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What Bus Systems Could Learn from the iPhone

Posted on 16 January 2011

I’ve complained about the Prince George transit system before, (I’ve also lauded it) but that doesn’t mean I’m done with it. But before going any further, I’d like to point out that the problems I write about are not at all limited to the Prince George system– I just write about what I know. Anyways:

The other day I was waiting for the bus. My particular stop is between two “timed stops”– what I’m calling the stops where the bus schedule actually says when the bus is supposed to arrive and depart. Waiting at a non-timed stop is always a little nerve-wracking, because unless you’re there before the bus is scheduled to depart from the previous timed stop, you’re not entirely sure if you’ve missed it or not.

So I was waiting, not sure whether to stay or go, and I started ruminating on things that would make my decision easier. They ranged from a system that would use geolocation to allow users to check in on where their buses are in real time using their cellphones to having portable bus stops that you could purchase and put on your back, so that if you’re walking between two stops the bus driver could see you and know that you want to be picked up. But the one that I think is the most practical, and requires the least amount of effort/new technology is this: have the bus come by more frequently.

This might seem obvious, but then, maybe it isn’t. After all, the people who have designed the current system have clearly decided that it is in impractical to have the bus depart more than once every hour, except on a few routes.

I’m not sure exactly why this decision has been made, but my guess it has to do with ridership levels. The only bus that leaves every fifteen minutes on a regular basis is the one going from the university to downtown (the number 15). In my own experience, this is by far the busiest route– and the most practical.

It’s easy to think that the reason it’s the busiest is, because, well, it’s the one from the university to downtown, and they would have high ridership levels regardless of the level of service. It’s because they had so much demand that they opted to increase the frequency. And that’s probably true, but I’d also argue that this frequency, combined with the relative simplicity of the route (straight up and down 15th and University Hill, with a loop at the end), probably increases use.

Consistency Increases Use

I KNOW this. How? Because when I’m in doubt, I take this bus. When I was standing in -20 weather, not sure whether my bus was coming or not, I decided it was time to start heading over to the number 15.

Let’s be clear: this is not necessarily the quickest possible option for me. There are quicker routes. But those routes LEAVE LESS CONSISTENTLY. And that makes the difference. Here’s my option chart when I’m not sure if I’ve missed my bus or not (taking out the choice of taxi).

waitwalk 10-15 minutes to the number 15
the bus is still comingI will get to work in 15-20 minutesI will get to work in 30-45 minutes
the bus has leftthe bus will come in 30 minutes and I will get to work in 45-50 minutesI will get to work in 30-45 minutes

This would be an easy decision to make if I had all the information. But I don’t. I don’t know if the bus has left or not. So even though in scenario one, it makes more sense for me to wait a couple of extra minutes, when I don’t have that information, and don’t have the means to immediately figure it out, I have to go with heading to the 15. It may not be the best choice, but it’s definitely not the worst.

So what the heck do iPhones have to do with this?

This angle came to me after reading a post from Marco Arment when comparing iPhones to Androids (the Google operating system). He argued, esssentially, that one of the iPhone’s strengths was it had one, single device that everyone, not just the geeks and gadget blogs, could assess and understand. If you don’t have a bunch of time to compare devices, but you know you want a cool smartphone, you’re getting an iPhone.

This is true.

Let me expand on that.

I’m currently in the market for a new phone. I’m going for an Android. But I’m willing to put in the research. And let me tell you, there’s a fair amount of research to be had when it comes to choosing the best Android device. There’s variations in models, carriers, custom operating systems, all of which affect the overall performance of the phone. Unless I know all (or at least most) of these variables, I’m not going to be confident in making a decision. If you told me I could have a random iPhone or a random Android, I would go with the iPhone. The Android might be better, but it could also be much, much worse. Androids simply AREN’T CONSISTENT ENOUGH.

See that word? Consistency.

The buses aren’t consistent. I use the bus to navigate to and from work, and even something as small as leaving early or late throws me off in terms of making a decision about which route to take. I simply don’t have the confidence to figure out the quickest route from point A to point B without investing in a fair bit of research. At this point I’m familiar enough with most of the variables between downtown and my home to be able to figure something out, but it still takes a few minutes and an actual physical schedule in front of me. This is not a system I’m using to run errands. I’m not improvising.

And that’s just it. I’m not going to recommend an Android to a casual user. The iPhone is accessible to the CASUAL USER. Androids aren’t. The bus system isn’t.

Make it Simple

To get people ACTUALLY taking the bus in a meaningful way, you have to make it simple. Right now, it really isn’t. And until everyone develops a lot more of an environmental conscience or the price of gas skyrockets, the vast majority of people are not going to choose the bus over their own car or a taxi, no matter what the environmental or economic benefits might be. It’s simply too confusing.

Seriously. Here’s a link to the Prince George transit map. How long does it take you how to figure out how to get from UNBC to Pine Centre mall? Bear in mind, these are two of the better served locations, and both are on terminals. Try doing it from a residential area. Or adding more than one destination.

This map:

is a mess. On its surface, it looks simple enough, but bear in mind: all of the buses leave at different frequencies. Some are every fifteen minutes, some are every half hour, some are every hour. Some go until after ten pm, some have their last run by 6:30. Weekends have less runs than weekdays. Does this map make it apparent that at the Spruceland exchange, the bus circles in front of the mall onto the highway before arriving at its stop, then takes Ahbau around the backside of the mall before getting onto 5th Avenue again? Once you hear that, how confident are you in trusting any of the rest of these maps to give you all the visual cues you need to map out an unfamilar route or destination?

I’d argue that if you were to worry less about hitting every side street as effectively as possible and instead focus on main roads and more frequent departures, you’d see a big uptick in people using this system. Just as the 15 goes up and down 15th every fifteen minutes, have the 1 go up and down 1st, 5 goes up and down 5th, 10 goes up and down 10th, plus routes up a down the main lateral arteries (Foothills, Tabor, Ospika, Central, Carney, Nicholson, Victoria etc) with the same consistency. This might not be the MOST EFFICIENT route to take, but it is the MOST CONSISTENT. It would be easier to understand. If you know which main roads your destination is near, you know, roughly, how to get there. And you know how long you have to wait, transfers and all, because EVERYTHING leaves every fifteen minutes. Or half an hour, if that’s too often for the system to bear. But at least YOU KNOW. You understand. And arriving late, early, or going to an unfamiliar place isn’t as much of a stress because getting there is inuitive, not a lesson in cartography.

And that’s what the bus system could learn from the iPhone.

Further reading:

Oliver Thereaux – Fixing the Bus System. http://olivier.thereaux.net/2010/08/04/fixing-the-bus-system/

Marco Arment – Too Much Choice Hardware Choice. http://www.marco.org/2730711751

Filed under: Prince George, transit

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