Better Ways to Reach Out

I will be the first to admit that public transit is less than intuitive. Timetables and routes and zones and fare structures are less than intuitive. And the harder it is to use something (like public transit or your cell phone’s latest features) the less likely people are to use it. In our business of public transit we are aware of the many barriers to using our system on a daily basis (despite what it may seem like from the outside). Working in the technology group there are however only so many of those barriers that we can address directly (much as I would like to I cannot make the buses come more often). But what we can do is try to make the effort to get information about the system as easy as possible. The theory being that as we knock down barriers to using public transit, more people will want to use it. In that vein, I came across a fascinating article about a little town right here in our neighborhood that has gone off and done something useful in a very ingenious way. While the connection to public transit may not be obvious, let me explain…

Out friends to the south in San Antonio did something smart about 10 years back by putting a unique number on every bus stop in their town. With that number, when someone calls into their phone system or when they visit their website they are able to access information specific to their bus stop simply by referencing the unique number at their stop. This makes it way easier to ask for the next bus to arrive at stop #5413 than to have to describe the bus stop (the one just north of 5th and Congress on the um I think it is the west side of the street… hold on a minute and let me ask someone which side of the street we are on…). This type of short hand is very useful for lowing the barrier to bus and train information. 

Realizing the advantage of this type of shorthand to reference points of interest within the Capital Metro world we have begun the long process of putting unique bus stop numbers at each of our stops as we roll out new signs (the problem with getting this done quickly is that we have to modify 3100+ bus stops and transit centers with a precise piece of information that can’t be in error). As we start to get this numeric shorthand in place you will see us roll out the new ability to get stop specific information from our web and IVR systems in this way.

What is exciting about the Manor experiment is that they have taken this concept of a simple reference link to a much deeper source of information and they have proven it can be done for a small amount of money and they have shown that a lot more information can be compressed into a relatively small space. The new form of short hand (in their case a QR code) can be used to convey much more information than a simple 4 or 5 digit number. Of course the hurdle now becomes getting people familiar with a new way of accessing information, but as camera phones become more popular this problem may be solved by other people. (To understand what the city of Manor did and to understand this new way of compressing more information please read the associated article here.)

And for those of you that would like to try this out, I have included a QR code jump below to e-mail me your thoughts. (If you need help deciphering this strange beast, read the article above. If that doesn’t work then post a comment on this blog and I will show you how to take advantage of these hieroglyphics.) As always, I would love to hear what you think on this topic and where you think shortcuts like these could best be used in our system.

7 thoughts on “Better Ways to Reach Out

  1. Tim

    They’re nice, but I think a unique number would be better initially. It would be trivial not only for cap metro to add services, but also small businesses. A business could have an automated system that asks you to punch in your bus stop code and gives you directions. SXSW could use this to tie all of their venues to public transit. I think creating a really open system that was easy to use would definitely be the best first step.

    The barcode for camera phones would be great addition at a later date.

  2. yawnmoth

    i’m riding capmetro to save money. i’m not about to pay $30 / month for a data plan just to access the URLs these barcodes could provide. indeed, i suspect most riders wouldn’t.

    if capmetro wants to reach out, i think they should do some sort of refer a friend program. i’m not sure how capmetro would go about, logistically, doing this, but it’s an idea, all the same.

    as for making capmetro easier to use…

    – the maps don’t show every stop. as such, people often wind up getting off at less than ideal stops, never knowing that if they stayed on just for that one stop, they’d get to an even closer stop.

    – some stops don’t show signs for all the routes that they’re intended for. for example,

    http://www.capmetro.org/gismaps/stops/4652.html

    the text suggests that that’s for Route 19 / 339, but the sign would have you (and perhaps the bus driver) believing that it’s only for Route 339.

    – show the route on the bus. on the London Underground, you can study the route from the comfort of your seat because it’s discussed above the seats. on capmetro buses, you either can study a printout or just not study the route at all. unused ad space could be used to show maps.

    – on the LED “stop requested” sign, the name of the next stop could scroll. select London Underground lines do this.

    – prerecorded messages could announce which stops the bus is approaching before it gets to them. the London Underground does this, as well.

    – led signs at stops saying “the next route 19 will arrive at 4:00pm” or whatever. doing this for individual bus stops could be somewhat complicated due to a lack of space, but for park and rides, lack of space isn’t really an issue.

  3. DarkPhoenix

    If you are going to be updating the thousands of signs to put unique numbers on them, then you should probably also put the QR codes in at the same time and be future-ready.

    Saving money is one of the reasons people use buses. Convenience is also an important reason. Yawnmoth’s suggestions would go a long way to help in this regard. In comparison the unique numbering seems a little “pie-in-the-sky”.

  4. Erica McKewen

    Incidentally, Dustin Haisler, the CIO of Manor who implemented the Smartcodes project, is going to be speaking at SXSW Interactive this year.

  5. M1EK

    The difference, yawnmoth, is that the trains for the London Underground rarely if ever change routes, while the buses CM runs do, at least sometimes. This is yet another reason why the oft-touted ‘flexibility’ of buses versus trains is actually worse for their users than people think.

    They DO have stop-announcing doodads on many of the buses, but they are quite often woefully broken.

    In order to really show routes+stops on buses, you’d have to nail them to their routes, or invest heavily in computer screens that would probably then be just as broken as the voice announcements are today.

  6. a-texcitizen

    I always wondered why capmetro doesn’t post bus schedules at bus stops. Where is the bus going, is it running tonight, how long till the next bus?( Especially since service is so spotty and non existent on evenings and Sunday) Other cities do!!
    You want us to ride the bus make it easy!

  7. Ed Easton

    Capital Metro does post schedules at many bus stops and we are working to increase that number all the time. Digital revolution aside it is also our goal to have better (printed) passenger information at all the stops as well. But with more than 3000 stops in our network and (as M1EK aludes to) service changes that occur twice a year it is a financial and logistical challenge for us. Hence the appeal of allowing customers to access the data they need to make their trip electronically.

    With that said we are currently working on a capital improvement project that will see us posting redesigned schedules, signs, and maps at all of our stops with more than 50 boardings per day. The first set of these redesigned signs/poles is scheduled to be installed beginning in March. (Currently there is a early prototype of one installed outside the Embassy Suites on Congress near Barton Springs.)

    Eventually our hope is to increase the number of stops that have printed information to include all stops with more than 15 boardings per day.

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