I comments on my previous post on Metrobuses and small improvements in public transport BruceT gave a complaint about waiting and then giving up because of the uncertainty about when one would actually arrive on a weekend when the frequency was lower.
This reminded me of the way waiting for a late train is much less frustrating than waiting for a late bus. When waiting for a train there’s an ETA on an electronic board, ticking down (and frequently up) and at larger stations there’s announcements. Recently, when a train is late they give updates on the current location of the late service as junctions are tripped along the line. Despite the fact these ETAs are often wildly variable, move up and down, and that the announcements are restricted in the information they give, it does improve things a great deal.
This isn’t a surprise. It comes right out of queuing research. Tom Vanderbilt has a good popular treatment in Traffic – an improbably fascinating book on driving and congestion. Congestion after all is merely queuing to use the road up ahead. One of the findings discussed is that a wait with some estimation of duration and some semblance of progress is perceived as shorter and less frustrating by the waiting. Even if there is no improvement in real punctuality, the reduction in frustration is both real and quite significant. This is worth a great deal, and I think it can be achieved quite inexpensively.
Contrast the train station with a late service at a bus stop. Is it coming in a minute? 10 minutes? Was it canceled? Should I walk? If I walk won’t it just come roaring past as soon as I’ve gone 100 metres? Even the wildly rough ETAs of the train system are better than that. Any kind of idea of where the bus is is better than that.
But increasingly we have an opportunity to offer this to the waiting. It’s reasonable to assume that smart phones will become more and more ubiquitous. Certainly large proportions of the population are convinced that they’re a pointless yuppie affectation and conspicuous consumption that no normal person would use – just like mobile phones in general and personal computers were once. I think it’s also reasonable to assume that wireless speed will increase to something reasonable and access prices will fall.
And GPS technology is already ridiculously cheap. This means that transport authorities can not just offer status updates by phone, but they can offer he exact location of your late service on a map – you can watch it crawling towards you. As far as I’m concerned transit authorities should be producing this kind of data anyway. The technology is cheap and it would help them find bottlenecks and other problems that reduce punctuality. Offering it to the public won’t add much cost. Indeed, where they’re still government owned, there’s a good case for releasing it in the spirit of Government 2.0. Google or an enthusiastic amateur would probably jump at the chance to integrate the data into google maps. The service would then be even cheaper.
And frustrated commuters…well, their buses are still late, but they won’t feel as impotent. The benefits are certainly worth the modest costs.