Pondering the meaning of being on timeBy
One of the biggest complaints New Yorkers have with the MTA and an oft-heard excuse early in the morning is one of the more mercurial aspects of transit operations. “Sorry I wasn’t on time,” we’ll often hear. “The B train was late this morning.” What exactly does that mean?
When I head from Brooklyn to Manhattan every day, I use the B train at 7th Ave., but I don’t really leave at the same time any day of the week. When I had two early classes last semester, I could time my trip to catch a B train at approximately the same time every morning, and when there was a problem, the train wouldn’t be there. To me, that’s the traditional definition of on time.
But there are other ways to measure on-time performance. One that the MTA uses internally is a wait assessment. Intuitively, this one makes some sense. If the B train is supposed to run every eight minutes, it matters less when the B trains arrives as it does when the next B train after that arrives. As long as the interval is eight minutes — or in the MTA’s case, eight minutes plus 25 percent — the trains are still on time, and people won’t be left with empty tracks when they expect a train.
Finally, we can judge a train based upon when it’s supposed to get to the end of the run. This is another metric Transit uses to judge on-time performance. If a train is at its terminal within five minutes of the scheduled time, it is still considered on time. Anything worse means delays or one sort of another along the route. But are these any good?
In a report released yesterday, the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA examined the authority’s wait assessment metrics and found them rigorous but lacking. The committee praised the MTA for being among the most transparent transit operators in the country in providing wait assessments but determined that the rankings did not help passengers evaluate on-time performance. The wait analyses, in other words, are geared toward internal evaluation and not improvements for the customers.
“A schedule is a promise,” PCAC Chair Ira Greenberg said. “A late train or bus breaks that promise and the impact is lost time for the riders. People depend on the MTA’s service for their livelihood. We want the MTA to think of the rider first, before trains and buses, and we look forward to working with them to achieve this.”
The report — which I’ve embedded below — presents an extensive evaluation of the MTA’s three rail divisions and a comparison with other U.S.-based transit providers. Passengers, it finds, are left in the dark, and ultimately, PCAC urges the MTA to develop a passenger on-time performance metric that can identify the number of passengers delayed and which ones are delayed most frequently.
Most vital is the report’s recommendation that the MTA start promoting capital expenditures as a way to improve on-time performance. PCAC highlights the countdown clocks as an example of a technology that can lead to more satisfied customers even if they don’t improve the wait times. “While countdown clocks do not create performance measurements,” the report says, “they serve to moderate the rider’s expectation of performance with real time knowledge.”
It takes a stronger stance on capital improvements viewed as disruptive by passengers. “The average rider doesn’t necessarily understand what new interlockings, switches and signals are, let alone appreciate how their improvement will enhance their commute. Historically, the use of performance metrics at the MTA began as an effort to secure needed capital funds. That linkage, as a tool to promote capital programs to the riding public and elected officials, has weakened over the years,” it says. “Specific information on how an item in the Capital Program will reduce the number of delayed and canceled trains, increase track speeds, and improve the ability to recover from a major service disruption is relevant to the riders.”
Now, that just makes sense. If the MTA can convince anyone that their work will make trains run on time, shouldn’t that be a prime selling point for a project? I would think so.
Keeping people moving and making sure they get somewhere on time should be a paramount goal for any transit provider. While wait measurements and delay assessments are more important for commuter rail riders who see transit only every 30 minutes at peak times instead of every five, subway riders like to know they’ll get to their jobs and appointments on time without egregiously long waits. By presenting that information to the public in an easy-to-understand fashion that directly addresses the wait, the MTA could improve the way customers impatiently wait for trains. Time might be on my side after all.
After the jump, read the PCAC’s full report.