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Posts about Trip Planning


WMATA wants longer trains, more tunnels, better service

WMATA hopes to lengthen all its trains to 8 cars, add pedestrian connections at downtown stations, and maybe build new rail tunnels for the Blue and Yellow Lines in the region's core. That's part of a strategic plan which its media relations team showed only to the Washington Post this week, and which board members will see at a meeting today.

The potential for new downtown tunnels (left) and connections between existing lines (right).

More broadly, the agency will focus on safety, service quality, better regional mobility, and its own financial stability in the strategic plan. Besides a set of still somewhat amorphous connections and service improvements, the plan calls for building a system where riders can more easily "plan, pay, and ride" in a smoother customer experience.

The big money, up to $20 billion, in the plan would be for tunnels to separate the Blue Line at Rosslyn and the Yellow Line at L'Enfant Plaza, the two major chokepoints, as part of a vision for Metro by 2040. Silver Line trains from Dulles Airport could also turn at Rosslyn to go toward Arlington Cemetery, then stop at Pentagon before crossing the Yellow Line bridge into DC.

Map by the author, from 2009.

By 2025, Metro wants to have the railcars and power stations to run all trains with the full 8 cars. It would like to build pedestrian tunnels to link Farragut North with West and Metro Center with Gallery Place, and a train tunnel so that some Dulles trains can go down to Franconia-Springfield, which would relieve some of the immediate Blue Line problems of Rush Plus, which will only get worse once the Silver Line opens.

Potential connections between existing lines (left) and stations (right).

WMATA Media Relations team makes transit supporters' task harder

This plan covers a lot of ground, and is at times very detailed yet at others quite vague. I wasn't able to get all of the details, because WMATA decided to give an exclusive look at the plan to the Washington Post.

This has been the agency's practice every since Barbara Richardson, Lyn Bowersox, and Dan Stessel took over at WMATA communications and media relations. This isn't a matter of blogs versus traditional media, though that's been an ongoing problem as well; WMATA also does not tell the Washington Examiner about its major initiatives.

This seems inappropriate, and really disrespects the journalists and bloggers who care about transit in the region. It's also pretty foolish, because it forces others to write about the plan in a more hurried way than they otherwise would.

WMATA planning head Shyam Kannan spent an hour talking to me after midnight last night, and this post was still not done by 4:30 am as a result. Still, there are plenty of questions I did not have time get answered.

What will happen with Union Station and commuter rail?

While the plan goes into a fair amount of detail about how there could be a second Pentagon station for the trains making the new track connection, the plan does not talk about whether the new lines would serve Union Station, the system's biggest point of overcrowding. It seems obvious for any separated Blue Line to go there.

One of the biggest opportunities to improve regional travel would be to let MARC trains reach L'Enfant Plaza, where riders can transfer to all four lines that don't serve Union Station, and onward to Virginia. Unfortunately, perhaps bowing to political realities, the plan just calls for WMATA to play a role of supporter and advocate.

Finally, the plan shows some diagrams with vague arrows depicting potential extensions to the ends of lines, regional transit in the suburbs, and streetcars crossing the river:

Vague arrows showing possible line extensions (left) and surface transit connections (right).

All of these ideas and more were part of a study WMATA has been working on for a few years, called the Regional Transit System Plan. That also included proposals to send the Yellow Line through the rapidly-growing Capitol Riverfront and up to Union Station.

According to Kannan, the RTSP study is still going on, and even many decisions about which routes WMATA wants to pursue in the future are not fully set.

Customer service, trip planning are even more central to the plan

Kannan emphasized that the rail expansions and connections are not the "real meat" of the plan, despite what was in the Post article; instead, it really focuses on "an improved customer service experience today" that will let riders plan, pay, and take transit more smoothly than today. The vision for 2025, which is not far away, is fundamentally about "the completion of a journey to a self-service system. He explained:

Imagine, for a moment, walking into a Metrorail station or a Metrobus platform and not needing to ask for assistance in either route planning, fare payment, and even walking to or from your bus or train. There would be improved lighting so you can read your book, mobile payment options so you can use your smartphone to pay your fare.
With these added services, Kannan said, station agents will not need to sit in their booths all day to handle everyday needs. Instead, Metro could dedicate its staff to "customer-facing ambassadors" who could roam around and help people, and choose people for those jobs best suited to a customer service role, which as we all know is not always the case with today's station agents.

Another big element of this self-service world is better trip planning. Kannan talked about having a "unified regional trip planning technology" so a rider can use a desktop computer, smartphone, or other device, pick where he or she wants to go, and get transit suggestions that could use Metro, commuter rail like VRE or MARC, or regional buses like Ride On and DASH.

The plan describes that as "Provide transit riders with a regional trip planning system that is mobile-device friendly." Hopefully this language does not lead the agency to decide it should issue a procurement for a big IT project to build one single integrated trip planner that works on today's mobile devices, and that's all. WMATA is not in a position to be a good customer-facing software company, and a big contracted software project will build something that will likely be obsolete as soon as it launches.

Rather, the agency needs to offer open data and support open source projects to create the building blocks of trip planning. VDOT funded a grant, which I wrote for Arlington County, to make progress on some open source technology for trip planning. If WMATA can support the efforts of the people who are going to do this work, and other developers who contribute and create other tools of their own, it will do far more to "provide" this kind of "unified regional trip planning technology."

The plan is not very detailed about how to reach this or most other goals, from "Educate the customer about transit coverage and usage in regional emergencies" to "Work with partners to ensure seamless connections between Metro and other transit systems in the region." Those are fodder for future plans. Meanwhile, though, if top management buys in and directs the organization to follow this plan, it can get the 13,000-person organization moving all together in some important directions.

The WMATA board will discuss the document at a meeting today. As usual with WMATA's process, since staff don't release anything until the very last minute before a board meeting, that means board members won't have the opportunity to hear any considered feedback from riders, to the extent they are interested in riders' views, as some are, while others are not.

Matt Johnson and I have also been working on some posts about the core capacity Metrorail proposals, and will try to better illuminate what kinds of tradeoffs Metro faces as it tries to deal with its bottlenecks and overcrowded segments.


Sometimes, less is more from trip planning tools

Matt Johnson argues that transit trip planning tools should show riders a wider range of options, illustrating how the schedules of connecting services (like bus and rail) mesh. That's often true, but for for a transit system with high-frequency routes, the best way to improve the usability of transit may be to show fewer times, not more.

Photo by Johan Rd on Flickr.

If a person is traveling between two points that are served by a high-frequency grid of routes, then what does it matter when they are leaving? When you provide a rider with a rigid itinerary—"here's how to get there if you leave at exactly 5:17 PM"—you give them the impression that if their departure time changes, then they have to re-plan their entire trip. With high-frequency routes, that simply isn't the case.

If a rider can take the trip entirely using high-frequency routes, doesn't it seem so much more liberating to tell the rider to "show up any time and arrive within 45 minutes"?

Simplifying directions like this helps riders internalize the route network, and encourages spontaneity. Instead of having the sense that every transit trip starts with a visit to Google Transit, riders gain the sense that they can travel whenever they want.

Jarrett Walker emphasized the value of grids, and of high-frequency transit services, during his talk last week. "Frequency is freedom," he says. A regular grid of frequent services makes it easier to get around without having to consult an online trip planner before every trip, though many riders still rely on Google Transit and local trip planners to figure out how to get around.

In fact, the worst thing a trip planner can do is recommend that a rider take an infrequent, irregular service just because it happens to be there when the rider is starting their trip. A great example of this is the Route 305 bus in Los Angeles; as Jarrett Walker explains, it's a low-frequency service which runs through a high-frequency grid:

That means that the 305 is the fastest path between two points on the line only if it happens to be coming soon. If you just miss one, there's another way to get there faster, via the much more frequent lines that flow north-south and east-west across this entire area.
Why should a trip planner ever recommend that a rider take a bus like the Route 305? Doesn't it make more sense to show them to how to use the high-frequency grid to their advantage?

Our hapless, misdirected rider will doggedly wait for that infrequent route to come along, because it's what their itinerary lists. But if they'd received an itinerary which used the high-frequency grid, they'd be on their way a lot sooner.

Of course, even in cities with the most comprehensive high-frequency grids, some trips require going outside the grid. Then, there may be no choice but to ask the prospective rider when they're travelling. But even in those cases, the trip planner's itinerary should still include information on the frequency of the services being used.

Simply put, out in the real world, things happen. A rider might get to the bus stop or train station 10 minutes or even 30 minutes after they'd intended, so doesn't it make sense to tell them up front how long they'll have to wait if they miss the planned trip?

Cross-posted at Raschke on Transport.


More details could improve Metro's trip planner itineraries

Programs like Metro's trip planner can make riding transit easier for new riders and seasoned commuters alike. But the way that trips are shown has a huge impact on the effectiveness of the data.

A few weekends ago, I needed to travel downtown for Transportation Camp. Since I don't often make the trip, I decided to use Metro's trip planner to see when I would need to leave in order to get to the event for its 10 am start. The result was not very helpful.

I chose the option to plan a trip arriving by 9:30 to account for trackwork scheduled for the Orange Line and also for the walk to the venue. As you can see, the trip planner told me to expect a travel time of 1 hour and 36 minutes. That's a long time. A lot longer than it should be, in fact.

The problem lies in the way Metro's trip planner deals with "arrive by" queries. When users try using the "arrive by" tool, the planner tool gives riders the trip arriving closest to (but not after) the time specified. That sounds good on the surface, but let's consider my trip.

If you look at the results closely, you'll see that the trip planner has me wait 40 minutes at New Carrollton station. If I transferred directly from the bus to the Orange Line, I would arrive at Foggy Bottom station at 8:55, which is 35 minutes too early. Instead of telling me this, the planner just makes it look like I have no option but to wait 40 minutes at New Carrollton.

That kind of information can turn riders off. Why take a trip that will take over an hour and half when you could probably drive it in a half hour?

What would be particularly helpful would be to show each possible permutation of a trip, especially when connections are involved. Metro's trip planner deals with this by returning each as a separate itinerary. For example:

  • Board a bus at 9:10. Exit at the Metro stop at 9:25. Take a Green train at 9:30.
  • Board a bus at 9:10. Exit at the Metro stop at 9:25. Take a Green train at 9:36.
  • Board a bus at 9:10. Exit at the Metro stop at 9:25. Take a Green train at 9:42.
Those aren't different itineraries. They're just different waits at the Metro station.

I think a format like this would be more helpful. The trip Metro actually planned for me is outlined in red.

I've also included (in yellow highlighting) one arrival after the "arrive by" time. This allows for trips that arrive within a reasonable time. For example, if I want to arrive by 9:30, and there's a train that gets me there at 9:31, that's probably okay, and a trip I might want to know about.

Other itineraries should be substantially different from the first (since it's showing all options). In this example, there's really only one other feasible option, and that's to travel by way of the Green Line.

An itinerary like this would allow riders to better plan their trips. Perhaps arriving early isn't a good option. In that case, they know they have time to stop off for coffee, or perhaps that they could wait for a later bus and still arrive within a reasonable time.

WMATA's arrive by function used to return all sorts of gibberish to achieve "alternate" itineraries, including trips that went past where you wanted to go and then had you change vehicles and return. These days, Metro has modified their planner so it does better, though it still leaves a lit to be desired.

Metro's trip planner and other trip planning applications could be better by showing more options. I know my graphics leave a little to be desired, but it's the principle I'm trying to illustrate.

Do you have thoughts for ways to improve trip planning?

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