The Three Sources of Transit Planning Information
A good transit planner needs to take into account a large number of variables in order to make good decisions about what kind of service his or her system will operate in the future. When considering the future of transit, I analyze information I receive from three equally important sources.
In recent years the types and amount of data available to transit planners has grown significantly. Planners now have demographic data thanks to the United States Census, American Community Survey, and other sources; geographic data thanks to software such as ArcGIS; running time data thanks to Automatic Vehicle Location systems; and passenger count data thanks to Automated Passenger Counting systems and advanced fareboxes. In some cases, the amount of data accessible to planners has become so voluminous that it is impossible to sort through everything. Because of the volume of data, it is important that planners spend their time wisely on the data that is most useful and relevant to what they are trying to accomplish. The judgment that allows planners to efficiently make use of data comes from my second source of information.
Before the advent of technology, most transit planning decisions were based on the personal experience of transit professionals, many of which had spent years in the transit industry. Certain transit systems, primarily smaller ones that do not have access to the data sources discussed above, may continue to rely on this as their primarily source of information. But even with systems that can afford the latest in transit technology personal observations should retain an important role in transit planning. First, personal experience with the subject matter allows planners to quickly zero in important data results. It also allows for a much easier detection of errors in data collection. Second, data sources can tells us what is happening but they are usually unable to tell us why it is happening. The AVL system tells us that a particular bus trip is chronically late; is it late because it does not have enough running time, because the driver is driving especially slowly because they are socializing with a friend who always riders that particular trip, or for some other reason? Finally, personal observations are still important for those times when we do not have any data able to measure what we are looking for. The scheduled times of two routes on two different southern California transit agencies suggested that at a particular location an excellent transfer opportunity existed. However, observations of the transfer location showed that one bus was chronically late, and arrived at the transfer location about one minute after the other bus left. As a result, the schedules were adjusted to insure the connection.
The final source of information transit planners should take advantage of when developing new routes and schedules is input from others. This input could come from members of the community at large, but should also come from other employees of the transit industry, including bus drivers and supervisors. While much of community consultation takes the simplified form of "more buses more of the time", occasionally the community can offer valuable input about things such as late buses, unsafe bus stops, and other system aspects that even a well-informed planner may not have knowledge of. Drivers and supervisors can offer valuable reasons why certain bus trips are late or full, and can save the planner from having to do their own investigating. The final reason that community consultation is essential refers to a definition of planning success that until recently I did not emotionally understand. Under this definition, planning is a success if the public views it as successful. A limited stop bus route operated by a southern California transit agency was only three minutes faster than the local bus route operating along the same corridor, which was approximately ten miles long. From a planning perspective, the limited stop route was a failure because of the negligible time savings. However, the public viewed it as much faster than the corresponding local route and therefore viewed the limited route as highly successful. As a result, the limited stop route was kept in operation.
It is a very exciting time for transit planners; new data sources are measuring all kinds of different aspects of transit service that either could not have been measured before or could be measured only with great difficulty. Planners, particularly those who believe in the superiority of LeCorbusier, Robert Moses, and other of similar persuasion, may believe that these new sets of data are all that is needed to effectively plan not only transit systems but anything. However, the data is useless without a comprehensive understanding of what the data is measuring; the plans resulting from this lack of understanding can give rise to the often true observations of the public that the "people who plan these bus routes never ride the buses." In terms of community consultation, the more that transit is viewed as a business and less as a public utility the more importance community consultation will achieve in the transit planning process. In the end, the community is the customer, and though the customer is not always right they should always be listened to, as they are going to be the ones populating the new and exciting data sets. Planners should always be willing to bend the rules of abstract optimum transit planning in order to serve the customer base. Thus, planners need to consider each of the three sources of information referenced above equally: data, personal observations, and community consultation.