January 23, 2008

TransitCamp Ideally: Promote Simplicity and Ubiquitousness

Tara Hunt has a post up about TransitCamp (a camp held in about a month at SocialText with the help of Heyward Robinson, Menlo Park city council, Adina Levin, Co Founder of Social Text and avid Menlo Park community activist, Margaret Okuzumi, from the Bay Rail Alliance and MTC).

I love the idea of transit camp to help people who work on those issues do better for all of us. I can't attend but I wanted to throw out a couple of ideas.

I rarely use public transit here in the Bay Area. I use it all the time on the east coast in Boston, NYC and Washington, as well as Amtrak linking the three. And in European cities like Paris, Barcelona, London, Amsterdam, Rome, as well as Euro-trains linking the continent.

The common thread across all those cities is that the interface, and the metaphor, is simplicity and instant access with little mental overhead. In other words, you don't have to know much to use them, other than to find an outlet and get in. Then after locating a map, you buy a pass and unless it's very late (after midnight or 2am depending) or very early (before 6am), you wait a few minutes and your train, bus or trolley shows up. And you're off. And it works from the airports too! Yipee!

The way Bay Area transit works is: you are a commuter, you already know the complicated and dysfunctional system section you use all the time and the rest is a byzantine mess of mismatched numerous connections, so therefore the regular user only will move say, one leg to get where you are going or maybe two at the most. Oh and you are doing this almost exclusively during commute hours in order to have any efficiency at all.

That's not really great.

I have tried to use public transit. And when I lived in SF, I had a flat rate card, took the bus, muni, BART (just within SF) and the trolleys. But even they really worked most efficiently during commute hours, with long waits before, during the midday, and after or weekend times. Though BART was nice if you were downtown and wanted to hit the mission or somewhere else along that specific line, because so many trains go from all over the BA through SF and out again. So there are a lot of options there for constant movement with little planning.

But from Berkeley, BART takes on a different metaphor, often requiring much more planning. For example, to take a train after hours or on a Sunday, you must change trains to get to SF. Recently, my car needed unexpected servicing in Mountain View, so I dropped it at a recommended shop there. The next day, after being back in Berkeley via a ride from a friend, I needed to retrieve my car.

I thought that it would be easy to go from Berkeley to Mt. View, after reviewing the various websites for about an hour or so to plan my trip. So I optimistically hoped on BART at 6pm. The online info said: "Cross-platform transfers at the Millbrae BART Station." So it turns out that my SF bound train from Berkeley didn't go to Millbrae. I had to change. Twice!

I arrived at Millbrae at 7:40pm, and saw a southbound Caltrain. W00t! I ran out, up the three flights of stairs to the overpass walkway, and just then watched the Caltrain pull out. Damn. They don't coordinate! Even as a bunch of people wanted to get on it. They just move out regardless of BART trains pulling in.
No problem, I thought, there have to be more. So I went downstairs to the Caltrain side, looked at the schedule. Which was difficult to read in interface, but said there was a train in 15 minutes. I bought my ticket to Mt. View, after which I waited, as the rain poured. Sideways too. Shelter was three stories up, so the rain and wind were going everywhere (Way to architect public spaces for people waiting for transit! But it looks pretty in the brochures.)

No train came, and I eventually made my way back to the totally unsheltered schedule. I had read the schedule, on paper, with no AM or PM specified, wrong. I had been looking at an AM schedule, so I looked all the way to the other side, where the PM side was. Next train, 75 minutes. So, I'd already waited 20. Wow. So now I really think Caltrain operators are jerks for pulling out when a BART train arrives from the North that might include riders on their train (there were 10 of us and they could have waited 30 seconds for us!).

I waited a while longer, and then called my friend in Mt. View to come get me as I was soaked and absolutely freezing, even with raincoat and umbrella and lots of scarves and things -- they don't protect you from sideways rain much, nor did the shelter 3 stories up do anything at all for us! I just couldn't see waiting another hour for the train, and then having a 25 min ride down there, and then walking in the rain to get my car (estimated arrival that way: 10pm). Actual arrival: 8:40pm.

It took him 20 minutes to drive. And that's my point.

If you plan for traffic, it's 40-45 minutes from Berkeley to Mt. View or Palo Alto, 20 minutes to SF, 25 minutes to San Bruno. I use Google maps with traffic turned on in my phone in the car, for instant planning after the general plans have been made.

My car, instead of hours on public transit, with many connections that are uncoordinated by the many agencies involved, and impossible to pay for in one lump.

I'd rather not drive, but how the heck do you manage my typical day of meetings like say, last Thursday?
AM: 9:30 meeting in the mission, 11am in Cole Valley, PM: 12pm in the outer Sunset, 2pm in San Bruno, 6:30pm in SF for dinner, 10pm in Emeryville, 11pm home. All of which I easily made in the car, but with transit in the BA, I'd have to plan two hours between each meeting and an hour home on the last leg. In NYC, each bridge to the next event would be 15-30 minutes (what I'd planned for driving between each thing I needed to get done).

Or for that matter yesterday: Mt View to San Bruno, then San Bruno to Oakland (on Mandella Parkway), then Berkeley, then Oakland, then Emeryville, then Berkeley, then Emeryville, then Berkeley. All between 1pm and 8pm. So you know, there isn't any option between Emeryville and Berkeley. And nothing between Mandella Parkway and Berkeley either that I know of... it would be a disaster if I didn't have a car.

The metaphor for transit in the BA: you use this already and if you don't, you're screwed. And you use transit during commute hours (like 7-9am and 4-6pm -- yeah.. that really works in the tech community and with all the events we all attend each evening). You have all the payments worked out in advance with monthly transit cards (not great for changing systems though some have recently connected better than in the past).

In fact, BART's own website acknowledges this:

Transit Connections to BART

Free Personalized Trip Planning Service!

We know that navigating public transit connections in the Bay Area can be difficult, that's why we're here to help: If you'd like an accurate, personalized trip plan that includes BART and connecting transit, call our Customer Service Department: it's fast, it's easy, and it's tailored just for you! (Emphasis mine)

In other words, it's so hard, they don't even bother to put the info online. They just have you call them to work out the byzantine system's details.

I'd like to see Transit Camp deal with the broken metaphor, the interface and execution (tickets and money, schedules and websites, mismatched transitions), and the assumption that this all happens during rush hour and otherwise there is no need.

Frankly, if you don't provide much after hours, people won't build it into their schedules. If you do, they will.

For me, Tara's picture in her post and at Flickr is more representative of what I see in the transit experience, where nothing quite works unless you live and operate in SF:
That sux

I'd like to see transit work holistically for the whole BA, where you just jump on and go where you need to go, up 'til say 2am. That would get me to leave my car behind. :)

Posted by Mary Hodder at January 23, 2008 07:23 AM | TrackBack

Commuting between San Francisco and San Jose is an unpredictable game of coordination and waiting. A change made by VTA to the local bus schedule this year ensures that my bus home from Caltrain leaves 60 seconds before the express trains arrive. After a week of waiting in the cold for half an hour, I decided to buy a car.

I'm now a single-passenger commuter driving 15 miles each work day. This gives me 30 extra hours at home each month, at the reasonable rate of $10/hour. Perhaps it's hypocritical to support public transit while driving. I'm just tired of spending 5% of my waking life waiting for the next bus.

Posted by: Richard Soderberg at January 23, 2008 11:01 PM

Hi Richard,
That's exactly the kind of example I'm talking about. And I hit the same sort of wall, at one point, carless, and bought a car. I've never looked back, and yet, I want to get off gasoline very badly.

My goal, in fact this year, is to figure out how to get off it, or at least get a hybrid.

But like you say, that doesn't involve more Public Transit. Because it's still far to broken to use effectively.

But if they fix it, I'll definitely use it. I practically live on top of (nearby) the downtown Berkeley BART station. Which is also grand central for all the transbay buses and lots of other busses (which was why I got my car, after waiting one night, three hours, with three bags of groceries, near the Berkeley Bowl, to get a bus back to my house, from 6-9pm, one night !!! And don't suggest a cab, as after an hour i called and they never showed.)

Anyway, I think we aren't alone in this, and I surmise when I drive on highways and bridges around the BA that many of the people are doing what I'm doing.. something that doesn't happen everyday and therefore, means you can't justify an hour of transit *planning* and then hours on the transit screwing around.

So we all drive. Bad, but effective.


Posted by: mary hodder at January 24, 2008 08:22 AM