How do you measure success? With any endeavor, it’s important to have concrete goals in order to define what success looks like. Traditionally, the transit industry has tended to look inward to determine key objectives – citing metrics like on-time performance, cost per revenue hour, trips per hour and types of service provided. Transit agencies look at the basics of how they’re performing, producing spreadsheets that illustrate how well they’re hitting their marks. If you talk to the people who work in the industry, this is the language they speak – using terms like headway and deadhead, rolling stock and running time.
But what if there were a better way to measure success? A way that looked not inward, but outward, toward the rider, and the community the agency serves? What if transit agencies have focused too much for too long on data, at the expense of the individual? And what if the experiences of those individuals while using public transit was the ultimate metric by which an agency should be judged? In the effort towards mobility without limits, is finding the answer to those questions.
A 76-year-old Vietnam War veteran, John is a paraplegic who uses an electric wheelchair to get around. Despite his challenges, John is very independent; he enjoys playing cards with friends at his local American Legion, going to the movies, and adding to his extensive classic record collection when he can squeeze a trip to the local thrift store into his busy schedule. But, unlike many of us, John can’t just hop in his car and take a trip into town. Everything he does has to be planned well ahead because he has to schedule his local transit agency’s paratransit service. That requires at least 24 hours’ notice to set up a pickup time, and it gives him a 2-hour window in which it might arrive.
Paratransit scheduling can be a challenge for any transit agency, given the specific needs for particular types of disabilities and the cost often associated with individual point-to-point demand services. And, based upon costs per revenue hour or on-time performance, John’s local transit agency may feel like it’s successfully meeting its goals. But what if they focused instead on enhancing John’s experience by increasing his ability to be spontaneous, using mobile app technology to allow him to meet his friends for lunch with 2 hours of notice rather than 24, and reduce the window to 15 minutes rather than 2 hours?
Leslie lives just outside the city, in a beautiful neighborhood with her husband and two children. She works downtown, and her drive to the office takes her an hour through mostly stop-and-go traffic every morning and evening. Not only is it expensive – forcing her to fill up her gas tank at least once per week – but it makes it difficult to get exercise each day. Between her car and her job, she sits for 12 hours out of every day. If she wants to spend any time with her family, there’s little time left to go to the gym. There’s an BRT bus stop 2.5 miles from her house, and that would cut her commute time in half. But there’s no parking at the stop, and no mobile app to monitor the bus’s location, meaning the 30-minute headways could leave her with a long wait for the next bus if she biked there. However, there also no bike racks, and no place to safely store bikes for the ride into town. Leslie and many of her neighbors would love to use the BRT, but the local transit agency hasn’t made it convenient for them to use.
Finding the right balance for headways and trips per day is difficult for any transit agency to figure out, regardless of their size and budget. Based upon on-time performance and costs, Leslie’s local BRT is an efficient people mover that’s accomplishing its mission of staying on schedule and on budget. But what if they focused instead on improving the health of their riders? Maybe they’d look into developing a mobile app that would help people time their trip to the stop so they’d minimize their wait time. Maybe they’d set up bike racks at the stop and on their buses. That would not only allow her to get a few miles of biking into her morning and evening routines, but she’d have more time to hit the gym, and be able to stand if she chose during her bus ride, limiting her sitting time each day. In addition, her stress levels would decrease since she wouldn’t have to deal with rush hour traffic every day. Instead, she could check work email, text her boss, or just read a book.
Hank is an 88-year-old widower whose kidneys are failing, so he gets a dialysis treatment three times a week at the local clinic. His local transit agency’s demand service sends a van to pick him up for his appointments. He’s also used a cane to walk since his hip replacement surgery two years ago; he isn’t as spry as he was when he was in his 20s, but he doesn’t let that deter him. He schedules his Monday-Wednesday-Friday morning pickups on the transit agency’s website, though he struggles sometimes with his Internet connection, and the demand schedule gives him a one-hour window in which he’ll be picked up. If the van arrives early in the hour, that can leave him sitting for close to an hour in the clinic’s waiting room. When the van arrives, his driver, Rebecca, helps him climb aboard, and drives him 10 minutes to the clinic. After a typically quiet trip, she drops him off and returns four hours later to pick him up and drive him home.
It’s difficult to see someone suffering, and Hank definitely has his challenges, though he faces them with determination and poise. The driver always arrives within the hour window he’s given, and gets him to his appointments on time. By most tangible metrics, these trips are a success. But what if the transit agency started thinking in terms of the sorts of meaningful interactions Hank has on his thrice-weekly trips? What if Hank were offered the opportunity to call and talk to a human to schedule his trips? What if Rebecca smiled and welcomed him each time he got in, calling him by name and talking to him about his day? What if she brought him magazines and books he likes when she knew she’d have to drop him off early? What if Rebecca or the Agency took the time to know more about Hank, sending or bringing him a card on his birthday and a small gift at Christmas? Maybe she could pick up a coffee from his favorite café every once in awhile, or offer him some of his favorite candy when he settled into his seat. How would that impact Hank’s experience? Would those sorts of personal interactions change the way he viewed transit?
Denise just graduated from college and is excited to be living in her first solo apartment in a cozy neighborhood just on the outskirts of downtown. Her job is 3.5 miles away in a skyscraper with a gym, condos and a restaurant on the street level. She loves her job, and can’t wait to get going each morning. Just starting out, though, her modest salary keeps her living pretty much paycheck to paycheck, and the payments for her car are taking up a big chunk of her monthly budget now that she’s on her own. She’d love to sell her car, and use public transit for her commute; there’s a bus stop just a mile from her apartment, and it would let her off five blocks from her office. But the headways for the bus are 20 minutes, even at rush hour, and there’s no way to get real-time information on the bus’s location. That means she can only go by the schedule, so an early or late bus could make her late for work. Plus, there’s no cover to stand under at the stop – making the potential of a long wait even more daunting – and there’s no parking for either cars or bikes. While they know it’s not perfect, the transit agency is proud of its on-time record, its bus/light rail and paratransit service, and its financial efficiency.
But what if the transit agency thought in terms of Denise’s ability to have more freedom to move about the city? What if they thought about her dignity of being able to wait for the bus without a morning rain leaving her soaked when she walked into the office? Maybe they’d provide a mobile app that would let her know where her bus was, so she could time her walk to arrive just before the bus did, shortening both her wait and her commute and leaving her with the comfort of certainty. And maybe they’d look into putting shelters at their bus stops so riders would feel safer and have some protection from the elements. How would those improvements impact Denise’s experience? How would her overall freedom be changed by her certainty regarding her mobility?