Golden Gate Transit disses Novato commuters

Service meltdown.

Service meltdown.

Last month, Novato transit rider Danny Skarka reported on a bus driver’s claim that, due to a lack of drivers, commute Route 54 would often have cancelled buses under the new schedule. I never heard back from Golden Gate Transit (GGT) about the claim, but it seems Skarka’s driver was right.

For a number of days since the start of the new schedule, Route 54 has cancelled runs without prior notice, apparently on both the southbound and northbound trips. Another rider, Andrew Fox, reports:

[T]he last two 54s I’ve been on have been absolutely jam-packed. Last Wednesday there were numerous standees due to a canceled bus (I took Thursday and Friday off, so I don’t know about those days), and then of course you know about the situation this morning. We had 9 standees, all of whom got on at the busy Alameda del Prado bus pad/park-and-ride.

In my experience the 54 is a very busy bus. Commuters in Novato like me really rely upon it, especially given how miserable traffic has become in the last few years. I for one refuse to drive into the city anymore. Novato commuters have the choice of two different commute bus routes: the 56 or the 54, but the majority of them use the 54 due to the fact that it stops in more locations than the 56. This is a pretty lousy way to encourage transit use.

It’s irksome to see these buses canceled, especially when we hear news of new routes in Southern Marin (“the Wave Bus”) and see buses to Mill Valley (the 4) fly by every 5 minutes or so.

It also seems as though the problem is not isolated to the 54. Sonoma commuter Kathryn Hecht, who rides the 74, reported a cancelled evening run that meant an hour-long delay in San Francisco, as well as a cancelled morning run:

In any other industry, spotty quality is a sign of either a collapsing business model or inept management. The customer service experience is paramount to building a strong brand and strong customer base. For a scheduled service, like transit, this is even more important. People expect consistency, and they expect the schedule to be a promise, not a maybe.

We’ve discussed GGT’s failures in the past, but this is far worse than avoiding real-time arrival systems or not allowing rear-door exits. Simply put, GGT is making a stealth cut to Northern Marin and Sonoma service to expand Central and Southern Marin service. This is bad business and a further sign of GGT’s lack of managerial skill. If it continues, it will lose customers and turn what should be a premium transit product into a product of last resort.

GGT is burning its brand, and for no reason. It should immediately hire new drivers to staunch the bleeding and issue a very public apology to its Northern Marin and Sonoma commuters, perhaps with free rides for a month on the effected routes.

There are deeper structural problems to GGT’s service model, of which this is just a symptom. GGT needs to staunch this bleeding and change its operating model to ensure problems like this never happen again.

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Rider alleges staff issues at GGT will mean increasingly unreliable service

The other day on Twitter, Danny Skarka, a regular rider of GGT’s commuter route 54 (Novato), said his driver announced there was a looming driver shortage. The result, said the driver, will be unreliable service on the 54. Skarka followed up with a Google+ post, reproduced here in full:

This is what the driver announced this morning:

When the new schedule starts in June, our bus will not have a regular driver. Our bus, the 54, is considered “expendable” and when they are short drivers, our bus will be cancelled with no notice.

I felt sorry for the driver. The rider reaction was less than positive. The 54 has been plagued for some time. 

My assumption is not ALL 54s are expendable, but considering how full they get, canceling any one will cause a ripple effect of overcrowded buses. I have been on many 54s with standing room only. “Bus Surfing” at 60 mph and no seat belt. 

They are often short drivers. So this scenario will happen. I have already seem many cancelled 54s. 

Unfortunately GGT is not very tech. A Geo-aware mobile app (since we all have a smart phone on us ) where we can set what route we use would be wonderful. It could give us updates. We could refresh Clipper Cards much more easily without the delay seen now using the website. In other cities, the bus location shows up on maps so you can tell if you need to run to a stop to meet a bus. Tag data could tell us if a bus was full. Much can be approved. 

I don’t know the agencies challenges so it’s not fair to be overly critical. However, the same agency is raising bridge tolls, and charging for parking at ferries. So non-drivers are stuck with the monopoly.

I am considering starting a #MissingBus hash on Twitter for passengers to help each other. Something easily followed and contributed to. 

Comments please.

If true, this is a disturbing lack of regard for GGT’s customers and GGT’s mission. Reliable bus service is vital to a commuter. What will someone do if they usually take the last 54 and it never shows up?

I have an email out to Golden Gate Transit to find out how true Skarka’s assertions might be and to get some information on staffing and service hours in the June schedule and I will update if I get any more information.

Boost connectivity with integrated scheduling

The principal problem with Larkspur Ferry parking is really that it has poor connections to other modes, especially bus. Though there used to be a shuttle system in place, it didn’t do well and was cut years ago. While the Wave has taken a step toward reintroducing the shuttle, Golden Gate Transit has ignored regular bus service from the 29, as well as daytime and weekend trips to and from the ferry.

To help riders get a visual of their options, I’ve created an integrated bus/ferry schedule (PDF) for routes 17, 25, 29, and 228 – all of which serve Larkspur Ferry Terminal at some time or another. The Interurban light rail schedule (PDF) did the same thing with the Sausalito Ferry.

On the weekdays, what stands out to me is the very long connections for people coming from San Francisco. Though the 29 does pretty well for those heading to the ferry during the day – most require waits of only 10-15 minutes – it’s awful for connections from the ferry. Most connections are between 20-30 minutes, a couple leave only a minute to spare, and just a handful are in the sweet spot between 5 and 10 minutes. Optimizing the time points between the bus and ferry could boost ridership all on its own, without any need for new service.

Study the schedule yourself and you’ll see what I mean. And, if you’re a frequent ferry rider, print it out and keep it in your schedule book.

Bus commuter schedules no longer reflect demand

Though by all accounts Golden Gate Transit’s commuter bus system is quite popular, it is increasingly out of touch with the commute times of Marin’s modern workforce. Marinites leave for work later, but GGT continues to operate with early-morning service.

FiveThirtyEight recently took Census data and determined which metropolitan areas get to work the latest. The San Francisco metro area, of which Marin is a part, got fifth on the list, with a median arrival time of 8:17am but a 75th percentile arrival time of about 9:30am. The bottom of the range is about 7:45am.

Just after reading this, reader John Browne, a frequent rider of the last Route 18 from Kentfield, tweeted:

It turns out John Browne is right.

Using the same Census data FiveThirtyEight used (though without the math to convert it into the ranges author Nate Silver did), I plotted out the average departure times for Marin commuters taking all modes to work. Transit commuters leave work at roughly the same rate as others up until 9am:

Yellow is transit.

Yellow is transit.

The proportion of transit riders leaving home between 9 and 10 stays down after the drop from 8:30 to 8:59 while other modes pop back up.

A glance at the span of service for Marin’s commute buses makes it easy to see why that might be. On average, the last Marin stop for a Marin commuter line is about 8:27, while the average last departure is a bit earlier at 8am. In other words, if you want to get out of Marin by bus, you’re probably going to have to leave home before 8 or 8:30, and that’s exactly what shows up in the Census data.

GGT should reexamine the county’s travel demand and which final buses are the most crowded and aim to add service to those lines later in the morning. Adding to service span will scoop up riders that want to leave later, and can also give earlier riders the peace of mind that they can leave later if needed, helping shore up ridership earlier in the morning, too.

It’s not just tech workers that are leaving later in the day, it’s Marinites in general. Our transit system should start scheduling for that.

Even as bridge tolls increase, gap with fares widens

This week, tolls increased on the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in 6 years, to $6 with FasTrak. Though there was some grumbling and a bit of consternation from drivers who now need to deal with a more expensive commute, these cost hikes are no stranger to transit riders, who have faced annual fare increases for over a decade.

A quick look at the discount toll and average discount fare (adjusted for inflation) starts to get at the picture:

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare's increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare’s increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Though it’s obvious from above, the point is best expressed from the ratio of fares-to-toll:

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases despite annual toll hikes.

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases from 2014 through 2018 despite annual toll hikes. That’s because, as fares increase by 5 percent per year, tolls increase $0.25 per year, a percentage increase that gets less each year.

In 1992, the average round-trip bus fare was 1.62 times the discount toll. That ratio reached a high of 2.44 last July 1, when the latest fare increase was made. Now that the tolls have gone up, the ratio has dropped to 2.03, the lowest it’s been in 5 years, but that will be transitory. On July 1, when fares increase another 5 percent, the ratio will head back up again, to 2.14.

If fares continue to increase 5 percent every year, that ratio will continue to widen, even with annual $0.25 toll hikes, to 2.22 in 2018.

Strictly from an equity perspective, this is unjust. Bus riders tend to be lower-income, and so have a more difficult time taking fare hikes, while the opposite tends to be true of drivers. Not only that, but others who can’t drive – those who are blind, albino, elderly, and others – are disproportionately hit by fare hikes.

By pushing away those who have access to the driving alternative, too, the fare hikes render transit more and more into a second-class social welfare service rather than the first-class transportation service it could be.

From a technical perspective, those new drivers adds to congestion at the rush hours, forcing everyone, rider and driver alike, into a slog every morning and night. It’s a terribly inefficient transit system, destroying any advantage of having a freeway. San Francisco, Sonoma, and Marin all suffer.

Narrow goals lead to bad outcomes

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) has as its explicit goal that fares should cover at least 25 percent of bus operations and 40 percent of ferry operations. By raising fares regularly, GGBHTD is trying to hit that moving target. Bus ridership has dropped dramatically since 2000 and with it has fallen transportation income, while operating costs have jacked up the price of providing service.

To compensate, GGBHTD has hiked fares every year since 1998, boosting inflation-adjusted fares 82 percent.

The problem is that GGBHTD isn’t thinking like a business, where income is more than just a function of price, and it’s not thinking like a government agency, with broader societal concerns than mere income. The end result is a nonsensical and unjust policy of never-ending fare hikes far beyond inflation and ever-slower commutes.

Broaden the goals, reformulate the prices

The core technical mission of GGBHTD should be to help prevent congestion in the areas most immediately effected by its policies, namely Central and Southern Marin, and work with the transit and congestion management agencies in San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma to prevent or mitigate it in the rest of its commute shed. This would fit with the original founding purpose of Golden Gate Transit, which was to resolve congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge.

To ensure its historic, technical mission is fulfilled, GGBHTD needs to rework its pricing scheme with congestion in mind. This will mean tolls will rise, but not necessarily too much. If fares stay flat or even decrease, that daily congestion toll may not need to rise nearly so much to ensure congestion is alleviated. Physical changes, such as creating carpool lanes on 101 as far as Lombard in San Francisco, will also help mitigate congestion and, therefore, that toll hike.

The core social justice mission for GGBHTD should be to ensure transit is a tool of freedom for the poor and car-free, rather than make this one more way they can’t succeed. This would fit with the original purpose of having Greyhound take up the transit slack once our light rail system was put out of business by GGBHTD.

Yet progress is made in this equally historic social justice mission simply when GGBHTD meets its technical mission, which by necessity will decrease the fare/toll gap. If the district invests the new toll revenue in more frequent bus service and better bus infrastructure, it will elevate raise the prestige and enjoyment of using the bus system.

Finally, GGBHTD’s efforts will increase ridership (and therefore fares), to meet its new mission of keeping fare revenue in sync with operating costs.

The ever-rising gap between fares and tolls is symptomatic of deep dysfunction in the heart of GGBHTD. An obsession with a single metric – revenue – has led to an incredibly inefficient transportation system and caused the district to fail in the missions it was founded to accomplish. Drivers, riders, the poor, the rich – all suffer under this scheme.

*As Golden Gate Transit doesn’t keep historic bus and ferry fares available online, rather just fare increases, this is backwards-calculated from the average cost to travel from the North Bay to San Francisco on bus and ferry. GGT also doesn’t keep historic fare increases available from before 1993.

Substandard bus stops drench, humiliate riders

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

During Marin’s big Pineapple Express a few of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking the bus all over Marin. Stepping off a bus without worrying about parking or gas or finding the car always feels liberating to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect. But thanks to bad stop design, I and my fellow riders got soaked.

After chatting up some of protestors of WinCup, I walked along the narrow sidewalk to the closest southbound bus pad, not just to see what the walk was like but also because I had to get to Mill Valley. Aside from protestors using up the entire sidewalk width, forcing me to walk in the street, it wasn’t so bad. The bus pad, though, was another story.

The bus pad shelter allowed the wind to whip rain right in the face of me and my fellow travelers. The bench was so soaked that sitting would have made for a cold and soggy experience. Someone else waiting spoke very little English but pointed at the rain and the bench and laughed. “Very wet,” she said, and it was quite clear she thought the situation was ridiculous. Though she was heading to Mill Valley, too, she hopped on the next bus that came (Route 36) just to get out of the wet. I decided to stick it out, though, and my Route 17 bus arrived soon enough.

Alas, the Mill Valley Depot, central bus station of this most wealthy of towns, was in even worse shape. The roof dripped everywhere, soaking not just the benches but anyone who risked standing under it without an umbrella. Water trickled in from every slat in the roof and positively poured in through the light fixture.

The state of repair on the Depot and the quality of the bus pad stops tells riders, You don’t really matter. For one of the wealthiest counties in the country and one that prides itself on being green and supporting the less fortunate, that’s unacceptable.

If buses are a travel mode of equal stature to the car or ferry, bus stops – especially signature stops like the Depot – need to be treated like it. They should be comfortable, or at least bearable. The people who ride the bus for work or out of necessity do matter.

Requiring transit officials to take transit makes sense

In light of some criticism regarding a $300,000 transit marketing study, Dick Spotswood makes a good recommendation: require Marin’s elected officials take transit to their meetings at least once per week. Though it won’t take the place of a marketing study, the observations of actual use are irreplaceable.

Spotswood writes:

If transit directors ride their own buses they’ll have a splendid opportunity to fully understand the system they govern. They’ll gain direct input from bus passengers and drivers without consultants in the way.

This isn’t about Golden Gate’s excellent commuter buses serving San Francisco’s central business district. Sears understands that, as she once commuted by bus when she worked in the city.

It’s about buses that start and end in Marin, funded by Marin taxpayers and governed by county supervisors and two council members, Novato’s Madeline Kellner and Stephanie Moulton-Peters of Mill Valley.

A theoretical understanding of a transit system doesn’t always comport with some of the day-to-day inconveniences. Golden Gate Transit (GGT) and Marin Transit (MT) both have some pretty glaring theoretical issues – lack of real-time arrival data, lack of fare coordination, three-transfer trips, poor quality bus pads – there are some things you just need to experience to have them in the top of your mind. When a bus is late and you miss your timed transfer, that’s a huge inconvenience. When a bus stops running just before your event is over, that’s a major problem. When you arrive to your stop on time but the bus passed by early, that might mean an hour wait.

What’s big to someone on the ground might only appear as an obscure metric on a report, or not appear on a report at all. As an infrequent rider, I’m surprised when I ride at how fantastic the system is, on one hand, and how much room for improvement there is on the other. [If you want to report on some of these day-to-day inconveniences, drop me a line on Facebook, Twitter, or email. -ed]

Putting this understanding and frustration into the hands of elected officials can be a powerful tool to push back against staff when they’re dragging their feet. An applicant of GGT’s citizens’ advisory committee recently told me about staff brushing off a question about real-time arrival data, which was promised to be available “in six months” for over a year now. Though this advisory committee can’t do much, a county supervisor would be able to do quite a bit.

We do need marketing studies and we do need a marketing campaign for GGT and MT, as there are issues that might apply to an area elected officials just don’t encounter, but that’s just one part of an integrated whole. We need our elected officials riding the bus around Marin. Perhaps then they’ll find not just why Marinites don’t ride the bus, but also some easy ways it could be so much better.