- Large Metro Areas
- Medium Metro Areas
- Small Metro Areas
Everybody know that the Web has given us all access to personalized information: directions, book recommendations, news. Transit agencies have started taking advantage of that with trip planners and schedule alerts. And transit (at least somewhat) easier to use.
But technology has changed paper, too. Once, printing meant large production runs. Now, it’s possible to print things one at a time. But transit still works in a world where documents — bus schedules, system maps, and brochures — are printed in large, one-size-fits-all, runs.
Consider an office building: several hundred people, all of whom need to get to work and get home every day. They should know what their transit options are. But a system map posted in the lobby won’t do the trick: it shows too much information, and that’s intimidating. But a custom map (click for pdf), showing just the routes that stop nearby, would.
The technology is not difficult. The time involved is not prohibitive. And, once the map exists, it’s easy to convert for posting on a web site, printing in an employee manual, and otherwise making it available to people whom it would help. It would be entirely possible to put one of these in every large office building lobby, in every hospital and in every university in Houston.
It’s not good enough to simply provide transit. One has to make people aware it exists. And transit agencies ought to be using every tool they can to do that.
There’s an atlas on my bookshelf. What’s the last time I used it?
Online maps just keep getting better and better. New from Google: street views. You can “walk” down a street and pan around. I’ve never been to Denver. But I now have a good idea of what their light rail looks like at street level. Also on Google: San Francisco‘s light rail system (that’s the J Church above) and Miami‘s Metromover. There are only 5 cities online, but I’m sure more are coming.
All of this has made getting around easier. But it’s also made it easier to be an informed citizen. Aerial maps were once the province of transit planners; now we can all get that, any time of day, from the comfort of our own desk. And the public has more power.
All of this has been made possible by private companies. When government agencies put map data online, the interfaces tend to be clunky — compare HGAC’s 2035 RTP project viewer to Google Maps. Google’s transit planner is better than any I’ve ever seen on any transit agency web site. Most agencies haven’t even made it as far as interactive maps. One wonders when they will learn for DC’s WMATA and use the private sector tools. If they don’t, the public will do it for them, like William Bright did for transit maps on iPods. Now agencies like WMATA and METRO are following suit.
Somewhere down the road is an interactive planning process where the public can draw lines on maps and see data: how much right of way does this street have? How many jobs would a station here serve? What’s the traffic count here? This isn’t to say we don;t need planners — we do. But computer tools will make planning less of a black box and more of a true community process.
Online mapping is already making it easier to get around on the infrastructure we have. Soon it will help us build better infrastructure.
Imagine if Houston had a rapid transit system that connected the suburbs to downtown with fast, frequent, comfortable, non-stop service.
Actually, it does. METRO has spent over a billion dollars over 20 years to build a system of HOV lanes and park-and-ride lots that’s unlike any other in the United States. Dedicated ramps and barrier-separated lanes let busses go from outside Beltway 8 to the streets of Downtown without ever encountering a stoplight or a traffic jam. The result: 40,000 daily transit trips in 5 major freeway corridors, helping transit get a remarkable 40% market share for Downtown commuters.
Yet somehow this system has been all but ignored in our transit debate. In part, that’s because the HOV lanes have never had a political constituency. Conservatives dislike them because they are nice pieces of concrete that not everyone is allowed to use; liberals, even those who don’t recall that this is what Bob Lanier built instead of the monorail, are loath to endorse something so suburban and, well, concrete.
But METRO is also to blame. I made the map above myself because METRO doesn’t have anything like it, and I’m forced to refer to this thing the “HOV lane commuter bus system” because METRO has never come up with a better name (the “METROExpress” tag on the map is also mine). Perception means a lot in transit, and the fact that METRO treats these routes as if they were just ordinary busses has a lot to do with the fact that the public sees them that way. We have a service that is more extensive, faster, and more convenient than many commuter rail systems, yet nobody knows that. A little marketing would go a long way here.