionally. Every year or so, extending the rail comes up, but people don’t want the taxes or nuisance.

  16. Busses are often argued to be superior to trains because they can be re-routed to shift routes etc. True. Trains may have their drawbacks (we don’t have them around here) but generally speaking they stay where they’re put…

    The only thing worse than intending to ride a bus which has been re-routed is catching one which is about to be. There’s nothing quite like being on a bus which has just entered an expressway it isn’t supposed to be on while the driver announces that your entire neighborhood is being skipped today! This has happened to me twice, along with other fun experiences, no more busses for me, ever. I guess cars are dangerous, expensive, etc. but it is under *my* control. Not perfectly so, traffic is what traffic is, but compared to “public transit” ?

    Which brings me to the question “why is it we all need to be in a big city every week day morning at 8am anyway?”

  17. Which brings me to the question “why is it we all need to be in a big city every week day morning at 8am anyway?”

    Good question. Lots of companies have moved to flex time since, unless you’re running a manual assembly line, there really is no good answer to that. Good riddance too.

  18. ” “why is it we all need to be in a big city every week day morning at 8am anyway?”

    During the LA Olympics, Uberroth got a bunch of employers to shift hours and it worked out wonderfully. Of course, that was a million illegal aliens ago.

    A few years ago, the illegals had a one day work stoppage to show how dependent the city of LA was on them. The effect on traffic was amazing and millions have been trying to organize another work stoppage ever since. The illegals won’t cooperate since they found out the response.

    My wife’s driver’s license expired on her birthday in January. January was the first month for new illegal’s driver licenses. She hasn’t been able to renew yet. Her appointment is next month.

    Los Angeles. Is that a great city or what ?

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