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Mass Movement: The Uncertainty Principle

What time's the next one? Time for bus schedules in shelters.

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In distant southern suburbs, orderly masses board the T at rush hour and disgorge themselves in Downtown subway stations, civilized cogs in a civilized transit machine.

 

 

But for many Port Authority customers who do more than just float from home to work on Ward Cleaver's schedule, things aren't always so smooth. Wouldn't it help to post route schedules and maps in busy bus shelters? People could get information on the fly, without having to venture Downtown to pick up handheld schedules or anticipate their every need in order to look it up at PAT's Web site (www.ridegold.com). Currently, schedules aren't publicly displayed, and only the busways and the T have route maps.

 

With such information displayed for everyday riders and visitors, the Port Authority could convert them from commuters to full-system users.

 

Let's say you catch a ride with your buddy from Oakland to debauch on the South Side, but your friend turns lame and leaves early. You could blow money on a cab, ride with a drunk, or make the long and pedestrian-unfriendly walk across the Birmingham Bridge. Obviously, it's much better to take the 54C.

 

 

But at night, the 54C runs only every 30-60 minutes. If you just stand there, how can you know whether you've missed it? Do you have time for another drink? A posted schedule would tell you. What's more, if the maps of bus routes were also posted, you'd notice that you could grab an 84C to Oakland, too, thus more quickly relieving South Siders of your presence.

 

 "One of the issues you have with transit is the uncertainties," says software engineer Joe Hughes, who created his own alternative Web-based bus-info program for Pittsburgh, Buskarma, at bus.maya.com. A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Hughes lived "car-free" in North Oakland and commuted to work on the South Side for several years, though he now lives in Boston.

 

Using global-positioning transponders and special displays at shelters to relay information -- such as "next bus five minutes" -- would be the "holy grail" of bus info, Hughes says. "Barring that, even a paper schedule posted would be very helpful. When you get there, you can say, 'It's 5:15, the last bus was at 5 o'clock, the next one is 5:30.'" Without such information, Hughes adds, "You look like a dork standing there, and it's boring." A schedule lets you pace your boredom. You could also gauge whether it's safe to stand around at night: Ten minutes feels safer than an hour. Without this information, many won't even try to wait.

 

Most regular riders have memorized the one route that's closest to their home and work, but that's a fraction of what they could use. The rush-hour ridership market is probably the most saturated, so getting people to use transit for non-work trips is a way to boost ridership without needing more buses or routes.

 

Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove says that the idea of posting schedules at shelters is not new. A few obstacles: The shelters would have to be retrofitted with a case to hold the schedules, and all of the new lighted shelters are owned not by Port Authority but by media giant Clear Channel, who contracted with the city to put in the ad-laden shelters. It would take personnel to keep the schedules current, since they're updated every quarter, Grove notes. And many of the busy shelters -- where schedules would be most useful -- serve up to a dozen routes, and there just isn't room to paper the walls with timetables. Port Authority is also concerned about vandalism and graffiti caused somehow by the presence of posted schedules.

 

Ironically, "defacing" a Clear Channel bus shelter by posting a schedule is, I guess, a form of graffiti itself. Yet at one busy stop in Oakland -- at Fifth Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard -- some transit guerillas have taken the matter into their own hands, taping up schedules for the 71A Negley and other routes. Pretty punk, huh?

 

Now, this is no call to artists, but for the past few years, Pittsburgh's summers have been blessed with a flowering of cool, iconographic street art -- lanterns, winged hearts and odd permutations of a local coffeehouse denizen -- all wheat-pasted to mailboxes, neglected buildings, Dumpsters and, indeed, bus shelters. Consider: Public art to public purpose -- why not bus schedules?

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