Does the region have an inherent bias against buses? A few bus routes are extremely well used in both high and low income neighborhoods (the 30s accomplishes this in one line). Furthermore, the DC Circulator, Georgetown Blue Bus, and other bus services have shown commuters, tourists, businessmen, and others will take a certain type of bus. The reasons most often cited for not riding the bus generally include irregular service, infrequent service, inferior user experience, and uncertainty about route paths and schedules. Unfortunately, the Metrobus system needs improvements in each of these areas.
Successful modern bus systems (Whether known as bus rapid transit or other names) are designed to address precisely these concerns. They generally feature frequent, regular service with new buses along clearly defined routes. Metrobus itself rolled out one of these routes on Georgia Avenue: Metro Extra. While the regular Metrobus service clearly needs comprehensive improvement before many of the routes see additional ridership, there is one part of the package that is relatively cheap to implement: information.
The quality of information made available to the public about Metro’s bus service is exceedingly poor. Data available to the riding public comes in several categories, and a brief survey will demonstrate its severe inadequacy.
First, the online Trip Planner on WMATA.com will suggest bus routes based on times and addresses, however it is based on buses scheduled arrival and departure times. The knowing Washingtonian will rarely use these schedules and know intuitively that even if on paper the bus should be faster, in reality walking or Metrorail is frequently be quicker. Furthermore, the Trip Planner provides little sense of frequency: is the bus it suggests the only one that hour, or do they come every 10 minutes? Such details must be provided to the riding public. This lack of context problem also plagues technical systems like NextBus. The limited data prevents rider judgement and if it is broken or the bus comes off schedule the rider is out of luck. Nextbus also reports each bus route separately, even though by design many separate routes overlap for long distances.
Second, Metro publishes a systemwide bus map that is available as a PDF on its website and distributed at stations. The distribution of paper material at Metrorail stations is seemingly random – station managers seems to stock whatever they’ve got lying around. The webpage where Metro publishes the bus map contains not one but six different types of maps showing the much simpler Metrorail system (which itself contains in stations and trains far more maps than exist on buses). Most buses do not contain a map of the route you’re on, let alone the system. Clearly, part of the solution must be distribution: every bus must have route and system maps available. Metrorail stations should always have bus system maps available. Even if you get your hands on one of these things they may not help. Try to keep your eye on one route in this detail of the systemwide map:
The suburban portions are often no better, leaving off many minor roads. This detail of a map will illustrate their limited usefulness: where does the bus turn at those intersections? Which lines are for the F4 and which the F6? It’s little wonder this particular route runs frequently with empty or near-empty buses, despite high demand along the corridor.
Contrast those with this detail from the Circulator:
While it is true the amount of information displayed is much less, the difference in quality is striking. The Circulator map tells riders where the stops are, which direction the bus travels, and exactly how the route relates to Metro stations and landmarks.
Third, Metrobus publishes a pamphlet containing the timetable and a route map. The Express’ Mike Grass recently rightly called Metrobus’s timetables “perhaps the most user-unfriendly piece of paper known to man.” Only a transportation engineer could find the mind-numbing lists of numbers like the one at the right meaningful. Even experienced riders like myself sometimes get confused. Metrobus also only publishes bus times for a handful of points along the route – riders in between must rely on experience or mental extrapolation to know when the bus might show up if their stop isn’t on the table.
Is there a better way to convey this information? Design guru Edward Tufte thinks so. Tufte has built a career on three lavishly illustrated books describing what he describes as “information design.” His book Envisioning Information compares a traditional timetable of the sort shown above with one from a Japanese train schedule. Unlike conventional timetables which seek to contain too much information and thus convey none, this schedule was for just one station. The hours ran down the center and a series of numbers corresponding with the minutes past the hour the train left were stacked to the left or right of the hour, depending which way the train was going. The technical term for such charts is a stem and leaf, but regardless it brings meaning to the times.
To the right, the timetable shown above is converted into this type of chart. On this route, there are generally more buses during rush hour. Furthermore, once the viewer figures out the layout it conveys the information much more efficiently than the tables – if you’re traveling after 8 p.m. to Silver Spring it’s immediately apparent there’s only two more buses.
The more frequent the bus service the more useful this type of display becomes. For example, the University of Maryland Shuttle from the Metro Station to campus timetable is below on the left. To the right, a redesigned version.
The new table immediately communicates the type of information many riders are looking for but is hidden in the long list of times: frequency. It explains why it always seems to take longer when I get to the station around 11 a.m., and also makes immediately apparent the reduction of service after 8 p.m.
Of course, while such information improvements are inexpensive and would no doubt encourage ridership Metrobus has much more serious problems. Its bus fleet is old, the routes badly need rationalizing, and the “customer service” of many drivers leaves much to be desired. One local jurisdiction which seems to fully grasp the importance of information is Arlington County, which operates a constellation of various websites and host of offline efforts targeting county residents encouraging and explaining transportation choices.
The Washington, D.C. region has invested millions of dollars in extensive public bus systems. Isn’t it time we make them easier to use?