511 Transit Called “Heroic Act of Interagency Cooperation”

511_AC_Transit.jpgImage: transit.511.org

The Government Computer News magazine, part of the U.S. General Services Administration, called the 511 Transit website maintained by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) "a heroic act of interagency coordination" when naming it to it’s list of the "10 great government websites nationwide for 2009."

I’m not trying to downplay the utility and convenience of 511 Transit, but I think that’s the first time I’ve heard "interagency cooperation" and "heroic" in the same sentence, at least for transit. Of course, it’s also the first time I’ve heard of Government Computer News magazine.

But the site is a great utility for those of us who have regular commutes and you can find a whole lot of information for transit operators you might not be familiar with when making those non-routine trips around the Bay Area.

Tom Spiekerman, 511 Transit project manager for the MTC, said the site’s recent redesign makes it “faster, smarter… and easier to use. Even the quality of the information is improved, thanks to new data collection and aggregation processes — and a lot of valuable customer feedback from website visitors. As a result the online trip planner is now among the best of its kind anywhere.”

According to the MTC, the 511 Transit page registered nearly 1.7 million individual user sessions in July 2009, a 47 percent increase over the monthly average in 2008. And the online trip planner at the 511 Transit page generated more than 1.5 million itineraries last month, compared to a monthly average of about 1.1 million in 2008.

What do you think, dear readers? How useful is 511 Transit for you and do you use the site often or prefer other outlets?

  • SFHope

    A truly heroic act would be giving Google the data and letting them do the job.

    Seriously, Google Transit is vastly more usable from a user-interface perspective, even though 511.org has better data.

  • ZA

    Very good data. Google is a more common interface. But still unnecessarily eons away from integrated ticketing like this: http://www.sbb.ch/

    Point-to-point, and every rail ticket office brings personalized Travel Agent services to bear (“you want to go to X on Y dates, here’s a cheaper way”).

    Data and user-interfaces should supplement, not substitute, good systems hardware and service.

  • bikerider

    I thought it very odd that anyone would give 511.org an award. So I visited the “Government News” website but my web browser (an older Firefox release running Linux) couldn’t even render the page properly.

    Kinda says it all, don’t you think?

    BTW, I had the privilege of getting paid $50 to participate in a focus group that was soliciting feedback on the “new” (i.e. even more sucky) 511.org. Nobody in the group liked or used the site at all. To do any transit query, they all used Google instead.

  • An older Firefox release on Linux? My, .01% of the population must have been very inconvenienced. I hope WebTV successfully rendered the page correctly.

  • I used to check both 511.org and Google Transit, and get different results. Usually Google Transit’s results worked better for me, so I’ve stopped using 511.org. I guess I should take another look at 511.org but I don’t own a car and have been very on time with the info that Google Transit offers.

    One thing that bugs me about both is the lack of transit agency parameters – for example, I have an AC Transit TransBay pass, and when I try to look up travel to SF, both search engines want me to take BART which might be a tad faster but costs me extra. It would be helpful to be able to limit which transit agencies to choose.

    Finally, 511.org doesn’t have a “walk” function like Google Transit, and the Bike Mapper has been down for scheduled maintenance ever since I heard of it (which is only a few days, but still). Both walking and biking are key aspects of getting around and MTC should incorporate them into the trip planner somehow.

  • bikerider

    @Spokker: Running very latest/greatest web browser should never be requirement for viewing web page, certainly not government web pages. One of the big criticisms of 511.org is the excessive and unnecessary javascript garbage, nonstandard html, and lack of accessibility. According to WAVE (web accessibility tool), transit.511.org has 192 accessibility errors just on the home page.

  • mcas

    For the larger 511.org question: the bike map is horrendous. Supposedly, it is being updated. What’s the deal with that? I’d love an interactive regional bike map…

    —-

    @Sspokker: I use most recent version of Fx and got some weird flash pop-up that was nothing more than a ‘X’ button to close the box when I went to the magazine’s page… and yes- bikerider is right- democracy requires inclusiveness, and 511 code is garbage.

  • 511 does give the data away for others to use.

    http://transit.511.org/datafeed/feed_desc.html

  • 511 is phenomenal and this is a well deserved award. It provides an route searching that utilizes service across different agency and talk walking time into consideration and provide very useful result. You say google transit does this too. But 511 is already there several years before there is even a google map. I have seen other commerical companies does a far worst job than 511. Hopstop, especially when it first launched the San Francisco version with minimal data, is a joke. The fact that 511 is being compared againsts google, one of the best web application company in the world, is already a compliement. It is so slick, so useful, so unlike a government website.

    If all other interagency organization does a fine job as 511 I think we have a bright future.

  • GCN is a privately-owned publication, NOT a part of the GSA.

    511.org replaced an older Bay Area-wide trip-planning Web site, the exact URL of which escapes me at the moment. But as the archives of ba.transportation will attest, it was a far more useful trip planner than 511.org even in its most advanced state.

  • bikerider

    “Wai Yip” is correct. It is grossly unfair to compare 511 against Google. MTC has spent tens of millions on transit.511.org — it is highly doubtful Google transit group spent even a tenth that amount.

    But, hey, if you really want apples-apples comparison, then there are, of course, plenty of other transit agencies which developed trip planners — and also had to coordinate numerous agencies. For example: the Deutcshe Bahn trip planner, which combines schedules for virtually every single passenger rail line in Continental Europe. And will tell you which service takes bikes on board. By comparison, 511 is child’s play.

  • Tom Spiekerman

    Hi all,

    I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions here from the comments, and hope that at least some of you are getting value from our service. We are not here to compare ourselves with others, but what motivates us is getting people who may be intimidated about trying the complex interagency system around here to try transit, and to provide an ongoing service to those who already do ride.

    First, regarding the comment about the focus/usability groups, I observed every one of them in June this year. We had a mix of groups that included regular users, and several where we intentionally recruited non-users or light users of the site and solo drivers, to see what we can offer to entice them to consider transit and using our site. Therefore, some of participants naturally haven’t yet used 511 Transit much or at all – but have regularly used other online sites for planning auto trips from point A to B, which we don’t offer. The regular users are generally quite pleased with the new Transit site, but we’re always on the lookout for interface issues, bugs, and usability quirks.

    Also, the new site was not developed to be accessible initially, due to time constraints. We have a second, accessible transit site still live, which screen readers detect as they come on to the site. We are working to eventually eliminate that and make the new site a single, accessible site.

    The Transit project had a budget of under one million per year until 2006, when we started the upgrade. The new trip planner was part of this, and credit is due to Mentz who provides that product, also used heavily in London. Much of our cost is in collecting and maintaining data, which is time consuming from smaller and medium size agencies that don’t have automated scheduling systems with good data output.

    In talking with colleagues from New York, Chicago, Seattle, and around the world, the issues with trip planners are similar everywhere. They don’t always provide exactly what the user expects, because they’re based on scheduled times, not just nearest stops or routes. They can be maddening sometimes, and we also get upset when glitches affect the customers, and try our best to fix them. We read all comments sent to us, and act on them as we’re able to.

    We also added the Nearby Routes and Services tool to help people find routes and stops near your location that the trip planner doesn’t.

    The “heroic” term was not mine. The fact is though, the agencies are very much to be commended under tight budgets for providing data to us, which they often don’t have the tools to maintain easily electronically. That’s where kudos is due for cooperation.

    Finally, thanks to the Streetsblog group. This is an outstanding model of what a blog should be, and has been must reading for me for awhile now.

  • bikerider

    The 2006 “upgrade” mentioned by Tom presumably is presumably the $11+ million contract signed by MTC with military contractor for development of “state-of-the-art” trip planner. In addition to the $1 million/year paid prior to 2006.

    As a professional programmer, project manager, and 16-year Silicon Valley engineer who has fairly good idea how much these things cost to develop, I can’t think of any scenario that justifies such a huge amount, even taking into account the challenges mentioned by Tom.

    Someone needs to tell the MTC that they are accountants and lobbyists, not engineers. They should not be implementing electronic fare cards, web pages, or designing toll bridges.

  • Scott: The name of the simple and straightforward web site was transitinfo.org.

  • Tom Spiekerman

    This will be my last post here, to address some of these additional characterizations that seem to surface from time to time. These are valid questions about how we operate, but I can describe a bit more related to these comments.

    1. Project contractor as military contractor. Actually, our specific contractor team is the same one that has been there since 1997, and they do not work on defense projects themselves. It’s a small team that started out as GIS Trans, who specialized in GIS in transportation applications. They were bought out by bd Systems, who did have a military and aerospace contracting branch, but the GIS Trans group who works on 511 doesn’t work on these defense projects. Then bd Systems sold themselves to SAIC in 2006, which also has a defense contracting branch, but again, the GIS Trans group, with several staff still from the pre-511 days, does not work on that part of the company. These folks are very hard working and care about creating a useful product. They willingly go the extra mile to work at all hours to ensure adjustments and provide info for events like the MacArthur Maze meltdown, the Bay Bridge closures, and the BART strike, and getting late arriving schedule changes in the system on time.

    2. The new contract covers costs for 4 years, and included several one time or non-annual costs such as incorporation of the new trip planner with an expected amortization and useful life of about 10 years, and all new hardware to replace aging and outmoded equipment. A backup system that we didn’t previously have was also added in a separate server location, in case of natural disaster disruptions.

    Also, as mentioned, much of the cost is in data collection, maintenance, and QC, not interface and feature development. And since the early 2000s, we’ve gone from having 4-5 agencies in the trip planner to over 35. The data continually changes with quarterly schedule and route updates on many systems, each time requiring loading, QC, interaction with agency contacts, etc.

    3. The old system on transitinfo displayed html tables for schedules, which required much more extensive manual handling to prepare and load with each schedule change for all agencies. And it had fewer agencies included. On the new site, you can customize the database-stored schedules printouts with the “Customized Schedule” feature. This allows customers to create much smaller size schedule outputs that limit the number of stop timepoints shown to the ones you want, and to only the time range you specify, instead of having to print a full, crude html schedule table every time.

    We now only have to receive one set of schedule data from each agency instead of two to feed all parts of the website, as the trip planner requires a database driven structure. Maintaining two sets of schedule data became a time consuming and costly duplicative burden under the old system. This is magnified when you consider that many agencies don’t have data outputs that we can just take and load directly, but which require intensive handling on our part. The old trip planner on transitinfo was written in Fortran 15-20 years ago, abandoned by its creators with no support or good documentation, and handled many fewer agencies than we carry now. It was getting creaky and was not upgradeable, and received lots of customer complaints. It had a rising risk of failure as we increased the burden on it with more agency data and a lot more user sessions than it had ever been tested to handle.

    This is more detail than most will care about, but explains a bit of the behind the scenes activity. We are primarily interested in trying to make Bay Area transit information of all types available in one central location, and helping with the first part of taking transit – info on options for doing so. For those of you who use the 511 Transit website, we’re glad to address specific issues that may come up for you, if you choose to send them to us through our feedback comment system.

  • Tom Spiekerman

    One last thing on this in case anybody is still reading this thread. I realized on re-reading my last comment that I am so close to this work day to day that some assumptions I make in my comments are not obvious to people who don’t do this daily.

    We do not get ready to go data, including GIS data like stop locations or routes, from most agencies other than the largest ones who have recently added a capability to provide lat/lon stop locations along with schedule data. So 511 has had to do much of the work to take street address or intersection data for tens of thousands of stops, address match them, and then manually or through scripts adjust their locations. Some won’t address match at all, so it takes a lot of effort to clean them up to their actual locations, where possible. Also, routes can take multiple variations of a road tracing during pattern variations for a given route.

    We also create the lines shown on the Schedule and Route Maps – they’re not given to us ready to display. So a lot of work goes into QC to get these mostly correct – even then, they come out as generalizations, not exact turn by turn routes. This is not just for the trip planner, but also for many other sections of the website that display agency boundaries, stops, and route maps, to an extent we couldn’t do in the past.

    That is one example. There are many many other types of quirks in the data the way we get it that cause us numerous hours of data maintenance to ensure it will work reasonably well. The old transitinfo was relatively very simple – load fixed html tables, even if we had to create them first from more raw data, and even that could be time consuming. For people who know their routes and only want schedules, seeing those simple tables can be enough at times, and that’s what that group of people liked. But we also serve and try to attract new riders, who don’t go to look up schedules, but rely on the trip planner to give them itineraries.

    Once the trip planner came along, everything changed. You have to get every stop as accurate as possible, and assign it correctly to every route variation and pattern. Relatively little of this came to us directly from the agencies in ready to go fashion, and the medium size and smaller ones just don’t often have the staff or time to spend on getting this just right for the 511 system. So much of our cost is in doing that. And as we grew from only 4-5 bigger systems in the trip planner with relatively cleaner data output to the 35-40 we have now, that type of work intensified.

    So, for all who have critiqued the program over the years, it is a significant job behind the scenes that is unseen. Ultimately, if the website brings usable trips and information (and hopefully minimizes bugs), that is all customers care about. But there’s a lot more to it, and the new interface is a pretty complex piece of work too, with the interactive maps and various information drawn from the database.

    For any who may care, I hope this sheds a little more light on the process.

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