Signage

MassDOT Takes Pretty Pictures as Green Line Extension Gets Underway

Work is finally underway for the much-awaited first phase of the Green Line extension north to Medford. Last December, MassDOT issued the first contracts to Barletta Heavy Division and followed that with the go-ahead to start construction on a set of demolitions and bridge widening projects that will, according to the MassDOT web site:

  • Reconstruct and widen the Harvard Street Rail Bridge in Medford
  • Widen the Medford Street Rail Bridge in Somerville
  • Demolish 21 Water Street in Cambridge in preparation for the construction of the new Lechmere Station under Phase 2/2A of the GLX project
  • Construct retaining walls and noise walls adjacent to the Harvard Street Rail Bridge
  • Relocate MBTA Commuter Rail tracks in the Harvard Street Rail Bridge area
  • Upgrade and replace existing storm drain system between Harvard Street and Granville Avenue

These projects will continue for 2 years until March of 2015. During that time, the state plans to maintain its transparency and documentation through photos. According to Joe Pesutauro of the MBTA:

With strong support from the Green Line extension team, DOT Communications staff has done a total of 53 separate posts with Green Line Extension meeting, outreach, and construction information since the MassDOT blog debuted 50 months ago. More than one [post] per month on average and more than on any other single MassDOT/MBTA project.

Each of those posts was accompanied with a Tweet and link on Twitter.  Each such item is now also posted on our more recent MassDOT Facebook page, including two FB posts within the past week- one on the upcoming meeting and one displaying one of the Flickr construction photos.  We have a Flickr set established to add future construction photos.  All this in addition to the separate efforts on T social media.

The biggest highlight is MassDOT's latest album on Flickr, which captures the construction and is a great visual progress update. MassDOT has been doing this for some time to show very occasional and infrequent updates on bridge construction for the Accelerated Bridge Program, but the MTA has been posting album after album of construction updates for even less time. MassDOT started in the summer 0f 2009 with 1,165 uploads while the MTA has uploaded over four times that in half the time, starting with its first post in March of 2011.

Granted, the MTA has at least one dedicated photographer, but it has roughly the same number of ongoing capital projects and maintenance needs as MassDOT and the MBTA combined. Suffice it to say, MassDOT's planning site is well-organised, but much of the information is either hidden deep within many clicks or in lengthy PDF documents; the closest thing to a dashboard is the 'Projects' tab on the main MassDOT page. The MBTA's project page is slightly better, but is a simple table that doesn't give indication of scope or size of projects, instead listing project statuses. Deeper in, there isn't much consistency to project documentation, impact, or even format.

Other agencies have varying levels of success with building project dashboards. The CTA has a presentable planning site that highlights major upcoming projects. BART's project site is incredibly accessible through its good design via simplicity. SFMTA's site is more text-heavy, but highlights major projects well, perhaps only by default because they have fewer but wider-scoped projects. Washington Metro also has a very text-heavy project page littered with links to PDFs, but many of these are studies and preliminary analysis for projects and are well-organised into major categories on a single page. WMATA even has a rider-oriented blog-style site called PlanItMetro for focused feedback and updated on various projects, similar to MassDOT's blog. The NYC MTA, which has far more ground to cover than most in gaining public trust, has the best capital projects board; the capital projects are organised by division, similar to the way our capital projects are presented, and outlined with a breakdown of estimated and actual cost and deadline with notes for any discrepancy.

The NYC MTA has a very detailed and easily navigable dashboard that more clearly gives interested stakeholders project status.

NYC's MTA arguably has bred a similar, if not deeper, strain of distrust as the MBTA and re-constituted MassDOT, which didn't exist until nearly four years ago. The MBTA/MassDOT need this kind of visibility and information accessibility. The T and MassDOT/former EOT have come a long way to show that they hold themselves accountable to its stakeholders outside of hour-long update meetings, regardless of whether the current people in leadership are responsible for the decades of actions that have bred the distrust in the agencies. A Flickr or Twitter feed or even Facebook page are more accessible than a physical meeting or even a PDF of the PowerPoint presentation from the meeting posted to the web.

The Green Line Extension does have a Facebook page, but as of this writing is not linked from the main project site, which suffers the same disjointed branding, presentation, and deep linking of information as many of MassDOTs other project pages. This capital project is the most promising in being a consistently transparent project through regular photo updates, but this consistency needs to be pushed across all projects and start well before any shovels hit the ground. This will be hard for the much maligned and beleaguered agencies, but both Secretary Davey and MBTA GM Scott deeply know and daily act on how important transparency is to public accountability and trust. While they're just getting started turning things around, many others in their field are leapfrogging past them and we can learn from those advances going forward.

Boston's Transit Network Shuts Down in Regional Manhunt - Confusion, Frustration Ensues

In coordination with local and state officials, all MBTA services were shut down early morning two Fridays ago,  to facilitate efforts in the manhunt for the remaining suspect responsible for Monday's Boston Marathon bombings.

The ease of digital broadcasts helped the MBTA communicate the shutdown to its customers, but left those without a persistent digital connection in the dark. That morning, the Globe found riders were still confused and frustrated by the closure and lack of visible notice at stations:

Jonathan Cruz of Dorchester was on his way to his apprenticeship at Youth Build Boston, a program that teaches young people construction skills. An acquaintance stopped him on his way to the JFK/UMass Red Line station, warning him service was cancelled, but Cruz kept going, hoping to get more information at the station.

He arrived at the station at about 6:30 a.m. and found no signs about service [cancellation] and no employees, he said. His program has a very low tolerance for tardiness, and he was supposed to be in Roxbury by 7 a.m.

“I think they should have put signs up but the problem is, we have the Internet and we watch TV all the time, so they thought we would know,” he said.

This further highlights the need for non-digital information dissemination, accommodating those on the other side of the digital divide. Service notices need not be vinyl wall wraps that are planned weeks in advance, but the advancing deployment of advertising displays from Titan can certainly be instrumental in making it easier to inform those who otherwise arrive at stations:

Xheni Kurdari walked up the stairs at the JFK/UMass station and tried to open the station’s doors. No luck. She could not make the short commute to her job at State Street Bank and Trust Company in Quincy.

Kurdari said she went to bed early the previous night and did not hear the news of the police chase and shoot-out with the bombing suspects. She heard some sirens in the morning, but did not think much of them.

“I was wondering why there were no people around,” she said. “I’m gonna call my husband, I’m gonna wake him up, probably, and I’m gonna have him drive to work.”

Digital notifications are still one of the least effectively advertised customer information features in stations that can prove useful outside of it. I'm still surprised daily the number of passengers I encounter who don't realise that they can sign up for text-based 'T-Alerts' to their phones via SMS that don't require a smartphone. Even fewer people realise they can go to sites like NextBus.com for realtime bus arrival times and HowsTheT.com for realtime train arrival times from their PCs before they ever leave from home or work.

The MBTA's web site very prominently features the system's closure.

Of course, the MBTA website continues to be an indispensable resource, granted you can and know how to get there. Reaching out through the press in papers, television, and radio, can help circumvent the digital divide that still very much exists, even in Boston.

Signage in and around stations remains the most effective means of communicating with the public - that's why advertisers will pay to put signs in our stations...

Countdown Clock Deployment Expands

Countdown clocks at 24 stations greeted groggy commuters Monday morning. This Monday, the MBTA officially enabled countdown clocks on pre-existing LED signage boards at an additional 24 stations across the system, bringing the total to 190 individual signs now counting down the minutes to train arrivals at 30 stations. This also marked Dr. Beverly Scott's first day on the job as MBTA GM, driving home her remark that she is a 'start-up, fix-it, turnaround, transition manager...a high impact player.'

The countdown clock project itself has been in process for many years before her arrival. Richard Davey laid the groundwork the top-down changes he's made since moving from MBCR to MassDOT/MBTA three years ago. Director of Innovation Josh Robin, whom Davey brought over from MassDOT to the MBTA because of his work on the MassDOT Developers project, led actual implementation of the project. The project was first tested at South Station several months ago and full rollout has been quietly in the works.

Regardless, the introduction of countdown clocks will be beneficial for all riders, especially those at stations without cellular service where the only way to know a train is coming is by looking at a smartphone app with stale data that was last pulled before arriving at the platform.

This is a far cry from actual service improvements, but any real changes to bring an end to broken down trains and delays from switch and signal problems will carry a much higher pricetag, one neither the MBTA nor MassDOT can afford to buy or ignore. We'll have to wait and see if Dr. Scott is the 'high impact player' that can be the final cog in the machine that will get our transit system running smoothly.

'Next Bus Please' - Courtesy in Motion

I happened to be thumbing through my RSS feeds and stumbled upon the lede image in a post about an upcoming BRT project for Brooklyn. It struck me that in so few times that I've ever taken the bus in New York, these simple words on the head sign did so much to prevent the frustration when a bus blows past your stop without hesitation.

Nowadays with bus tracking enabled by NextBus.com, it's easy for most people to see when buses are bunching up, but it's not so easy to know when a bus is being flagged by dispatch to go express.

Kurt Raschke over at his blog does a great job exploring where this can go and where some agencies on the Eastern Seaboard are already taking it. With Davey pushing low-cost, high-impact changes to affect the customer experience, this should be among the top of his list to discuss with incoming MBTA GM Beverly Scott.

MBTA Releases Commuter Rail Realtime Data to Developers

Realtime data or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bus and How You Might Also Love the Commuter Rail

The MBTA released realtime bus tracking data for all bus routes at the end of last summer and they haven’t looked back. Realtime tracking of buses has taken most of the worry out of riding the bus; even if it does have its glitches, it’s reliable enough to make riding more accessible for a whole swath of people who had previously been averse to riding buses, including this blogger.

Yesterday, the MBTA opened even more data up to the development community with realtime tracking data for commuter rail. Josh Robin, Director of Special Projects and Innovation at the T, led the announcement, impressing upon developers the fact that the feed is still in beta since there are still gaps in the data. In order to improve the consistency of the data, various backend technologies and practises still need to be improved at the MBCR, the MBTA's contractor for commuter rail services.

Unlike buses and subway service where the greatest factor affecting customer perceptions is frequency, commuter rail is judged on its timeliness based on the published schedule. The feed will deliver not only the timeliness of a train, but also whether or not the train has stopped and it is unknown when the train will start again, as in instances where a train has broken down or there is any other blockage on the line.

The feed takes advantage of data that has already been available to the agency for internal management, as with the previous releases of realtime data for buses and subways. What's new is the formatting of that data into something that can easily be used by developers to make the numerous user-friendly apps that have been published to date.

Developers should be including the new data into their apps soon, making commuter rail just a bit more accessible and taking the guessing out of riders' commutes.

On track for progress

GM Rich Davey stopped by on his way out to thank the developers and answer any questions the crowd had. He reinforced the fact that releasing this data and enabling third parties to develop applications to make it useable for riders is part of his goal to find cost-effective ways of improving the accessibility of transit and the rider experience.

While I laud the MBTA for improving information delivery with a cost-effective solution (they have won numerous open data awards for their work), it only enables riders who own smartphones and is dependent on cellular network access. SMS bus tracking is available through NextBus, but no such service is available to riders for the Blue, Red, and Orange Lines and the recently added commuter rail. Further, cell service isn't available at every underground station (though that's slowly changing).

Ultimately, the MBTA needs to better format information on the many LED signs that are all over the system, including the commuter rail. At the moment, riders without smartphones or with no cell service only know when a train is near the moment an announcement is made - there is no persistent, in-station information about the next train, let alone the one following behind it.

I've spoken with the GM about this and he knows it needs to be done. Part of the problem is cost of labour  to retool the system and the cost of hardware to upgrade some LED signs that don't have the resolution necessary to display some of this information. Meanwhile, the MTA in New York City is well on its way to have LED countdown clocks installed at every station, a system that was ultimately developed in-house at lower cost after many years of delays and budget overruns with outside contractors.

While countdown clocks won't solve the many infrastructure-related delays that happen each day, both here in Boston and in New York, it arms riders with the information they need to make split-second decisions about their commute if they can take alternate routes. This damage control approach to customer service is pretty much the only option to improve perceived quality of transit so long as transit agencies aren't given the money to bring their systems up to a state of good repair (the GM himself passingly lamented the fact that there simply isn't money to get new Red Line cars - because of a $2 billion shortfall in federal, state, and local funding, the current capital investment programme[PDF] for the next 5 years only includes $200 million for engineering and design of new Red and Orange Line cars, not purchase).

GM Davey - Executive Transit Rider

When I asked GM Davey what his favourite app was (in front of a room of app developers), he noted that he regularly used a web site, partly because he had to switch back to his Blackberry from his Android since it was having issues syncing with the MBTA's email services. He also noted that he had recently used the site on a trip via the 39 to dinner at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, for which he gave rave reviews. With that, I'm curious if there would be public interest in a (bi-)weekly blurb from the GM in the Metro about his experiences on the T.

New Signage Pilot due for next Service Change

After grabbing the attention of some folks on the web and at MassDOT/the MBTA, I’ve set in motion the steps to a better method of alerting fellow riders to upcoming service changes. At a meeting with my contact at the MBTA this past Friday, I handed over the template designs and uncovered a few ugly truths about signage and rider communication at the MBTA. When put to practice, the signs will not be placed within the trains themselves, as I had done the night of 6 May, for ‘union reasons’. Instead, they will likely continue to be deployed as ‘seat drops’, which basically means they’ll end up face-down on the floor under the seats after the morning rush comes in to peel them off the seats. I regret not having pressed harder for a better solution. These signs will also go up in stations, ideally in place of the large vinyl walls of text that have normally accompanied service changes.

Ultimately, all signs now deployed on the T for service changes are currently done line-by-line by each line manager, but this isn’t really news to us. What’s more distressing is that whatever design and brand integrity team that used to exist at the MBTA as part of the public relations team no longer exists, likely due to successive budget cuts and the resultant position eliminations that have happened over the past few decades of federal, state, and municipal disinvestment in transit.

A well enforced brand identity breeds comfort and familiarity and makes it easier for riders to passively spot helpful information, such as line maps, emergency procedures, or wayfinding signage. Splintering of this visual continuity hampers this and makes communicating with passengers much more difficult and energy intensive. The MBTA needs a brand and passenger communications czar; Joe Pesaturo and his team has their hands full with outward-facing communications with news media and internal communications at the MBTA.

In any case, the signs will make their way to the public relations team who will apply their touch to the designs and push them out as a template to the line managers. How it develops from there is up to them, but Josh Robin plans to keep me involved in the project. At the moment, my next step is to create a web app that will allow line managers to create the signs with an intuitive form using drop-down menus and canned statements that have been pre-approved by the public relations team. Anyone interested in contributing his/her web technologies talents should express his/her interest in comments below.

On the T with MBTA GM Rich Davey

I don't often travel on the T after 8 for various reasons, all unrelated to the number of notices I get via the T-Alerts emails about delays. Last Thursday evening it was an unavoidable affair, but it was certainly fruitful. MBTA General Manager Rich Davey, another person, and I were all heading home after the joint MBTA-MassDOT Developers event, Where's The Bus? 2.0 and we got stuck on a southbound Red Line train at Charles-MGH due to a broken down train at Park Street. Our idle chatting turned into an impromptu interview with the new GM nearly 11 weeks into his appointment.