Archive | May, 2012

tweet-analysis for transit agencies, and more on positive feedback

A group of researchers studied tweets emerging from Chicago rail transit passengers, plotting them by time of day and correlating them with disruption events on the network.  Emily Badger at The Atlantic has the story.  A key insight:

Bus and train agencies generally gauge how riders feel about them the old-fashioned way, with surveys and focus groups. What if, instead of politely asking people if they find their morning commutes safe, sanitary and efficient, agencies tapped into the raw and unscripted assessments we all love to broadcast from our smart phones? (Case in point: I may have tweet-whined this morning from inside the Washington Metro system: "Why will it take 8 1/2 months to replace the escalators at the Dupont Metro?")

A group of researchers at Purdue suspected agencies could learn a lot about rider satisfaction by doing this (oh yeah, and all this data is free!).

Unfortunately, the results also picked up on my theme from last week:

[Samuil] Hasan, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue, presented these findings Tuesday to a riveted room at the annual Transportation Research Board conference in Washington. Noticeably absent from his charts were the moments when everyone seemed to be tweeting wild praise for the Chicago Transit Authority.

"The most interesting thing we found is that transit riders do not give any positive sentiment at a particular time. They only give negative sentiment," he said. Now, this may seem depressing if you work for one of these agencies. "But that’s not very disappointing," Hasan said, "because we found that the lack of negative sentiment is basically what transit authorities should look for. If there’s no negative sentiment at any given time, that means that things are running smoothly."

That may be partly true of operational disruptions, but Hasan seems unaware of the role of positive feedback in encouraging good work by operations employees.

In many other areas of transit agency activity, the absence of positive feedback is unequivocally a problem.  In operations, "smooth running" is the goal, which menas that change is usually the enemy.  But network planning, for example, is about creative change that solves problems and improves the relevance of the service.  Almost everybody, deep down, feels some entitlement to the status quo, so negative feedback on a change proposal is inevitable no matter how good the plan is.  

When a transit agency is trying to do something new, and good — whether in network planning, infrastructure, wayfinding, marketing, communications, or whatever — you should assume they're getting lots of negative feedback from people who just want nothing to change.  That means your positive feedback really matters.

guest post: peter brown on the decline of u.k. privatization of transit

Peter Brown is a lifelong UK transit enthusiast (and an HT reader from the earliest days).   He is a member of the Light Rail Transit Association (LRTA), and a former volunteer tram driver at Seaton Tramway, Devon, England.

Twenty six years after the Thatcher government deregulated local bus services in the UK (outside London and Northern Ireland), the calls for some form of re-regulation persist.  

The latest issue is the stated ambition of the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive (PTE), which today calls itself 'Nexus,' to restore government control of planning and management for the bus system in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Gateshead/Sunderland conurbation.  This is significant because for a few years in the 1980s this authority operated the UK's only example of an integrated transport system on a par with European best practise — a system that was destroyed by the Thatcher government.

Img_10384In the early 1980s, the Tyne and Wear PTE directly operated a large bus system which was formed by the takeover of the former municipal fleets of Newcastle, Gateshead, and Sunderland, and also built and operated the LRT system (The Metro).  During the short life of this integrated system it was possible to travel between any two points on a single ticket by bus, local train, Metro, and ferry services. The bus system was redesigned to feed into the metro at purpose built interchanges for journeys into central Newcastle, thus reducing bus movements across the heavily congested Tyne bridges.  
Unfortunately the Thatcher Government deregulation of bus services destroyed this integrated network.  Deregulation swept away a regulated system that had existed in the UK since the 1930s. It meant that bus companies (referred to as ‘Operators’ in the UK) had to self financing through the fare box. Blanket subsidies and any form of network co-ordination (or what Americans would call "integrated network planning") were terminated.  In short, it became illegal to think of transit as a public resource, integrated with the city, and managed for greatest possible efficiency and usefulness.

Instead, the ideal became competition.  Bus operators could operate "commercial" (non-subsidised) networks anywhere, and the role of local government became to purchase subsidized services wherever more service was desired.  Integrated transit features that many cities take for granted — including citywide fare systems, lines that aim to connect with one another, and rational management of limited resources, became effectively impossible.  
Yet if the goal was competition, the system failed.  As in most of the UK today, there is very little direct on-the-road competition between the three bus companies in Tyne and Wear.  Instead, each company has settled into a "territory" in which the lack of competition is the key to profitability.  Passenger journeys starting in one operator's territory that finish in another's require the passenger to change buses and pay twice. Nexus is no longer happy about this and wants to take over the commercial networks and purchase operations from the bus companies – this is known as a 'Quality Contract' and there is new (as yet unused) legislation to do this. 

In short a Quality Contract would involve the suspension of deregulation within a specified area and the imposition of a tendered system whereby the transport authority would specify the network, fares, frequencies etc. As urban bus operation outside London is a profitable activity (nationally approximately 90% of bus mileage requires no direct revenue support) the proponents of Quality Contracts believe that massive subsidies would not be required.  
In order to bring about a Quality Contract several conditions must be satisfied, with an independent board to adjudicate. The promoters would have to prove that the new system would:

  • have a positive impact on the use of bus services
  • will be of benefit to users of bus services by improving quality
  • will contribute to the implementation of the local transport policies
  • achieve all the above in an economic, efficient and effective manner.

 All the above leave lots of room for argument against them, and since the commercial operators would in effect have their businesses sequestrated without compensation it is likely they will use the legal process in full, including the European Court of Human Rights.
The alternative approach for a local transport authority to increase its influence in the provision of bus services is the 'Statutory Quality Partnership' as demonstrated in Oxford last year using powers from the 2008 Transport Act. 
The 2008 Act expands the terms of the previous voluntary Quality Partnership model to allow a LTA [Local Transport Authority — the tier of local government responsible for transport] to specify requirements as to frequencies, timings or maximum fares as part of the standard of service to be provided under a scheme, in addition to quality standards. But it also provides important safeguards to ensure that unrealistic conditions are not imposed on operators, and that their legitimate right to a fair commercial rate of return on their investment is not undermined. The process by which an operator can object to particular standards included in a scheme relating to frequencies, timings or maximum fares, is an important feature of this. But at the same time it places a responsibility on them to justify the grounds for their objection, thus minimising the scope for vexatious or frivolous objections.

In the context of Oxford, where such a scheme was implemented last year, there is no history of municipal bus operation. This could account for the partnership approach being more acceptable to that LTA.

Photo: Simon Billis 


Tomorrow's my 50th birthday, and today I just made an accepted offer on a house in Portland.  A bit to digest, so we'll be dark here for a couple of days!  Coming soon: posts on Tel Aviv and on British de-regulation …

“awesome driver!”: the power of positive feedback

Now and then Twitter pops up something like this, from someone called @wmataplusside.

@wmataplusside@wmata awesome driver! Very clear & announced everything! orange line car 5053. Tell him to keep up the good work :)

 In a local ecosystem dominated by colorful critical voices (including @FixWMATA, @dcmetrosucks, @unsuckdcmetro, and my personal favorite moniker, @MedievalMetro), @wmataplusside's niche is to offer all good news:

‏ @wmataplusside  Cell service at Anacostia, Navy Yard, and Waterfront is real! Its really there! #wmata

WMATA, the regional transit agency of the Washington DC region, has a problem that afflicts almost all transit agencies: Negative feedback is constant, positive feedback is rare.  Transit is an incredibly visible service; when something goes wrong — whether in management or operations — there's no concealing it.  Media feed on negativity, so that's what spreads, and what returns amplified to the agency staff.

Experienced transit staff learn to "control" for the negativity.  I often tell client agencies that if the feedback on a service proposal is only 75% negative, as opposed to, say, 95%, then that's actually pretty positive.  Negatively-impacted customers respond in much greater numbers, and usually much more belligerently, than positively-impacted customers, so it's unfair to count comments as though they were votes.  The same is generally true of operations; commendations of good work from customers are rare, because few bother to comment in that situation. while lacerating feedback from angry customers is routine.

This is why folks like @wmataplusside are doing someting important.  When not offering his/her own positive feedback, @wmataplusside is harvesting good news from all over the local Twitterverse, and retweeting it, amplified.  If you want one feed of all the good news about WMATA (and I'm sure the agency does), this is it:

‏ @dcmetrosucks:  I have to say that #wmata has stepped it up this past month and a half…haven't had any significant delays on the OR during peak hours.

‏ @jamdizzle  So pressed with @wmata! Didn't really believe they'd put the money the bus ate on my SmarTrip and certainly not within a few hours!

@jeditrainee:  Love the new bus bays at Seven Corners. Going through there used to be a nightmare. #wmata

@HS1979: On a shuttle. Watched WMATA employee explain to driver how 2 help one confused young passenger. "Take care of her, ok?" IMMD 

@mindymoretti:  $13 cab ride vs. $1.50 bus ride. Snarly cab driver vs. uber friendly bus driver. Well played @wmata well played.

‏ @csimpson82:  My orange line train driver would have an AMAZING career in radio! Excellent job today with the stations!

@zebrafinch:  Cheers, kudos to DC Metro staff Ms. Taylor (Woodley/Zoo) & Gregory (White Flint) for ALWAYS BEING HELPFUL & on task! TY! @wmata #WMATA

@zebrafinch:  New and cheery lighting at formerly dark Metro station. Good! #WMATA

@chrispulaski:  With all my negative #wmata tweets, I have to say that more often than not, the metro workers I encounter are wonderful people.

They don't have to be specific complimnents.  Expressions of sheer passion are also passed on:

‏@Adam_Ulbricht:  Have I confessed my love for the #DCMetro lately? Ya, it's amazing

@Wmataplusside also supports by being useful, extending the agency's eyes:

@wmataplusside: @wmata there are hornets building a nest inside of bus bay H at Naylor Road

The user @wmataplusside took a while to track down, but here's his or her self-description.

Unrelated with WMATA, just a Marylander who grew up with the Green Line. Not really much about me. A suburbanite, born in Virginia, raised in Maryland. Ride Monday through Friday and weekends when I need to go into the city. Been riding all my life, and it's really not as sorry a state of affairs as others make it out to be.

It moves people back and forth without serious incidents being commonplace. Sure, incidents may occur from time to time, but it's not nearly as bad as the Beltway. If riding Metro sounded like listening to a bad traffic report, I could understand relentlessly hating on it.

Started the feed because I couldn't understand why so many were dedicated to being negative about it, and none positive. Goal was an outlet for compliments and comments as a means of hopefully encouraging more positive behavior by wmata employees. Answer rider questions and tweet about my experiences on rails and bus, pass along information about delays when I'm in them. Just want to provide a contrast to all of the pessimism, and another side to the #wmata conversation.

Or as he put it in a tweet:

@wmataplusside: I may look like the eternal optimist, but I'm more normal than it seems. And after reading twitter daily, more lucky than most.

If nobody is aggregating positive feedback for your city's transit system, maybe you should start!  Positive feedback can guide an agency at least as well as the negative can.  Probably better.

quote of the week: the reappearing desert

How little has changed since the 1830s!  From Tocqueville's Democracy in America, published in 1835:

Sometimes the progress of man is so rapid that the desert reappears behind him. The woods stoop to give him a passage, and spring up again when he has passed. It is not uncommon in crossing the new States of the West to meet with deserted dwellings in the midst of the wilds; the traveller frequently discovers the vestiges of a log house in the most solitary retreats, which bear witness to the power, and no less to the inconstancy of man. In these abandoned fields, and over these ruins of a day, the primeval forest soon scatters a fresh vegetation, the beasts resume the haunts which were once their own, and Nature covers the traces of man's path with branches and with flowers, which obliterate his evanescent track. 

Extended passage here, all equally relevant to urban planning.  Hat tip: Ta-nehisi Coates, the Atlantic.  

Photo: Tyson Jerry,

should voter-approved transit taxes be spent in transit?

You'd think that once you ask your local voters to approve a tax specifically for transit, you owe it to the voters to spend the money on transit.  Apparently that's not how it works in Houston, as Houston Tomorrow president David Crossley explains.  

Metro receives local money from a 1-cent sales tax that was approved by voters when the agency was created in 1978. In 1987 then-Mayor Bob Lanier [of the City of Houston] began taking 25% of that money away from Metro annually to use as he saw fit. That included funding design work for the so-called “Grand Parkway,” which is now under intense construction in order to pull population away from the City of Houston and all the other towns and cities in the region.

I have some sympathy for these funding diversions.  Sometimes voters haven't approved levies for what is really needed at the moment, and the only way to keep things going is through.  Sometimes, too, these diversions really are "loans" that get paid back.

But when a diversion is used to fund a competing capital project, the obvious question is:  "Why not ask the voters if they want to fund that project?"  That, question, too, may have a valid answer, and I hope Houston readers will explain it in the comments.

UPDATE:  A Houston reader offers a competing narrative.

I'll be doing a public lecture and discussion in Houston on May 14.  See info under my photo –>