It’s been fashionable recently to call for various snowstorm service improvements that are somewhat expensive. To simply say “there ought to be more service” begs the question of “how?” Should the city or county buy more plows? Use salt? Buy more tow trucks? Would you prefer these kinds of things to, say, a significant number of new bus shelters for use year-round?
Since heavy snow isn’t a common occurrence here in Seattle, we don’t think it’s unreasonable that the city essentially accepts crappy service on the rare occasion when this kind of thing happens. The debate about changes to policy and if we should spend lots of money on plows, etc. will continue, but we’d like to focus now on small improvements that could be made quickly and inexpensively.
Most of these small improvements are, in my opinion, related to operational management and communications. One of the few things worse than your bus being canceled is not knowing about it, and waiting around for hours at the stop in the cold.
After the fold is an initial by-agency brainstorm, including some things that went well.
Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT):
- A clear, interactive Google map showing:
- Streets that will be regularly plowed, color-coded with information about frequency to expect. A 10MB PDF is not good enough, sorry.
- Streets that are closed.
- An email address people can use to suggest a street for closure. People should be able to include photos and videos to make their case, and should have some sort of guarantee that someone is actually reading everything that comes in.
- The streetcar website maintained very out of date information about its current status. I know we already have a very complex streetcar system and it may be difficult to keep the status of all the routes updated, but a little bit more effort would have gone a long way.
- The frequent collapse of the MyBus/busview/OneBusAway arrival time infrastructure reminds us that it’s well past time for Metro to stop outsourcing this service to brilliant but ultimately part-time University students. I don’t know where the funds for this would come from, but I’d like to see the busview and OneBusAway interfaces maintained, as they have different strengths and weaknesses. Ideally Metro would enter the 1990s and get true GPS tracking for its buses.
- The Metro adverse weather page remained operational, but was frequently inaccurate and didn’t have any sort of timestamped list of changes as routes went down or came back up. The huge list of route numbers and their status may have been exactly what an experienced bus rider needed to see, but was unlikely helpful to people trying the bus for the first time, desperately trying to navigate the city any way possible. In addition to actually keeping the page up to date, an interactive map and an rss feed would have been extremely helpful here.
- Unpublished reroutes are not acceptable. Unless each bus’ route was up to each driver’s discretion, there’s simply no excuse for this.
- Commenter Andrew Cencini suggested, and we endorse:
(2) Articulated buses don’t do well in ice and snow. Same as (1). The “learning” process would be to communicate to customers ahead of time that under a snow plan, artics will be pulled and service reduced but at least 40-footers will show up somewhat regularly, and people, drivers and equipment won’t be left stranded for the maintenance people to have to go retrieve.
(3) Snowstorms are “rare” but they do happen. Have an emergency plan decision tree with more than just a trunk… also, be prepared for the urban/rural flooding that will happen afterwards as it always does. Mostly the same roads and locations flood and are impassable. Announce the reroutes now…
- There’s been some agitation elsewhere for tons of snow information posted at each stop, but as Metro does a pretty poor job of making sure a schedule is posted at each stop, it’s prudent to ask them to walk before they run.
- I’ve mentioned above how bad the information was from other agencies, but to their credit, at least they were providing something. The Sound Transit website was down for quite a while before eventually being replaced with a temporary static page. This downtime was unacceptable, especially given ST’s history of website problems. Part of the issue, of course, is that the three county agencies actually operate ST bus service. All but Pierce were doing a good job of updating the ST bus route information, so it would have been sufficient to link each ST bus route with the agency page that had the correct information.
- A quick personal story here. I was actually scheduled to leave on a southbound train Saturday Dec 22. All trains this day were canceled, and I was rescheduled for an early morning train the next day. On Sunday, I found my way to King Street Station, but the 9:45am train ended up leaving around 2:30pm due to a very very late arrival in Seattle the night before. Given how late the train was, I can’t understand why they didn’t know until an hour before scheduled departure that the train would be very, very late. The day before when my train was canceled, I got an automated phone call… but I didn’t get one the next day about the train being late, and I didn’t get an email or text message either days. There’s a lot of room for improvement here.
During a snow storm, we like to tell people that the best choice is to not risk the roads and leave their car at home. But when there’s absolutely no alternative, this becomes a tough sell. Not everyone is fortunate enough to live in a walkable community or work walking distance from home. Hospital and other workers don’t have the luxury of working from home, or the option to skip a day when someone’s life may depend on them being at work.
It’s certainly not the city’s responsibility to plow every road, and everyone needs to come to terms with the fact that during a snow storm, you may not be able to move about – period. But failing to keep any level of basic transit service working throughout nearly the entire city, and failing to keep anyone informed about what was going on, is a mistake that we hope will not be repeated.
It is important to note that many of the problems encountered these past few days are not limited to weather-related disasters. A lot of people have become rightfully concerned about the city and county’s preparedness for other types of more serious disasters, such as earthquakes, volcanos, and terrorism. Hopefully this can serve as a wake-up call and get everyone talking about how we can improve.
Martin H. Duke also contributed to this post.