Car Less in Calgary: Day 5, Fixing the Mess

Posted by: Shelton Kwan onDecember 7th, 2012

In a car centric city like Calgary, I’ve decided to challenge myself, and raise some money for the Food Bank by ditching my car for a week, and try to get on with my hectic schedule by using only public transportation. That means no cars, no carpooling, no free rides with friends, no Car2Go, no taxi. 1 full week without a car cold turkey, for the biggest car guy on Beyond. Join me as I detail my daily progress going Car Less in Calgary in this one week daily special feature.

Day 5

It’s the last work day of the car less challenge for me, and I’ve decided to take it easy. That was the plan for Monday, until I ended up having to go to Kincora, and took an epic Journey through the city to get home. So for today, I moved all my offsite plans to next week, or rescheduled them to meet at my office instead. All I had to do was go to work, and go home.

I wanted to start the week with this to see what it’s like for your typical 9-5 downtown worker living in the suburbs near a C-Train line. And as expected, my travel times were normal (40 mins to work, 44 mins and 20 seconds back home), and as I mentioned before, it’s a perfectly acceptable way to get to and from work if you don’t have to go anywhere else. It’s too bad I didn’t experience the extreme cold, or C-Train and bus breakdowns, because it would’ve been nice to write about that. So for today’s write-up, I’m going to pretend to be a Transit Expert, and theorize how to fix this mess.


1. Fix the User Experience

I’m going to use skills I’ve learned in the software business over the years and apply it to the transit system. As an example, I’ll compare the Day 1 Kincora to Arbour Lake trip, and the Day 4 Wentworth to Arbour Lake trip. The Kincora trip took 2 hours and 35 mins, I missed the connectors, but I knew how much longer I had to wait. It sucked, but I was generally OK. The Wentworth trip took 2 hours and 15 mins, but I was way more frustrated. How could that be?

It’s all about the user knowing what’s going on. Day 1 trip, I knew I missed the train, and I had a display showing when the next train was arriving. I missed my Arbour Lake connector bus, and Teleride was accurate in letting me know it’ll be back in 30 minutes. Whereas on the Day 4 trip, the 453 wait was completely random, I had no idea when the bus was showing up, and that initial frustration snowballed as the trip progressed, even though I had actually made all my connectors, and total trip time was lower.

It’s like the first days of e-commerce on the web. Users would enter their info, click Finish, then the website would do nothing while it’s processing. You get impatient, click back, and get double charged. Engineers would try to fix it by improving the speed it took to complete the transaction, but the frustrations continued. Today, when you click Finish (on a good e-commerce site), a series of screens will pop up and tell you what’s going on. Or, it would just say done, while it handled the transaction in the background leaving the user to do whatever they want. The fact that the user knows what’s going on, even if it took longer, improved the user experience.

Applying this to Calgary Transit, they need to ensure that Teleride is accurate for bus arrival information. If busses are going to come early in off peak hours, simply adjust the schedule to say it’s early during those times. If busses are always late during rush hour, again, adjust the time to reflect that. Another option is to equip the busses with GPS, so that you get live real-time tracking of when the next bus is going to arrive so you can be more prepared. When the user knows what is happening, frustration levels drop significantly.


2. Connect the Hubs

Our transit system is a hub and spoke system, but it’s designed to feed all the hubs back downtown. There’s no easy transportation between the hubs, so you end up heading downtown, move to a different hub downtown or inner city, then back straight to the next hub, which takes forever. It works well for getting people in and out of downtown, but terrible for anything else. It’s like the FedEx model, shipments from LA to San Francisco doesn’t go direct. It goes from LA to Memphis Hub, then back to San Fran. While it works for overnight shipments, it doesn’t work for moving people around (unless they all want to go to Memphis).

To fix that, we could redesign the entire system at a huge cost due to existing C-Train infrastructure, or offer transportation between hubs throughout the city. Since the only feasible option would be the latter, something as simple as BRT lines that’s only used to transport from hub to hub would be fairly low cost, and magically shave 1/2 the time off suburb to suburb trips. A quick experiment on Google Maps shows that my Kincora trip, if there was a connector from the North Pointe Hub Station to the Crowfoot C-Train station, the trip would’ve taken a little over an hour. Same goes for the Wentworth trip.

3. Replace the 1980′s Style Payment System

Over the last 5 days, I’ve been checked a total of 0 times on the C-Train for my bus pass. I’ve read that most people during rush hour on the trains do not pay at all, and on average get caught once every 6 months, which is much cheaper than buying 6 months of bus passes. I’ve seen people get on busses without paying, or throw in a random amount of nickels and dimes, and the drivers just don’t care. We need to implement a card payment system that scans in and out, and charge based on usage, much like the Hong Kong Octopus card system.

This system would solve many issues. Revenue would increase as payment is confirmed. We could charge by the trip based on distance. We would save a lot of trees by getting rid of those silly paper transfers. And most importantly, we would be able to gather metrics on actual trips of users, and determine where to improve hub to hub transfers, or add direct lines for popular destinations from certain communities.


4. Fix the User Experience Part 2

We have trains and busses that are completely inconsistent in their looks. The older ones still use the ugly CT logo, while new units use a Calgary Transit text on top of red. On the website, it’s white on black. I have no idea what the official logo is at this point, it’s completely random. Fix it so it’s consistent across the board. When the next bus or train I have to take is dressed in the 80′s style colors, it feels like I’m riding an inferior product. User experience goes a LONG way.

Speaking of the website, who designed this thing? It’s like a high school website project in layout. Spend a few bucks to refresh the look so it’s modern. Make sure it works on smart phones and tablets. Most importantly, make the damn thing work! Over the course of 2 days, I was able to have the site fail on me for simple things such as next bus information, route schedules, and of course, trip planning. After day 2, I relied solely on Google Maps.

That’s it, some basic fixes that are much cheaper than a new C-Train line, and will impact every user of the system instead of those served by new lines. Of course, we need to add more train lines (BRTs just don’t work well in rush hour without dedicated bus lanes), but that’s a long term solution that will takes years and billions of dollars, only improving users getting into downtown and nothing else. Back to my car less week, my plans for tomorrow will be interesting as I go Christmas Tree shopping without a car. That’s going to be exciting.

Day 1: 318mins (transit) vs 65mins (car). 4.9x longer by transit.
Day 2: 183mins (transit) vs 95mins (car). 1.9x longer by transit.
Day 3: 120mins (transit) vs 65mins (car). 1.8x longer by transit.
Day 4: 320mins (transit) vs 84mins (car). 3.8x longer by transit.
Day 5: 84mins (transit) vs 50mins (car). 1.7x longer by transit.



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