Friday, February 7, 2014

Let transit management manage

Early this morning, I saw a tweet from someone complaining that a Port Authority bus driver went off-route and had to be helped to get back on-route by passengers. In so doing, this made the bus quite late, and one passenger was concerned about being late enough to get in trouble at work. I offered the observation that if a trip legitimately has to go off-route -- perhaps because of a fire or police activity -- the driver should announce it to passengers. That way, if ornery supervisors ask questions later, the story can be checked out.

That is not what happened here. The P76 driver really did miss a turn and got stuck in Parkway East traffic instead of exiting at the Wilkinsburg exit and wending his way to the East Busway like many east suburban express routes do and have done since the Busway opened in 1983. I don't know what happened; it's irrelevant. Whether proper training was at fault, or the driver was not qualified on the route, or was not paying attention -- whatever, doesn't matter. No excuse. But let's move beyond that. I'm not in the finger pointing business at that level.

What matters to me is that Port Authority is 15 years behind the times on being able to monitor things like this. In Spring 2000 at Pitt, I studied existing case histories of GPS technology installed on all manner of equipment, from snowplows to garbage trucks to mining equipment to farm tractors, all at least recording where the vehicles were at any given time. In the snowplow case, the municipality that was doing this was able to defend itself successfully against suits claiming the plows damaged parked cars.

My point: This was off-the-shelf technology in 1999. We couldn't get it and implement it because of funding battles over providing the service at all. From 1997 to late 2013, funding transit was the constant and often only topic of conversation.

With this technology in hand, any time a driver goes off-route, it is recorded. Even if it is not uploaded in real time, but merely gathered at day's end for later processing, having the data at all makes it possible for Management to do its job: Manage the system. Without this data, as they've been without it all along, it is not possible to detect errors like this unless someone complains, and most riders do not. If the complaint is phoned in, there is a well established "black hole" where complaints land, either never to be seen and acted upon by whoever can fix it, or seen and not acted upon, or seen and acted upon but never followed up on to indicate it has been handled. To the public, it didn't get fixed, even if it did, whatever "it" was. Even if the same problem occurred seven days out of 10 and each was reported, there was still no way to aggregate the reports and identify their commonality.

This is what Information Science is all about. This is why I went back to get my Masters almost 20 years ago. This is what I wanted to be able to do for Port Authority when I got out of school in 2002. Shortly after getting my degree, I lost my job the very same day Port Authority implemented a hiring freeze, June 20, 2002. Ten-plus years later, we are *still* having the problems I wanted to solve TWENTY years ago. In trying to solve them, I spent $15,000 of my own money on tuition in pursuing that goal. Can you perhaps sense the seething, searing heat coming off my fingertips right about now?

With this data, however, every instance can be recorded, and, if managed effectively, counted and tracked. The right questions can then be asked: Is this a per-driver issue, i.e., is it just one single driver with a history of such errors? Or is it rather a single spot where different drivers tend to make the same error? meaning perhaps PennDOT or the county highway department has a signage problem they need to fix. Or is it general to a class of drivers, for example that this happens only to drivers in their first pick? indicating perhaps that the training is unclear. Whatever the actual cause is, management cannot manage without information to work from, because for over 10 years they have not getting it, because money.

I have been saying publicly since 1997, and at ACTC meetings since 1999, and directly to PAT brass since 2002 in the form of public testimony and a 3.5" diskette, that Port Authority badly needs to implement a slew of technology applications. This is one of them, and to reiterate, this was not a new app 14 years ago. Buses long ago had GPS receiving equipment, so as to be able to show the next bus stop on a route while in motion, to riders inside the bus. However, they could not send that data back to HQ, for whatever reasons. Other reasons I was made aware of over the years was that it was a labor-management dispute, and that there was a patent troll who kept transit companies from actively using such technology ideas for commercial use. Some of this may have some validity. I don't care now; it's water over the dam. More than that: The rain that fell on Duluth has since flowed past the Bay of Gaspé.

But never mind that. We are finally getting some of that in place, at long last, with some of the buses running the P1 East Busway All-Stops route now being so equipped. Maybe in a year's time, we can finally provide some of that internal monitoring.

1 comment:

  1. We will continue to encounter transit difficulties like this as long as management lacks the tools to adequately monitor the system.