Inside the Mind of Metro: ORCA, Twitter & Transit Unions

Last week I sat down to talk with King County Metro chief Kevin Desmond about how technology was affecting Metro’s interactions with customers and its infrastructure. Besides the popularity of third-party services like One Bus Away, we talked about smart cards, social media, and audience participation.

I brought up the question of continuing the downtown Ride Free Zone during a budget crisis, and Desmond had clearly already been thinking about that topic:

“We’re going to experiment with offboard payment at the major stations on the Rapid Ride line. Community transit will also experiment with it on their Swift line. The problem is fare enforcement. You can get on via the back door with your ORCA card, but there’s nothing stopping you from pretending to swipe a smart card.”

While light rail is typically limited to a few lines and enforcement is a matter of a few inspectors, Desmond pointed out that “in the bus environment, we might have 900 to 1,000 buses we would have to monitor. But we do have federal money to install rear-door ORCA readers on the entire fleet. We should be able to do that in about three years, but the key is we have to think through the fare evasion problem.” ORCA card adoption alone may speed passenger boarding enough so that the Ride Free Zone would not be necessary downtown.

“We try to have our ear to the ground,” Desmond said, and brings up blogs that Metro staffers visit. The Seattle Transit Blog is head of the class: “They’re smart people, they care, they have good ideas and insights, whether we like what we see or not. So there’s new ways to find and solicit information that didn’t exist before.”

Metro has also noticed the existence of a Transit Riders Union of Metropolitan Puget Sound. When asked about interaction with transit unions, Desmond says, “To the extent they provide good feedback it’s a good thing.” He adds that New York’s transit union, Straphangers, has been “a very necessary thorn in everyone’s side. They kept us honest, and made sure the organization stayed focused on rider concerns.”

Other online communications are more problematic for Metro: “Twitter is a more complicated and difficult tool to deal with,” admitted Desmond. “Twitter kind of assumes a two-way communication, and we’re not really capable of doing two-way communication.” From Metro’s perspective, Twitter offers a huge amount of raw intelligence, and the question is how to sift through that data and develop actionable responses.

“After our snowstorm problems last year, there was a lot of talk about Twitter, and a lot people thought we should be using it to absorb raw data–‘My bus is stuck’ or ‘This bus is late.’ We were inundated with hundreds and hundreds of postings. And just because someone tweeted about an observation in the system, we wouldn’t feel confident enough to act on it. We’d have to somehow confirm it.”

“This is all fine if you have a smart phone,” I said, “but what about someone who just shows up at a bus stop?”

Unknowingly, I’d hit upon one of Desmond’s favorite topics. “That’s the first point of contact,” he nodded, “and so many bus stops are a pole with a sign in the dirt. We need to give customers good information at the bus stop.” In New York, he’d worked on the design of bus stop signs, and he has a high-visibility redesign project in the wings for King County that contains bus routes, the name and number of the stop where you’re at, and each route’s end destination. “We had a good budget for this,” said Desmond ruefully. “The rollout got slowed down considerably–we would have rolled it out in three years, but now we’ll do it more as a standard replacement cycle.”

Metro doesn’t have enough money to put schedule information at every one of the 9,000 bus stops, but Desmond hopes to add more route maps: “That might be coming, that would be the next step we’d take. The problem again is dollars.”

The always-on Twitter firehose aside, the agency employs a number of other communications with the public, which may or may not surprise you, if you’ve ever tried to get them to “fix” something for you.

“We of course get lots of complaints,” admitted Desmond. “Fewer commendations–I love commendations. But we get lots of comments through the website and letters. People call or write me directly. We try our best to use that information constructively. Some of it is about a very specific site or service issue. Some of it is broader. A lot of the comments we get are about service design issues.”

Any time Metro has plans to add or change service, there’s an extensive public participation process called Sounding Boards. That said, Desmond adds, “We don’t necessarily have to agree with them, and they don’t have to agree with us, though we’re generally in alignment.”

For Metro’s recent changes in bus lines to coordinate them with light rail stations, that process began in fall of 2008 and were approved by the Council in May 2009. There were two Sounding Board panels: one for southeast Seattle and one for the Tukwila-Burien area. Metro also sent out broad surveys to the communities.

“We obtain public feedback in multiple ways. We have something called the Transit Advisory Committee (TAC), which is actually a creature created by the King County Council, and the members of TAC, all of whom are transit users, are appointed by the Council…. They are supposed to represent a good geographic distribution throughout King County.”

The 15-member committee currently includes Carla “The Bus Chick” Saulter. They meet monthly and communicate with the Council, the Regional Transit Committee, and Desmond himself. If you want in on it, they take self-nominations here.

The Accessible Services Advisory Committee (ASAC) deals with, as the name implies, accessibility considerations: lifts on buses, Metro’s Access fleet, and things you probably don’t think that much about, like how much bus ad wraps obscure vision for the elderly and disabled. You can let them know of your interest in joining the committee here.

On an annual basis, Metro does rider (and non-rider) surveys that–in asking many of the same questions each year–provide the basis for longitudinal analysis of trends in ridership community-wide. They also check in on special topics–this year, Desmond says, social media tools are likely to be a hot topic.