Metro Transit has usability problems with commercial advertising but many other problems and annoyances can also easily be fixed by doing mass transit usability testing and analysis. A real testing program will expose some problems and show some methods to coordinate car, train, bus, bicycle and pedestrian modes of transportation. Testing transportation usability will make a better transit system and is a cheap fast way to improve our transportation system.
However, remember the Metro Transit of Minneapolis and Saint Paul is designed to FAIL, not succeed. As a result this article is about design and systems verification as a thought exercise, no improvements to Metro Transit are expected, transit will probably devolve in the Minneapolis - St Paul Metro Area for the next several years as uncoordinated thrashing and engineering "worst practices" are rigorously applied to the various system transit modes by a cynical Metro Council and MN DOT.
"Transit rider testing", "transit user testing", "transit usability test(ing)", "transit interface testing", phrase searches and variations show Very few results on Google,in July, 2006. Same with "Bus rider test(ing)", "Train user test(ing)". "Transit Test" shows results mostly with colonic and bowel movement transit, (no kidding,) appropriate maybe, but I guess few people do transit usability testing or if they do it is not an English language term. Please let me know what it is called, it is not "Transportation usability testing".
With billions of dollars invested in civil engineering and transportation systems there should be a scientific, system wide testing program that improves the usability of the system. Instead, I find a fragmented piecemeal set of transit testing and usability assessment, some transit system web sites are assessed, several safety studies such as a study testing car-train intersections and so on. More common is a regular person who notices a problem, such as a person with a website who tests bicycle parking racks or Bicyclinginfo.org which I found very interesting, by the way. "Transit Usability" does not seem to have any actual testing transportation usability beyond specific road intersection design or a minor mention of usability as in access to transit by disabled persons or a vague idea of making transit more "usable" for those with disabilities, mostly as a buzzword in funding grant applications.
A keyword search of "transit usability" not in a phrase has some relevant information about creating a web site for transit information but no actual testing or examples of testing the human use the transit system. I did not notice any articles treating transit usability testing in a systemic organized manner. There are some usability design studies but usually actual usability testing of the transit system seems missing in the study.
Why is there little to no usability testing of transit? A look at my local transportation think tank, the Center for Transportation Studies (CTS) pretty well illustrates a problem. All studies are car-centric, the people involved with the center are the highway industry, car industry and the usability testing problems looked at are car and highway problems. One person from Metro Transit is listed in the ITS (Intelligent Transit Study) area, and someone has written about the "benefits of bicycling" but the aim of the CTS is revealed more by the studies on fare structure to convert I-394 HOV lanes to single car use. Transit in Minnesota has undergone serious service cutbacks and fare increases. There are no dollars spent on research on transit, much less on usability testing of transit. I think there is a similar pattern across most of the USA, no one studies transit or human usability of transit.
The obvious places where there are studies of usability are east coast, like New York and the San Francisco Bay, CA as one study on transit connectivity seems to do what should be done, this one studies making connections and transfers between modes. But it is located under "planning" and the word "usability" is not in the 45 page summary. Some of this study used focus groups, not just observation of human behavior in transit connectivity, focus groups tend to give results that are not the same as observed behavior.
This is not an unchanging list, but this will do for a start. We will probably make some errors in the study of the subject as it is a virgin field of study but let us press on. There are probably many more transit testing criteria and some may be considered subjective as we are dealing with humans after all, but as a basic pattern I suggest the testing of transit systems be looked at like usability testing done by Don Norman who has a background in product and systems testing as well as software testing. Usability tests could be run as described by Jakob Nielsen, small numbers of test subjects given an objective and test scenario, a test observer records problems encountered by the subjects and fixes effected as fast and cheap as possible. Hueristic analysis by usability interface designers and testers should be able to get some basic test scenarios to use right away that point out well known problems in the system.
Lets do one test scenario where a thought construct is good enough, the
criteria to test is from above:
-The people should be able to pay a fare conveniently and across the system with the same method and fare structure.
-Objective and scenario:
Using a pre-paid ($10, $20, $40) magnetic strip Metro Transit card get on the LRT (light rail). BZZZT! This test fails as you cannot use the Metro Transit prepaid card to get on the Metro Transit LRT system. Well, that was a fast test, fun and easy too!
Another example, the criteria is from above:
-People should be able to find a destination when using the transit mode.
Find your stop to get off of the bus. The result, problems found and low cost solutions are in my first article on the subject of human transit usability and advertising.
Another more detailed scenario for the same criteria of
-Find a destination using the LRT system, starting downtown and switching to the appropriate bus service.
The first part may be easy, getting on the train as the LRT map is in each station and train car and is clearly marked. But switching to a bus route from the LRT? Much harder. There are bus schedules on the bus itself, but which bus? Which stop intersects the bus route to get to the destination? Which bus goes to the destination? Many local stops have no signs for which routes are served. Some have bus route numbers but no destinations. A very few have route numbers and final route destination below the number, they seem to be newer signs and this is encouraging, someone is improving the system unbeknownst to the Metropolitan Council, but I am sure they will soon be fired. There are very few transit maps posted in even the larger transit stations and these maps are just the personal hand folded maps pinned to a wall, not large easy to read maps, like no one in Metro Transit has heard of desk top publishing or increasing the printing size of a map.
The testing sets can be easily expanded and I am sure that the transit engineers have statistics for some of the most common trips and intermode traffic numbers to use as a basis for testing common scenarios, like find a Park and Ride lot to a destination by bus and LRT, or length of connection wait for the most common transfer points, yet this information and the methods used for testing our Metro Transit system is not published.
Make no mistake, transit is social engineering, how could it not be, if social engineering is applied well transit is convenient, simple and fast. If the social engineering is applied with malice or ignored then transit is difficult to use, uncomfortable and slow. The right wing privatizers (privateers) say "transit is social engineering" like it is a bad thing. And when they are in charge, it is.
Instead of working out problems of usability and mode interface a four prong poke in the eye of the public was planned by Metro Transit in 2004 - 2005. First stab was a 46 day strike to break the transit union and drive away people but it was not enough, the Metro Council came up with "Take with one hand and take more with the other" public relations campaign. On one hand take more money by raising the fare, then on the other, take away service by cutting routes and schedules. Coming on the heels of the strike the strategy was brilliant and depressed transit as long as gasoline was cheap. Now that gas prices are high ridership is creeping up again. But ridership should plateau as higher prices and degraded service chews at human comfort and ease of service.
The final sharp stick in the eye is the "Go Card" a.k.a. "Metro Pass", a RFID chipped "big brother" transit card-reader system that does not work more than two years into implementation. So the transit fare system does not work so well? Well, it cost $50 million dollars, the cost of over 100 new buses or all the improvements the entire bus system will see for many years. This was a gamble on an unproven RFID technology that only needs your bank account, address and lots of personal information for a ride and yet does not work at huge expense. At the same time the proven cheap magnetic strip anonymous card was not used in the new LRT line, and the new invasive, high risk, non-working RFID chip card was used. A basic tenant of human rights is reasonable privacy, basic usability review would have noticed the privacy problems with the RFID system. Are your bank records, home address and work address needed to ride the bus? Basic engineering risk assessment should have warned the Metro Transit that the never before implemented RFID fare system was too risky. The conclusion is that there was negligence of basic software design and engineering principles, whether purposeful or from incompetence is the only question.
The pattern is clear: social engineering is being done by Metro Transit to drive away people from using the system. The consequences of strikes, fare hikes, route cutbacks and expensive, risky non-working RFID fare technology has made the system worse. And the $50 million thrown away on the RFID fare technology gives basis to the perennial complaint of the privateering class, that public subsidy of transit is wasting money. Ironic that the people that made decision to waste the money on non-working RFID fare schemes are now the same ones complaining about the waste of money in public transit.
Auto and air based transportation has many studies relating to usability, safety and human interface design. This is probably related to the money and lobbies connected to the air transport and the freeway-auto industry. Other transit does not have the constituency or money to spend on research.
A multi-mode system wide transit usability testing program using Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen techniques may show many problems that are cheap and easy to fix as well as plenty of system wide hard to change failures. Because of the low cost of the usability testing program it can never be implemented, it would make too much sense, low cost improvements will never be done. When lots of money is not at stake there are no private interests to rake off profits and no lobbying interests to push the projects. By keeping ridership low and targeting mostly poor and marginalized people there is an imbalance of power in the usability equation. The people using the system cannot effectively improve the usability. The lack of general public using the system means a lack of attention to the usability of the system. That is the current social engineering program and it is well executed by Metro Transit, the Metropolitan Council, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) and the Governor.