I’m just beginning to play with the new, highly detailed ridership data I got from SORTA, and boy is it a treat. I’ll start here with a high-level overview of the temporal dimension of the data, before looking at spatial aspects and breaking it down by line, stop, service type etc as the summer progresses. I think I may also use this data as the basis of my study in R this coming semester (Hi Michael!), so perhaps we can count on seeing some more detailed and particularly nerdy and multivariate analysis through the cooler months as well. I am, by the way, acutely aware that I’ve started a number of little projects on this blog, and have failed as yet to carry them through to their completion. I keep getting distracted by the realization that I have no idea what I’m talking about, the inevitably illusive prospect of making money some way or another, and the all too comforting thought that no one is reading this or taking it seriously anyway. But hopefully, this is a small enough commitment and certainly it’s interesting enough for me to actually provide a reasonably complete picture of this particular dataset before altogether too long. Perhaps I can even apply the same techniques to the TANK ridership dataset that I’ve been meaning to get to and publish for more than a year.
Anyway, let’s actually get to that temporal overview. Since we know the trip each record belongs to, identified by the line number and the trip’s start time, I was able to identify the actual scheduled time for the great majority of stops in the data set by matching the records to GTFS schedule data for the same period. About 170,000 of the 230,000 records matched to a precise time. The remainder account for a very small portion of total activity, about 2%, and I think it’s most likely that many of these records are an artifact of the way SORTA’s database is structured and not actual stops belonging to a trip. I’ll dig into that more some other time though.
For the ~98% of boardings and alightings that I could pin to a precise time of day, I created a histogram:
As would be expected, alightings(that is, people getting OFF), trail boardings(getting ON) by a half-hour or so. People need to get on and get somewhere before they’ll get off at their destination. The difference therefor is peoples’ travel time.
Anecdotally, the temporal distribution of transit users closely mirrors the distribution of actual service. This is a chicken/egg situation, and it would make good sense to inquire what ridership might look like late at night if service itself didn’t trail off into hourly or half-hourly frequencies where it continues at all past 10pm. There’s also good reason to suspect that changing service levels at one time of day could effect ridership at another. Might we, for example, see differently shaped rush-hour peaks if suburbanites had and got used to having the option of staying late at their downtown office? If service continued all night, might we see echoes of the main rush-hours as second and third-shifters head for work? Might there be a night-life peak if night service weren’t so abysmal?
EDIT: For those of you who don’t have huge computer monitors…
The release of SORTA’s real-time location data has been delayed again, this time until April 2014. Originally scheduled for sometime around this past December, the system upgrade that’s necessary for the public release of the data was apparently tied in with capital funding for the streetcar.
That funding was of course delayed by shenanigans.
A reader just passed this article my way and I can hardly do a better job of explaining why real-time arrival data is important for growing ridership on our transit system. This recent cold-punch-in-the-face weather has emphasized, for me at least, just how long waiting can seem to take when the bus is nowhere in sight. The release of this data should be a major priority for both agencies which already have the necessary systems installed on most if not all vehicles and just need to get the appropriate back-end systems in place to handle web requests.
Stored-value farecards will soon be available at the Downtown transit store! They’ll be replacing the ten-ride zone-1-only passes that are currently for sale on August 1st. The stored-value cards will not, like in most cities with such technology, be refillable to an arbitrary value but will be available in $10, $20, and $30 values. That means if you want to buy $50 worth next time you’re in the mercantile center, you’ll need to get one $20 and one $30 card.
The cards may be a little less convenient than the ten-rides for travelers sticking exclusively to zone 1, but they could potentially make things a whole lot simpler for everyone else.
Once the stored value card gets below the value of the fare you’ll need to pay the difference with either cash or another card. The big improvement in convenience then will be for zone 2+ or express passengers who’s choice is currently between a very expensive monthly unlimited-ride pass and paying with cash each time.
As a general rule, the more the agencies can reduce cash payments, the less they have to pay someone to straighten your crumpled bills and most importantly, the quicker people can board and the vehicle can get on it’s way. That means less bunching, more on-time buses, and less wasted time that needs to be padded into schedules to account for normal delays.
The next step is for both SORTA and TANK to introduce durable, arbitrary-value cards that can be refilled online or linked to a bank account. Such cards are fitted with a chip that can be tapped against the till as people board. That kind of card saves time over the thin disposable cards SORTA and TANK currently use which need to be completely inserted, read, possibly printed on, and returned. Tap-able cards will go even further toward reducing transaction costs, saving everyone a lot of time, and making services faster and more convenient.
WMATA SmarTrip card…hopefully we can do a better job designing a Cincinnati farecard ;-)
A quick calculation tells me that with about 23,000,000 transit trips in the metro area last year, shaving one second off each boarding time would save 6,389 vehicle hours a year, or 17 hours each day. If we value driver time at $20/hour that’s $128,000 a year. If we value passenger’s time fairly, I suspect we’d easily justify any capital costs in the first year alone assuming most regular riders made the switch. 6,389 hours by the way is 0.62% of total annual service hours meaning that the savings from losing a single second off each boarding could lead to an increase in total service the agencies would be able to provide of more than half a percent; that’s not insignificant.
Stored value farecards: This is a good first step. Let’s have more of this kind of improvement please!
Transit schedules: built by planners for librarians. …that’s not right.
Transit schedules: but why does it do that??
Transit schedules: hand me my reading glasses! Yes, I think that’s the right tagline
Generally speaking, transit schedules are an almost unmitigated shitstorm of bad design. I’m going to take a very quick stab at fixing some of their more offensive errors in our own schedules. First, let’s see what we’re dealing with.
Acquire ALL the schedules!
Colors: I’m assuming the limited colors(It’s only blue for both agencies) are a constraint of affordable bulk printing but I quite like the effect. Imagine if this were garishly rainbow coloured and you might start to imagine how bad these could be.
Proportion: This is nice. Lines are clean, things don’t feel like they’re hanging or sitting, either too heavy or too light on the page. I particularly like the lines and blocks around the schedule tables. They have a confidence about them. They aren’t trying to entertain us. They’re here to get a job done.
Branding: SORTA is doing reasonably well here. I’m actually not the biggest fan of their logo, but I will say that they have consistently applied their brand across the buses, schedules, website and everything else. It takes discipline, but the effect is stronger than the potential disorder. The brand’s colors are solid if a tiny bit oversaturated for my taste. The blue is dulled a bit in the matte schedule though, so I like it there.
Fonts: This does not displease. At worst, it stays out of the way and leaves the schedule clean and inoffensive. It’s easy to read. It’s not a serif.
Tiny 2X: How cute! It’s business card sized and no more difficult to read. Why aren’t all the schedules in this format?
I swear I didn’t cross out the “under”. It came like that. When it comes to fare increases, it’s the agency’s little personal touches that make me smile.
Paper choice: They could all be glossy. I thank god they aren’t.
South Bank Shuttle table color-blocking: A lot better than most schedules I’ve seen, the one for the SBS has consistent times that simply extend some days. Instead of duplicating the table, TANK has clearly showed that the darker extended portion is Saturdays only. This gives us a better sense of the temporal shape of the line.
Vehicle cues: TANK has a subtle indicator of the type of transit vehicle on the bottom cover of their schedules. They only have one route with a different type of vehicle, but it’s a good start and a syntax that could be useful and well extended if ever their services are.
Decontextualized maps: These always get me. When I was putting together the frequency map, these maps were all I had to go on, and let me just tell you….It’s really hard to figure out where these lines actually go. Switching back and forth between this and a street map, you have to try to fit the route into the rest of the city like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle.
This one by TANK is not only decontextualized, but pretends to geographic accuracy while substantially distorting scale in unclear ways. And where does that river go? Where is North? What in the name of cartography is going on here??
schedule map for the 2X
Gigantic tables: With no visible logic or pattern, these tables are good for looking up specific numbers, but don’t allow for reading at a glance or discerning service patterns, speed or frequency. We’re not able, through repeated use, to transcend the need for the table by recognizing patterns or underlying logic. Rote memory or dependence is required, never understanding.
Enormous size: If the bus goes off a cliff, I’m using this one as a parachute.
The foldable poster for SORTA’s #17 measures 23.75″ x 17″.
Huge list of destinations: This is another sort of decontextualization. It really doesn’t tell us anything, and to the extent that it does, gives us another task: to actually find the place on a map and on the line. These places, if they are to be highlighted at all, should be shown in order and where they are in relation both to the transit line and their surroundings.
An alphabetical(of all possible orders) list of all the places the #1(Just for fun!) goes.
This also suffers from a problem that I see in the naming of DC’s Metro Stations: The names are way too long. Why can’t “Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden” just be “Zoo” Might we get confused by thinking it’s the other zoo?
Cereal box stars: How do schedules declare they’re new and updated? The same way General Mills speaks to the base instincts of children.
FLASH! BANG! RUNNING ON SATURDAYS! POW! SHAZAM!
3D ClipArt city: Need I say more?
A glimpse into the bold, blue 3-dimensional future of Covington, KY, presided over by the eminent Lord Streetsign, Mighty Destroyer of Bi-directional Travel.
It reminds me of WMATA‘s awful fare cards, also co-sponsored by an ungodly partnership between the inventor of gradients and the color blue.
No, this is not from the 90’s. It’s from now.
Here are some fitful starts at a more inspiring and lucid design:
Context: Maps need to have context. What streets and neighborhoods and major landmarks and other routes do they pass? This can’t be written in words on some other part of the schedule, it has to be located in relation to the path our potential transit user will be taking.
Here is an exemplary #3. A geographically accurate river, streets, buildings, and non-express TANK transit lines have been added for context. A more nuanced understanding than I have of the #3 might allow me to pick out particular locations that many riders are going to. It would also be good to label intersecting routes, but in this case there’s no opportunity for a connection outside of one of the transit centers. Buildings are fairly prominent in this map as the municipalities the line visits lie in (thus visibly) dense clusters among the hills. Simple routing allows for the bold labelling of streets.
The #51 here is somewhat more contextualized by a hierarchy of labeled streets and a vague inkling of surrounding neighborhoods.The inclusion of other transit lines in this case proved ultimately confusing, and was abandoned for want of time. A more diagrammatic approach, such as a more accurate version of that taken for the frequency map could be well used.
De-emphasise useless information: Continuing with the #3 example from above, it could be made even stronger if we cleared up some of the needlessly complex downtown routing both through Covington and Cincinnati. The main part of this line is actually quite simple, and the number of useful stops outside of that portion is limited. Downtown Cincinnati for example only has two stops, and the direction of travel is irrelevant since all the streets are one-ways. Why show the routing at all? In fact, why not only show the single most important stop on a separate map? You don’t see the exact path of a subway on a map of one. You see only it’s stops because the other information will be of literally no use to you. You can’t get off elsewhere in any case without threats to the driver or maybe a pair of bolt-cutters.
A new Northern Kentucky-Downtown map that highlights only the most essential stops.
The elegant thing about having all your transit come together in the same place, is that you only need to remember a relative handful of stop locations. In the case of TANK’s pass through Downtown Cincinnati, only two: one for each direction. Perhaps letting the geographically accurate map cross a clear visual line on the page before sliding into diagrammatic space could be helpful. In the case of the #3, we need only mention one stop in Downtown, the one here highlighted as “To Covington”.
Temporal Mapping: This is an old idea that hasn’t seen light since the late 19th century. I’ll show it here briefly just to tantalize you and go into more depth in another post. In a nutshell, transit moves predictably through both space and time, so why only map one of those?
Better use of space: Smaller schedules are almost everybody’s friend. They’re cheaper to print, easier to carry, less cumbersome to unfold on a crowded bus, and easier to stock. There’s a lot of empty space in these schedules that could be saved by shifting things around more fluidly for different size schedules. I would guess though that there may be some constraint of the program they use to build the schedules(“Trapeze” I think it’s called) that makes it difficult to rearrange things and I wouldn’t want to be the one to adjust every single schedule every single time they need to be reprinted. But the savings on ink and paper alone could justify the staff time if they print enough. I suspect they might.
In the case of lines with sufficient frequency(which I don’t think we have just yet), space can be better used, and the schedule more intuitively read by having specific times only for the morning and evening when service is just ramping up and tapering off, then listing approximate frequencies for the times in between. Chicago does this:
Something to think about for the future, I guess.
Humour: I know it would never happen, but I really would love to see just a little absurdist humour every once in a while. There’s no law that says government funded things have to be all stuffy and serious all the time. That’s merely a trend.
I hope I’m not the only one who sees this every time I look at one of these.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but I’ll leave it at that for now.