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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Simple, Brilliant, Effective

UTA should do this immediately.

All the TRAX stations have 'Next Train in X Minutes" display. A lot of transit agencies a putting these up, especially on premium services (Light Rail, Streetcar), on the basis that transit riders find waiting less uncertain, and less tedious, if they know when the next vehicle will arrive. It's supposed to help cure the 'bus bob', as people look down the road/track to see if the vehicle has arrived yet. It is comforting to see that the time remaining is declining, certainly, and the signs tend to be accurate within a minute or two, barring accidents.

Are these signs a waste? The TRAX schedule is posted at every station, and the TRAX schedule itself is very simple: The train comes every fifteen minutes, all day, six days a week, and sometimes more often. And none of the buses have the premium next bus service.

It's been an ongoing source of frustration that UTA does not post bus schedules on the poles indicating bus stops, apart from locations serving over a half a dozen buses. On hand, doing so would be expensive and time consuming. On the other hand, the lack is maddening--the alternative is carrying a thick packet of bus schedules, one for each potential route.

But even this is insufficient. Few buses conform to the posted schedule. Most are largely accurate, with a margin of error of no more then five-ten minutes. But this accuracy degrades during the critical peak hour, when most people ride the bus system, providing the impression that the bus schedule is even less accurate than the average. On one notable occasion--a bus, winding through research park, was running an over a half an hour behind schedule.

Up to date, accurate information makes it possible to determine if it will be faster to walk or wait. If a bus on a 30 minute headway is 28 minutes away, it will be faster to walk anyplace within a mile. Or to call a friend, call a cab, or use UCarShare as an alternative.

UTA already has a questions and complaints number at 801.ride.uta (801.7433.882) but it is only in operation during business hours (Monday-Friday, 9-5, and some Holidays). Calling it provides access to a live operator, who will provide a manual look up of the bus schedule for you. But repeatedly calling UTA's hotline to ask when the next bus is coming is gratuitous waste of their time and taxpayer money.

As Google Text (46645), Facebook and Twitter have shown, SMS text integration is not a major issue. Programming an automated service to input the stop #, and return* the time of the next scheduled bus would be relatively simpler.

Life would be so much simpler and better were UTA to simply bolt an additional 'hanger' onto the sign at every bus stop:

Text to

While the fancy signs TRAX has are undeniably nice, they represent a capital investment with an accompanying upkeep and maintenance cost that would be uneconomical to provide for all bus stops. Implementing a SMS-text service is a no-brainer.

*AT LEAST the scheduled arrival time of the next bus. A system involving dynamically collected GPS data would be both more useful to riders (and potential riders), but more complex to implement and integrate.