Sunday, August 05, 2012

System maps

A system map is a complete map of a transit system, which contains all rail and bus routes within the service area of a transit agency as well as information on service hours and service frequency for all services.  A system map is perhaps the most important informational product a public transit agency produces.  It contains the most complete information about services provided by the agency on a single piece of paper, allowing users to have this complete information at their fingertips at any time before and during a trip by public transit.  A system map is an indispensible travel tool to navigate a transit system unsurpassed by any other informational products offered by transit agencies.

In North America (and I mean the U.S. and Canada here) the situation with system maps has been very favorable over the last decades:  Most large agencies produce system maps of rather high quality, and folded versions of these maps are freely available to riders at transit stations and in customer service centers.  Typically, one can also request a system map from a transit agency by email or phone, and they gladly mail a copy upon such a request in most cases.

Lately, however, an alarming trend has developed among some transit agencies:  they simply discontinued production of paper versions of their systems maps.  They still produce their maps and update them, they still spend their money on the most difficult job - to keep the map current, - it is just they do not print them anymore, referring customers to online versions.  There are several large agencies that have adopted such a policy; to name a few, King Country Metro (Seattle, WA), TransLink (Vancouver, BC), Port Authority of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh, PA), and RIPTA (Providence, RI) are on this list.

Some agencies went even further and stopped production of system maps altogether.  The most notorious example here is perhaps New Jersey Transit, which did not produce a map of their bus system in more than a decade, not even an electronic version.  Other agencies limit distribution of their printed maps; for example, Denver RTD will not mail their system maps outside the state of Colorado.

This tectonic shift in policy on system maps seems to be caused by several factors.  The first (and perhaps most important) factor seems to be the lack of understanding by transit managers of the importance of system maps as the principal informational product of their agencies.  Since most transit managers do not use public transit in everyday life, few of them seem to understand how important a good system map is as an actual planning tool for their riders, both existing and new ones.  Some have even suggested that there is no significant value in system maps outside of an academic interest in the breadth and coverage density of transit networks.  As a life-long transit user, I navigated my way by transit with system maps through many cities in North America and in Europe, and availability of a good system map is often what makes a difference between a good transit system and a mediocre one.  In essence, a system map provides all the information one needs about public transit in a geographic area, and if this information is not available, one’s usage of the transit system is severely impeded.

The second reason for discontinuing paper maps is often provided along the financial lines: “Due to funding shortage...” or “Due to dwindling resources…” etc.  What I do not understand, however, is why the agencies cannot simply SELL these paper maps for a small fee, instead of distributing them for free, like some agencies have been doing for quite a while.  For example, Philadelphia's SEPTA produces ones of the best transit maps I have ever seen; it is not just a distorted network of bus lines, but a full city map with all the streets and all the transit information, yet they don't distribute those maps for free - they sell them for a few dollars apiece.  Similarly, Sacramento RTD sells its system maps at 25 cents each.  Many European agencies also sell their maps, for example, Berlin’s BVG.  Such an approach makes paper maps available for those who need them, while covering the costs of printing and storage.  It also deters waste, because people are more reluctant to dispose of something they paid money for (even if it is only a couple of bucks).  The agencies listed above should adopt a policy of selling the maps instead of discontinuing them altogether.

The third factor influencing the system maps policy is related to a persistent perception that an online version somehow replaces a paper map, and hence publication of paper maps is not such a priority or even necessity.  I certainly understand the general trend towards everything digital, and this trend has brought us mostly good things so far.  For example, availability of transit schedules in digital format online offers a great example of how the new technology simplifies transit usage.  Online schedules can be accessed using smartphones and other mobile devices in real time or printed in advance, as long as they are in a printable (PDF) format rather than on some hard-to-print flash-enabled webpages.  The main problem with digital content is specific to maps, especially online system maps.  It is really the map that needs to be on paper.  A user can print letter-sized PDF schedules of the needed bus routes, but one typically does not have the means to print a meter-by-meter system map.

A typical misconception goes along these lines:  “There is a dearth of smartphones and mobile devices available nowadays, and plenty of applications allow a customer to pan and zoom through either a digitized map or a data layer to get the specific detail, as well as to locate stops and to generate trip plans with directions.”  To begin with, the problem with online maps is precisely that: they are online, not in one’s pocket or backpack.  There are still plenty of spots in any city where neither Internet nor cell-phone connection is available, most notably in major parts of their rail transit systems - in the underground tunnels where many urban rail lines run.  Not everyone owns an Internet-enabled smartphone yet, so it is also an issue of equity.  These are rather obvious initial arguments against discontinuance of paper maps and over-reliance on online maps.

But more fundamental arguments run much deeper.  To address the above misconception, we need to distinguish two different scenarios of mobile-device usage for transit planning purposes:  (A) looking at an online map to plan one’s transit trips by oneself, and (B) letting an application or a “trip planner” to plan a trip for a user.  These are not the same, and I will consider these scenarios separately.

(A)  When it comes to planning one’s trip by oneself by just looking at a map, what most people do not seem to realize is that most mobile devices are simply too small to show a large system map in any meaningful way.  Simply nothing beats a meter-by-meter paper map when it comes to finding one’s way in a big city.  Viewing a large map on a 5-inch screen is similar to a torture.   There is no digital device on the market yet, which would have a meter-by-meter display, which could be folded and stored in a pocket, which would weigh less than an ounce, and which would be capable of accessing online maps even on a train deep underground.  And BEFORE such a device is created, any discussion of online maps as a replacement of paper maps is completely meaningless, simply because it is NOT an equivalent replacement.  No amount of “zooming and panning” will even compare to a good paper map, just because one DOES NOT NEED to zoom and pan when planning one’s trip on a paper map - all the information is in one’s sight without the limitations of the tiny screen of one’s favorite electronic gadget.

(B)  Letting an app or a “trip planner” do the planning is a completely different story.  Of course, if these apps were done perfectly, that would be a magical solution: let the computer do its thing for you!  However, there are severe limitations here as well.

Perhaps most importantly, all of these apps and trip planners produce an itinerary, which is only good for a specific day and time.  They might give one an itinerary for Friday, 4:30 pm, which will not work on Sunday or at night, simply because a bus route it suggested runs only during rush hours.  Thus, one has to plan his or her trip EACH TIME when using these trip planners.  None of them can possibly produce an advice like this: “On weekdays before 9 pm take bus A, but at nights and on weekends take bus B and then transfer to bus C”.  While looking at the map, I can get such a general idea very easily, all I need to know is my route options and service hours, both of which are typically available on the single system map without any typing, zooming, or panning.

Yet another disadvantage of various automated trip planners is that they do not have any idea about such notions as “frequency” and “reliability”.  Most (if not all) of them plan a trip based on theoretical transit schedules.  But what if you missed your connection, because the first bus was late?  If the second line runs every 5 minutes, it is not such a big deal, but if it runs once an hour, it is a serious problem, which can delay you enormously.  None of the trip planners will make a determination that it is possibly safer to take a frequent reliable line rather than a non-frequent unreliable one.

Connection times are frequently estimated based on some very crude assumptions, and in my experience most trip planners produce an exaggerated walking time, based on the speed of a very slow walker, such as an elderly or disabled person.  It is not uncommon to see a 10-minute prediction for a transfer where the actual walking time by a healthy person is only 2 minutes.  This overestimation discourages walking and transfers between different lines and favors direct rides, even if they are actually slower.

The apps are made by people, and people set their priorities in their programs.  Of course, some of the more intelligent “trip planners” allow one to choose “fastest trip”, “shortest walk”, “least transfers”, or “shortest wait”.  But the problem is: this is still a machine, and if one tells it “walk no more than 500 m”, it will cut all the options that include more walk - even if it is only 510 m, and one would not even mind such a slightly longer walk.  So, the main point, computers have no common sense, and an option that might be acceptable to you (and might even be the best) would not be shown.  And vice versa: computers may be selecting some non-sense options, just because they have no intelligence.

Many of these apps are severely flawed.  I will provide two examples.  I will never forget standing on the inbound platform of the Woodside LIRR station (in Queens) last year, when I was approached by a teenage girl with a smartphone in her hand.  The girl asked me if trains to Penn station depart from this platform (the answer was “yes”) and when the next train is coming (“in 3 minutes”).  Then I asked “But where are you going to?”  She said: “Great Neck station”.  I asked “What Great Neck station?”, and she showed me her smartphone: it was the Great Neck LIRR station on the Port Washington line.  For those, who are not familiar with the LIRR system, the Port Washington line also stops at the Woodside station (where we were standing), but in order to get to the Great Neck station, the girl would have to take a train in the opposite direction from the outbound platform.  In essence, the app advised the girl to travel to Penn station and then transfer there to a Port Washington train instead of taking a Port Washington train directly from the Woodside station without going to Penn station and back.  I do not know what company programmed that app and what options the girl selected (the longest trip? the highest fare?), but she certainly got a silly itinerary that a simple look at the system map would have never produced.

As another example, I have just tried to plan a trip by the New York MTA Trip Planner for a midday weekday trip from JFK to a station on the B line in Brooklyn that I made three weeks ago.  Even with all the best options I could possibly set and select, it gave me three itineraries, none of which included the route I actually took, and every one of which had a travel time that was longer than the trip I actually made.

Additionally, Google Transit is known to have outdated schedules, as was the case recently, when I tried to plan a trip in the Boston area on a Saturday, and it offered me to ride a bus route that no longer runs on weekends.  I knew it was discontinued on July 1, 2012 because I follow transit issues in that area, but there would be no way of knowing this for someone relying on Google entirely.

In general, I am very skeptical about these “ready solutions” in the form of the apps that plan a trip for you.  In most cases, I can do a much better job by myself, and so can other people.  These applications may indeed be a perfect solution for people who cannot read a map; however, there is no need to dumb the rest of us down to their level and make us use these "ready solutions" by discontinuing paper maps.

At the same time, I do not oppose transit agencies spending taxpayer money for developing such electronic applications.  What I oppose is taking away a good product - the printed system maps - and replacing it with a mediocre one.  These electronic gadgets are still nowhere near printed map in terms of their utility and convenience yet.

Paper maps should stay, and every transit agency should continue publishing them at regular intervals.