Snow Post-Mortem

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.

Streetcar:

  • The streetcar website maintained very out of date information about its current status.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.

Metro Bus:

  • 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.

Sound Transit:

  • 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.

Amtrak:

  • 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.




Comments

  1. says

    I’m curious what people think about BusView. To me, seeing my bus on a map is cool in a gee-wiz sort of way, but not very useful in terms of actual transit usage. I prefer the time prediction of when the bus will arrive.

    That said, it would be pretty easy to add to OneBusAway as a Google Maps mashup (so no more java applet) if there is a compelling reason to have it.

    • John Jensen says

      I think some people mistakenly believe that BusView accurately reflects the position of a given bus, so some thought it was useful during the storm. It’s probably because buses with no data on mybus.org don’t show up on BusView, but are still reflected as “scheduled” on mybus and OneBusAway.

    • NSBill says

      Communication is very crucial, but when you don’t have any bus service (like, say, to QA hill) for a week or so, no amount of communication will fix that or make you feel better. Just imagine what would happen if they stated, “Sorry, due to road conditions there will be no bus service to the top of the hill today or for the next week.”

      And in response to Brian above, I agree, that the BusView is kind of just a cool gee-whiz thing. The myBus.org txt messaging is cool too and a bit more useful since you can be out and about and still get the info you need. But my problem with these online tools (and the txt tools to a lesser extent) is that it requires you to be _online_. You leave out people without this access at their fingertips or at all.

      The best thing in the world would be to have actual signs at stops telling you when the next bus is coming. Like the SLUT does and as I would assume LR would do. Sure, doing this with rail is most likely an order of magnitude easier/cheaper. But does anyone know if it has been done anywhere with buses? You could then also perhaps “push” messages to certain stops during these times and say, “Not in service, closest stop is X”. You get the message right where it needs to be, at the bus stop. Two birds with one stone. This is not only gee-whiz, but actually useful!

      • says

        It could be done with buses… it’s just that there are so many stops. There are 9000+ in King County alone. Even if you put signs at just a small portion of those stops, it would be pretty expensive.

        You are also right that not everyone has internet access when they are standing at the stop. That’s why http://onebusaway.org/ has a phone number you can call to get real-time status for any and every stop. We’re working to integrate reroute information so that it can tell you “Not in service, closest stop is X” just like you suggested. Of course, if you don’t have a cell phone, then this won’t help either.

      • NSBill says

        Understand about the number of stops. But since we were spending mythical money on snow removable equipment I figured the purse strings were open. :)

        Hmmm…that onebusaway looks even better than the MyBus texting app if you get every stop and not just a few. But is this in anyway associated with Metro? I’m guessing it’s not. You also kind of have to be in the know in order for it to work. It’s not like this number is posted at the stops.

        If we want to get really low-tech (which is fine by me), it seems like the easiest/cheapest thing to do would be to have the top of the paper Metro schedule at each bus stop say something like, “Where is my bus? Call 206-555-5555, txt 55555, etc.” Since this is most likely not associated with Metro, therein lies the issue. With the addition of GPS to the buses as mentioned in the article Oran linked to, I imagine it could get much easier to do such things.

      • says

        i know they piloted these awhile ago, but why can’t they just put them at a few stops? you know, the busiest ones? metro’s communications / user friendliness / passenger amenities are actually amongst some of the worst i’ve seen among bus systems in the nation (and there aren’t many bus systems that are actually very good). it just all seems so half-assed, that’s all.

  2. says

    Second point, in terms of real-time status updates in electronic format, there has been some movement to define some standards/schemas/etc for publishing updates. See for example:

    http://groups.google.com/group/api-design-transit-service-alerts

    If Metro could publish updates in a format like that, down-stream hackers like OneBusAway could integrate changes automatically in real-time. That’s a big IF however.

    I admit I don’t know much about Metro’s internal dispatch / command-and-control. I’m especially interested in the information chain from drivers to the update of the adverse weather page. What about their CAD/AVL system? There have got to be software solutions to making the updates/interaction go smoother. There are a lot of dedicated / motivated hackers out there who want to help with this (hint hint).

  3. Matt the Engineer says

    Good start, but I’d add:

    SDOT:
    Have someone shovel and salt at least a few walking routes off every hill.

    Streetcar:
    Two words: heated switches.

    Monorail:
    (sigh) Don’t break down the day before I need you. You probably would have worked fine in the snow.

    Metro:
    Switch to snow routes at the first sign of snow. Use all out-of-service buses to help make snow routes more frequent. Use shuttles up hills (they got this right at the very end, but of course without telling anyone they were doing this).

  4. says

    I suspect the only reason mybus and BusView and the like exist is because the UW students want to do it, not because Metro particularly wants it. If UW were to pull out, Metro might feel no great need to press on with it at all (unless they got a lot of feedback from people expressing their appreciation for the services and wondering how they could be made even better). I’m not talking about expense, I’m talking about will and priorities. (“Oh, you want to do this thing? Sure, whatever, go ahead.”)

  5. Bus Driver says

    As a driver on a route many of you take (the 545) who drove during the recent storm I can answer some of your questions. The main failing of Metro was communication. At times the wait to talk to someone on the radio was 2 or 3 hours long and they were only taking emergency calls (I’m stuck, broken down, etc.) The system was so overwhelmed that it was up to the drivers to keep service going the first day. A lot of those unpublished reroutes were drivers finding their own way on the route. We were just trying to keep the buses moving and get people as close as we could to their destination.

    With regards to service what you saw towards the end of that week is going to be about as good as it gets. While there may have been 50% of the buses out there they were not doing as many trips as usual because of the conditions so in reality service levels were about 20% or so. Every bus that ran was out on the roads and people were still waiting several hours for a bus.

    There are some improvements that could be done especially in communicating with the public but overall metro did the best it could with what it had. In a place like Seattle it’s just not worth spending the tens of millions of dollars it would take to really improve things for such an infrequent occurrence.

  6. says

    Great post

    The lateness of Amtrak #14 (To Seattle) was in part due to all of the “Dead” trains between Eugene, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. I’ve heard COUNTLESS stories so far of crews whom had to use Amtrak to get to stranded trains. BNSF for a while was using their track geometry train to shuttle train crews to freight trains in order to get the freight moving and out of the way. It was pretty sad though that Amtrak #11 was so late and well, dead when it came to moving it.

    The fact that BNSF and Union Pacific had to pull crews out of La Grande, Oregon to help us out says a lot though of just how rare this storm is. That is the first time in 25 years they had to do according to the poor soles I talked with in Georgetown.

    As for the Streetcar – SDOT and Metro has no excuse here at all. Tacoma Link, which has the same amount of main-line switches (2) ran all day and night long with ZERO issues. The failure solely rests on the laziness of SDOT and Metro. Portland Streetcar which is much longer, also was problem-free. You could have paid me to stand outside and make sure the switches stayed clear and the service ran, but you lost a major, major case that rail is better in the type of weather that was experienced.

    All in all, if I was to give the response to this “disaster” I would say a D+ for sure.

    • says

      I keep posting this but I’ll post it again. Talking buses are coming to Metro later this year (see page 3) as part of their new communications system. There are documents on Metro’s website about the smart bus project that says GPS tracking will also be part of the new system and I think Metro GM Kevin Desmond said GPS will be on buses in 2010 or sometime after that.

      • says

        man, i bet metro mgmt is sure going to miss the no-gps scapegoat once the new systems roll out in 2010. i swear, any time anything goes wrong with metro they blame it on that. we’ve managed to vote on (several times), build and will have opened an entire light rail system in the time it has taken to get “smart bus” to come to fruition.

        metro’s execution on projects like this seems to match their service performance – slow, spotty and unpredictable.

    • Craig says

      Brian, thanks for fighting the good fight on this one.

      Oran, I know it has been brought up before (by me numerous times) and I know they say it is coming, but I am going to keep bringing it up until it is DONE! They said (just like ORCA) that it’d be done years ago, and they didn’t do it. Now I don’t know what is going on inside Metro, but I’m worried it won’t happen due to budget constraints. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather see current service levels maintained than a drop in service to facilitate the new comm system, but I still hope that this can get done, and get done soon.

      End of off-topic rant.

  7. George Lee says

    With regards to Tacoma Link light rail operation I’d like to add a word about the effort and dedication of the staff:

    Tacoma Link operators, system technician, and supervisors worked 24 hours a day for five plus days to keep the system going. Tacoma Link was prepared by monitoring the weather, pre-testing equipment, and buying necessary supplies. They ran trains all night to keep the overhead contact system warm and tracks open and staff worked shoveling snow, throwing switches, making repairs, mopping up water, spreading deicer, etc. Just so there would be “no impact” for the customer.

    “No impact” was dozens of hours of overtime (that resulted in four people getting sick) but Tacoma Link stayed within 10 minutes of schedule. They also had no accidents or injuries during the snow and no reportable accidents all year…

  8. Craig says

    I have to agree with others who say that it isn’t worth spending gobs of money on preparedness for something that happens once a decade or so. I do think Metro can work harder on communication, both with the drivers and witht he public. I can’t imagine it’d be that hard to set up a way for the co-ordinators in the comm center to simultaneously update the website while making internal notes about road conditions. Set up a program that allows co-ordinators’ information to get put on the site in real-time. I’m not a computer/web expert but I can’t imagine that it’d be that hard to set up. This way we aren’t relying on web people to make updates once every few hours. For drivers, I know there are only so many channels Metro has at its disposal to handle radio communication, but most drivers probably have cell phones. Bring in a few extra co-ordinators to man the phones so drivers unable to get through on the radio can call in. If you’re stuck you aren’t driving so the “no phone while driving” thing doesn’t really apply. There are no-cost or low-cost solutions to at least some of the biggest of our problems if we actually take the time to come up with creative solutions.

    • says

      i don’t know metro’s internal systems well but it seems like they need to re-think how rider info gets information.

      perhaps adding some automation to the rider information system about bus routes might also solve the human-intensive / busy signal side of the problem. key in your route number and the computer voice will give you the info from the web site.

      it seems bogus and disappointing to simply say “metro has no idea what’s going on when things get a little out of whack” – god help us in a real emergency.

  9. Andreas says

    I heartily agree with Matt’s suggestion of salting select pedestrian sidewalks & stairways. And, of course, the selected routes should be published (preferably in map form, not simply a list) and adhered to.

    Also, rather than giving reroutes as a list of streets, full of abbreviations—e.g. Northbound Reg Rt to WB NW 85th St/24th Av NW, L on SB 24 Av NW, R on WB NW 80th St, R on NB 32 Av NW, R on EB NW 85th St to regular route—why not click out a route on Google Maps, save it and link to it? It shouldn’t take more than a minute per reroute once the mapper got used to the system, and it would be so much more user-friendly. As given above, reroutes are difficult to read, and when combined with street names that riders may not know (because they’re not streets they regularly travel on) it can be difficult to figure out certain reroutes, even when Metro deigns to publish them.

  10. Chris Stefan says

    SDOT:
    Finer grained priorities for road clearing, with the limited plow equipment and a major event you aren’t going to get to all of your priority 1 arterials first. At the very least make sure the major hospitals can be accessed and that there is at least one passable for police, ambulance, fire, and transit across all of the large hills. I can just imagine the chaos if there had been a major fire on top of say Queen Anne.
    Make an honest comparison of how SDOT did vs. other agencies in the region. KCDOT seems to have done a better job of clearing arterials in unincorporated King County than SDOT did in Seattle. Similarly WADOT did a better job with the freeways than SDOT did with major streets like Aurora, West Seattle Freeway, and Lake City Way. Similarly the fact that Portland has nearly twice the plows for fewer lane-miles means perhaps Seattle should consider purchasing a few more. Include in your review any policy or strategy regarding applying sand, salt, or de-icer.
    Remind all residents and businesses that they are responsible for clearing the sidewalks in front of their property. Do at least as good a job on this as you did about clearing drains.
    Finally have contracts with private owners of graders, front end loaders, bulldozers, etc. that can be used for snow removal. Structure these as contingency contracts so you only have to call on them if the snowfall is more than the city can handle on its own.

    Metro:
    Better communication on all fronts, with the public, and with other agencies.
    Review, revise, and update adverse weather routing information. Publish updated adverse weather routes on-line and in paper schedules during the next schedule revision. The revisions should reflect issues like probable street closures and re-routes around known trouble spots.
    Have a published “stage 2″ and “stage 3″ plan if conditions are bad enough that the adverse weather routes aren’t enough. IOW what will be running if say all the articulated coaches have to be pulled from service, or what areas can expect to have chained shuttles.

    Streetcar:
    Learn some lessons from Portland and Tacoma Link. Buy some torches or other equipment for unsticking frozen switches. Update your damn web site and send out a media release if you have to shut down (and when you get running again).

    Sound Transit:
    Everything that applies to metro applies to you. Also learn to keep your web site up, especially under load.
    Good job keeping Tacoma Link running and Sounder mostly running.

    WADOT:
    Excellent job all around. Especially on the communications front.

    Finally I’d like to give everyone who was out there on the line trying to clear the streets, keep the lights on, or keep the buses/trains running an A+. You busted your asses and did the best you could with what you had.

  11. Jason says

    Hey, Metro: if you’re going to go to a holiday schedule and cancel my bus route, how’s about posting a rider alert at my stop? Could that really be so difficult?

  12. Skiff says

    SDOT could learn something from Pierce County DOT as well. I drove down there on Christmas Eve day. While the roads in Seattle were near impassible (it took me 25 minutes to get down the EB hill from 105th to Aurora), Pierce County roads, even in remote areas, were clear and wet.

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