The Rear Door Problem With Muni’s New Hybrid Buses

3433763690_074a44bcd6.jpgPhoto by Tony Vi

If you’ve ridden any of Muni’s new low-floor hybrids you’ve most
likely encountered or witnessed the sometimes challenging task of opening
the rear doors. The buses, from Orion Bus Industries, have a fault that
prevents them from realizing the full benefits of the low-floor design.

What
should be a seemingly simple task is hampered by the contact-less
sensor system used to open the rear doors.  The sensors, called CLASS
(contact-less acoustic sensor system PDF), are designed to detect someone
attempting to exit, and keep the doors open as riders make they their
way out.

With all the desperate pushing of the rear doors, the yelling of “back door!” and the occasional rider running to the front to exit, the
system doesn’t seem to live up to the needs of Muni riders.

Some operators I interviewed said the doors are taking a beating from frustrated riders. But when the operators walk back and explain, riders are amazed at the simplicity. However, the directions to open the rear doors (“Touch here to open”) are just not doing the trick.

I conducted a research project (PDF) for Livable City in which I attempted to quantify the average
amount of time it takes to open the rear doors, and if it adversely
negates the benefits of the low-floor design.  The new low-floor
buses allowed riders to disembark faster.  However, riders on the
new buses took an average of nearly 1.5 seconds to open the rear doors
versus the brisk 0.20 seconds with the traditional touch bars on the
older high floor counterparts.  Combined together, riders required
more time to open the rear doors and exit on the new buses than the
old buses.  If Muni fixed the rear doors, the new buses would be
more efficient, less confusing, and money well spent.   

I recommend a few simple actions the
MTA should take to correct the rear doors: 

  • Have informational ads in
    multiple languages to inform the public on how to open the rear doors.
  • Ensure bus operators have
    the ability to open the rear door remotely.
  • Retrofit existing low-floor
    buses with traditional touch bars, replacing the contactless sensor
    systems.
  • Have touch bars open the
    door with the contactless sensors to keep the door open.

Tom Radulovich, the Livable City executive director, said every transit agency should be doing this type of research.

"Agencies too often make changes to their service or equipment without
bothering to understand how the users like it. The rear door study also
addresses the question of how to get Muni moving faster, a pressing
concern raised by Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project. The study’s
findings that the low-floor vehicles reduce dwell time, but that the
yellow strip to open doors is counter-intuitive and wastes time, will help Muni design future vehicles that are both friendlier to customers and reduce dwell times at transit stops."

  • Erik J.

    We have the same problem in Sacramento with new Regional Transit buses. It’s infuriating that a sleek new bus has such a clunky function.

  • david vartanoff

    good on you and Tom! The rear door designs seem to be changed every so often on a whim. Worse yet, in AC Transit’s recent purchases, the “plug” door mechanism wastes space in the bus body at no gain in customer utility. In AC’s case, the slow opening doors can be remotely operated by drivers, BUT agency rules outlaw this rider friendly feature. In a recent thread on A Better Oakland I pointed out that I can exit the front door and be walking away before the rear door opens.

    As a further point, apparently Cal students did a “dwell” survey showing that paying cash fares and ‘dip swipe’ fare cards are the slowest while RFID tagging is almost as fast as ‘flash’ passes and transfers. Muni’s on again, off again rear door policies evolved because single entry door pay fare to driver is simply too slow for any well used transit system. Years ago, Muni deployed ‘loaders’ to collect fares, issue transfers at high use stops such as Glen Park during evening rush. Smart policy, lost in a decade plus of financial constraints.

  • Rick

    I know how the doors work and have even tried on occasion to explain it to my fellow 48 and 35 riders, but sometimes touching the “touch here” strips just doesn’t do anything, and you have to try again. Many people who do read the “touch here” still don’t know to wait the second or two it takes for the doors to recognize them and open. I’ve even had people reach over my shoulder and push on the doors from behind me because they thought I was doing it wrong.

    The worst case is when someone forces themselves through the closed doors. They inevitably throw an angry glance toward the driver as soon as they’re outside. As if a driver’s job wasn’t hard enough.

    That said, I don’t think it’s a matter of clearer instruction. The mechanism just sucks. I’m not sure recommendation #1 will be much help. Just replace the things with touch bars that everyone already knows how to use.

  • I’m with Rick, the touch mechanism is fundamentally flawed. The touch sensitive area is not shape or designed in a way that makes it look like you should press on it. It should probably be a hand sized pad about the same height as a door nob if you wanted to get people to notice it, but it’s not, it’s a narrow vertical strip that looks like it was added in at the last minuted where there was some leftover space. I’m guessing that’s the case, because for all the million upon millions spent on transit, there’s almost no attention paid to how riders will interact with the system. Most of the time that job is left up to the amateurs who make signs like “this is not BART” or in this case it’s a yellow and red warning sign that looks like it was designed to tell people not to touch the door.

    If you want to communicate to a rider that they should touch the strip, they should not use the same symbol we’ve been raised to learn means don’t walk, stop, stay away, do not touch.

    The touch sensitive strip is not the only mechanism people have trouble with. Stepping down to open the doors also causes confusion as does the touch bar on the Muni Metro Breda trains which is not on the door itself. On Muni Metro, the bar is actually the railing on the side of the steps and the sign explaining this is on the side as well, not the door pointing over to the railing on the side.

    I suspect the reason why the bar on the door works best is because that’s how a door works: there’s a nob, handle, lever or bar at one end that swings it on the hinges at the other. As soon as you change that, you’ve broken how a door works. When doors don’t have some obvious way to open them, they’re usually automatic doors like you find at a mall, an office building, or BART and that’s not the case either.

  • David – MUNI deploys loaders to Caltrain… and boy are they needed.

  • Door technology seems to have been on a downward spiral for decades. The doors on the PCC work well and quickly. The doors on NYC Subway’s ancient Kawasaki cars also work well. But Muni’s newish Breda cars have slow, unreliable doors, and the new hybrid buses have doors that don’t even open.

    Can’t engineers learn from the past?

  • I think it’s kind of like the Jeopardy buzzers, if you touch them before the driver opens the doors, you’re locked out.

    There is a great need to evaluate the user experience of transit. For heavily used systems like Muni, precious seconds count as they’re compounded over thousands of riders, stops, and runs per day.

    One related issue is the ease for new riders to understand the fare system, transfer policy, and regulations. Each Muni vehicle is furnished with paragraphs of text on stickers and advertisements explaining these things in 3 languages. Most of it can be communicated visually (as is commonly done elsewhere in the world). I know the F-line on a summer Saturday or Sunday suffers greatly when international visitors have difficulty figuring out what they’re supposed to do.

  • Wow. So this is news to me. I thought you just pushed on the doors to get them to open. (Anywhere on the door, not necessarily the yellow strip.) And yet when I look at the picture, it clearly says “touch here to open.” Why did this never register with me? I think it’s because 1) I generally have figured out what to do on Muni by watching other passengers. If other passengers push on the door and it works, that’s what I’ll tend to do. 2) When I go to exit, I usually have only a brief few seconds to crowd my way towards the door, step down and step out. Where am I looking? Largely at the stairs so I don’t trip and kill myself. My attention is down, not horizontal, which is why I think I’ve not noticed the yellow strips. However, if there was a simple, readable sign where they used to put interior bus ads (where did those ads go, anyway?) I think I would read it just out of boredom sometime during the ride. I would also be likely to read info if it were posted at the bus stops themselves. Something like “Helpful info for Muni passengers,” or some such thing. I agree that simple, visual instructions are best.

  • Sasha

    I live on the 35 and have been frustrated by these doors for a year. Recently I did some detective work via Google and learned about the door opening mechanism on these buses. The yellow sticker is somewhat misleading, because the door does not respond to touch or pressure. Each door has a pair of sensors right near where they meet, one up high and one near the floor. When the bus is loading/unloading and something (like a hand) comes between these sensors, they signal the doors to open. The process takes up to 1.5 seconds. I think the lag is really killing the design: for months I’d touch the door, nothing would happen immediately, and I’d move my hand, cancelling the initial process of opening the door and restarting the clock.
    I think this is ripe for a viral campaign by MUNI. Bus riders help each other out, and if MUNI sent some folks out on these lines to train folks about how to open the doors – and maybe even explain how they work – riders would tell other riders, and the info would spread. Since the system is complicated enough and hard enough to understand that I had to spend an hour researching online to unearth an explanation, so MUNI’s going to have to invest some resources in getting the word out.
    And for what it’s worth, I read a blog where a rider in another city noted that the easiest way he’d found to open the door was to hold a book parallel to the floor and place the spine against the yellow strip. It reliably interrupts the beam and triggers the door to open. Just keep it there for 1.5 seconds!

  • theo

    Every Muni door design except for the push bars is fundamentally flawed.

    We expect doors to push open. Anything else requires experience, and in a major tourist city there will always be large numbers of clueless tourists.

  • theo

    There’s another problem with the sign itself — the sign is hard to read, vertically printed, low contrast, in an ugly and unreadable font. These specific issues could be fixed pretty cheaply.

    The bigger problem is, the profusion of bad signage on Muni teaches most passengers to ignore all signs. The most egregious examples:

    “Information gladly given, but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation” — so wordy and passive it made it onto t-shirts

    “STOP: All passengers must pay at first car etc. etc.” right next to, and equally important with the directive “STOP: Assault on a Muni driver is punishable by 5 years in prison”

    Lousy Spanish translations. I’m not at all fluent and they even offend me. http://www.latin-know.com/2006/02/27/local-language-flubs-muni-massacres-spanish/

    Can we have a TEP for Muni signage? The recent changes to the Market St. subway stations show they can do it well when they try.

  • Jeffrey, the doors on the Muni Metro Breda trains are called “plug doors” because they first have to move outward from the the train before they can slide open. That alone makes them slower, more complex, but they also are mounted on a screw mechanism at the top, which means they’re hanging and unless the train is level the weight of the door is torquing that screw at the top. Someone once told me the doors would not be a problem if we were a flat city.

    Seth, before even dealing with the overly complex fare regulations I think they need to take a step back and look at the terminology used for the fares themselves. Passes, passports, fares, transfers, fare receipts (the last two sound optional if I don’t need a receipt and I’m not going to transfer to another line) and then there’s the whole proof of payment which just seems overly wordy, indirect especially when it gets shortened to POP with the meaningless triangle (and I say meaningless because there’s no widely adopted standard POP icon, caltrain uses a variation on their logo)

    I’d like to see it all simplified down to “ticket” (the one-way, or rather 90 minute pass) and “pass” (used for any one-day, multi-day or monthly pass) then ditch all the POP crap and make signs that simply read something along the lines “You must have a valid ticket or pass to ride Muni”.

  • redseca2

    Another common problem is that bus lines that I ride every day include a complete collection demonstrating a comprehensive history of door opening technology.

    Each day MUNI sends me a random mix of touch bar buses, STEP DOWN! buses, the new CLASS sensor buses and doors that only open at the whim of the driver. I shiver in anticipation!

    What we need is a spreadsheet crosslisting bus numbers with exit door technology downloadable to Iphones!

  • Jamison: Now that I have a TransLink card I’m even more confused. Do I need to tag out on Muni (answer: no, but how can you tell) and do I need to take a transfer (answer: no idea)?

  • redseca2

    I am not very sqeemish, but riding MUNI to work everyday, one of my goals is always to touch as FEW things as possible.

    So any system that make me touch the same spot everyone else touches is FAIL.

  • C.

    Several years ago, I spent lots of time in France, including public facilities (airports, train and bus stations, bathrooms, public buildings, etc.) that have automated door-opening systems or other automatically activated systems (e.g. water faucets).
    I was amazed at the timing and smoothness of the operation of these systems. I began to take informal note of them, and found them much smoother and better timed than American or English systems.
    I don’t know whether the French have put more time and effort into human factors, ergonomic or user experience research on automated systems, or whether there just happens to be more attention to the “feel” of such systems due to cultural influences.
    But it might be worth checking out whether there are now automated door-opening systems or studies that might be applied to Muni…
    Thanks for all your good work!!!

  • LibertyHiller

    No, redseca, a spreadsheet for iPhone is NOT necessary for the lines that aren’t using the hybrids; all you have to do is pay attention. If it’s a diesel bus, you step down and if it’s a trolley coach, you push the bar.

    Muni should standardize on push bars for all bus doors and be done with it. It’s simple, obvious, and provides user feedback.

    Of course, there’s not much you can do about the drivers…

  • Jay

    – Trolleys/Nabi Diesels/Most Vintage Streetcars: Step down
    – Neoplan Diesels: Push the bar
    – Orion Hybrids: Place your arm in front and across the door. You don’t have to touch anything, but place your arm close enough so the sensor can see you. If you start pushing the door and constantly moving your hand/arm back and forth, the sensor will not detect you properly.
    – Breda LRV: Check whether there is a green or red light on a column immediately to your left or right. Also, look above the doors to see whether they are out of service/order (because the drivers may forget to place a sticker on the doors’ window).

    FYI, the difference between the Nabi (left) and Neoplan (right) diesels can be seen here: http://image44.webshots.com/45/2/7/5/388620705sXrRhn_ph.jpg

  • Jay

    I apologize about the link, just copy and paste it.

  • Diane

    I always thought that the low-floor buses were designed for better accessibility by the handicapped. After back surgery, I still ended up exiting through the front door because the driver rarely pulls the rear end close enough to the curb to make it easy to exit without stepping down. I wonder if someone in a wheelchair would have difficulty triggering the rear door without having to lean uncomfortably far forward, or if the chair, pulled close enough, would activate the signal.

  • Jane H.

    I don’t know, I’ve never had any problem opening those doors. I give them a light touch, and they open easily most of the time for me. I think people just need to read the instructions/pay more attention.

  • another endless spiral of bs thanks to poor interface design. I was one of the “punch the door” people until someone showed me that all I had to do was put my hand on the door and voila! it opened fine.

    you don’t even need to touch the doors, just put your hand where it’s supposed to go. Of course the stupid stickers don’t make that clear and no one tells you that, so user interface FAIL.

    but another lesson – saying “low floor low floor” is not a panacea for transit ills. and if you can show me a low floor train car that can handle SF’s bumpy roads (sorry the N Judah does not ride on a flat surface most of the time) well then let’s get those and sell these Bredas to China or something.

  • Alex

    I was caught by this too. I can’t believe the UI design of these doors. When did it become acceptable to typeset the English language vertically? What’s with the bizarre allcaps font? It’s the same yellow as the bars, so easily tuned out as background foo. And how hard would it be to make the doors open when the bus is stopped and someone’s shoving on them?

  • theo

    I don’t know whether the French have put more time and effort into human factors, ergonomic or user experience research on automated systems, or whether there just happens to be more attention to the “feel” of such systems due to cultural influences.

    As a gross overgeneralization, a primary characteristic of French engineering is their propensity for refining and polishing. Less innovative than American engineering, less complex than Japanese engineering.

    It’s like the Millau viaduct vs. the Bay Bridge.

  • Eric

    VTA buses had this same problem years ago. Funny how the problem moved north with no resolution.

  • Mark Ballew

    I don’t think Muni should worry about the touch bars, patrons simply need to be more patient when waiting for the doors to open. We don’t need to slice out another $1M out of the $129M deficit to fix something as simple as exit bars. Make some new stickers to re-explain how to use the door and that’s that.

    Yes, Muni has a collection of door opening technology, but not all the buses were bought at the same time and from the same vendor since bus companies tend to turn over. It’s silly to waste money when there is a fleet of almost 1000 buses and trains that all need regular maintenance.

  • david vartanoff

    @Mark. Actually Muni COULD have spec’d the doors pretty much any way they wanted. The prime vendor responds to specs from Muni, they can for instance insist on double stream doors which many others do not. No, probably in this stolen funding crisis we can’t afford to correct this particular mistake, BUT system standards make riding better.
    Other than bus geeks, who wants to have to know the various models?

  • Sasha

    I dream of the day when we’re a POP-only system (yes to standardizing on the terms “ticket” and “pass”!) and all of the back doors open automatically at every stop, because the drivers are no longer required to prevent people from boarding through them!

  • DanB

    They’ve already revised the door stickers at least once; version 1.0 were English only, in black type. No one read them. The new ones are longer, multi-lingual and in blocky red type. No one reads them, either.

  • DanB

    Oh, and I think part of the interface problem is painting the bars on the sides of the exit doors the same color as the sticker (or vice-versa, if you prefer). I see people pulling and pushing on those bars all the time when trying to get the back door to open. People half-read the sticker or just do a quick color association and think yellow hardware = exit. Bad.

  • Valerie

    We had it right the first time – “Step Down to Open Door”. Do you really want everyone getting off the bus to touch the same place? Just public-health wise, it’s better to use the bottom of your shoe than your hand to open the door. Further, stepping down to open the door is much more convenient if your hands are full, or you’re on crutches, or any of the other infinite reasons you might not have a hand available. It wasn’t broken, and now it’s been “fixed”.

  • Gary Franceschini

    @taomom: “Why did this never register with me?”

    I would argue that (apart from not wanting to kill yourself on the steps) it’s because a door is a door is a door. The day we need instructions for opening a damn door is the day we need to revisit the design.

  • Daniel

    I take the bus home from school, and sometimes people will MISS THEIR STOPS, while trying to open the back doors, then people have to yell “back door” and the buss full of their friends will end up laughing at them. These doors are horrible, 1.5 seconds is a really low estimate too, it’s more like 3 or 4.

  • Andy

    Are the rear doors on a city bus should remain
    Open till a person gets off a few days ago i
    Was exiting a bus through the rear double
    Doors all of a sudden the doors closed
    On me squeezing me now should the door
    Had shut or remained opened until i got
    Off the bus or could it have been that the
    Driver closed it on me and was not paying
    Attention please someone email me at
    Uncleandyg@gmail.com thank you

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