10 things Calgary Transit can do now to improve

Photo by Michael J

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars.
It’s where the rich use public transportation.”
— Enrique Peñalosa, Former Mayor of Bogotá

I’ve lived in Calgary for two and a half years. When I moved here, I made the decision to save money and get around the city on foot, on bike and on transit. It has been one of the best decisions of my life and i’ve lost over 100 pounds thanks in part to my choice to live car-free, but i’m growing increasingly frustrated with the Transit system in Calgary. Calgarians deserve better.

After much thought and deliberation, I’ve compiled this list of 10 things Calgary Transit can do now to have a hope of reaching the goal of ever making public transit the preferred mobility choice of Calgarians.

Stop apologizing and making false promises — start acting on feedback

The word “sorry” was used 78 times during March 2015 on Calgary Transit’s Twitter account. “Mechanical issues” was used 20 times in just 30 days. “delay” is mentioned 46 times. Widespread use of the word “unfortunately” just confirms my suspicions that I need luck on my side whenever I need to get somewhere on time.

Unless the civil servants running the Twitter account are directly responsible for the increasing unreliability of Calgary Transit, they’re saying sorry way too much. Calgary Transit might be the most Canadian transit system by measure of platitudes.

Transit keeps telling us that improvements are coming… but we keep waiting.

A review of Nenshi’s 2010 campaign promise to “Create a customer-centered culture at Calgary Transit”

In this video, Nensi talked about how Melbourne tracks on-time performance and gives rebates to customers if the transit system does not meet targets. I’d love to see the actual on-time metrics of Calgary Transit and my bank account would love to see the refund that’s owed to me.

I’ve had several casual conversations with frontline and senior staff within Calgary Transit. They universally acknowledge they can do better, but hint at the lack the support from their management and city council to make it happen. They feel like a cog in the wheel inside a culture of complacency and excuses. Most do the best they can given the circumstances, and others seem to get a scary amount of satisfaction by pulling away just as a connecting route arrives.

Nenshi and City Council needs to take a serious look at the morale inside Calgary Transit. Is there indeed a culture of innovation and customer service? Or a culture where complacency, power trips, defeatism and excuses thrive? You can see the culture cracks in the episode of Undercover Boss that featured Calgary Transit’s director Doug Morgan in 2013.

The blame for this negative culture might very well rest on the shoulders of City Council — Earlier this year Transit cut routes in dense areas just to add service to the far flung sprawling suburbs.

Calgary Transit also raised fares by 15 cents at the beginning of this year but did not increase the hours of service, even though our city is still one of the fastest growing on the continent.

Don’t worry though — in 2015, Calgary Transit started auditioning musicians that want to busk at transit stations. You can sleep well tonight knowing that a Calgary Transit bureaucrat has approved the busker performing at your local transit station.

Close down the @CalgaryTransit Twitter account

A culture of customer service does not begin and end with a Twitter account as our Student Council President, err Mayor seems to believe. Having a team dedicated to sending out apologies about missing busses and unexplained delays just serves to raise our collective blood pressure — my alter-ego @transittylo and the thousands of other frustrated commuters just use it as a virtual punching bag and soapbox hoping another frustrated commuter will retweet and acknowledge our shared pain.

I‘ll be the first to admit that complaining on Twitter hasn’t actually made a difference and I rarely get useful and relevant information from it.

The void left by the removal of the public punching bag can easily be filled by a system designed specifically to alert transit users in real time to schedules and service disruptions, and its already in use by dozens of transit agencies around the world — GTFS-Realtime.

Release GTFS-Realtime feed NOW to third party app developers

Calgary Transit paid Xerox $14.5 million three years ago for a real-time fleet tracking system. With that, all sorts of wiz-bang improvements were supposed to happen. Presumably, a system of that expense would enable Calgary Transit to release real time data into the GTFS-Realtime standard so app developers like Transit can integrate that data into their apps, just like they have done for dozens of other transit systems around the world.

As it stands, quasi-realtime route information is only available through CalgaryTransit.com — the digital signs at train platforms are rarely correct and don’t appear to be tied to the real location, which means that one of the first things a commuter learns is that the signs are not to be relied on.

Three years after the announcement, while other transit systems around the world have had this ability for years, Calgary Transit users are still waiting to know exactly how long we’ll have to wait.

Investigate and report on transit concerns — like the 311 app

I’ve made several written or verbal complaints to Calgary Transit. Each time, I’ve been promised a response from a supervisor, yet i’ve never received a response. When a customer has a valid complaint to make about transit service, take it seriously. Catalog the complaints and major delays in a public database — just like the 311 app. Empower the people that are currently manning the customer service department to investigate these concerns and then make meaningful changes when it is warranted.

Where is the electronic fare payment system?

The contract for Connect was first signed in 2010, then cancelled in 2012, then re-awarded to the same contractor who allegedly screwed it up the first time, and now it is well into 2015 and we still don’t have a way to pay a fare electronically, or even a timeline on when we will. I just want to pay the man with 1999 technology. I don’t want to carry a pocketful of nickels around with me.

My short-lived campaign to get CT to take my money electronically.

The Connect project is a prime example of where more transparency from Calgary Transit would be helpful. CBC tried to get more information in 2013 from the city and were met with a wall of 20,000 documents. Why is it all secret? Why are we not using an electronic fare system that other transit agencies are already using successfully?

Or… Are there good reasons for waiting? Maybe it will be compatible with ApplePay? Integration with Calgary Parking? Will Calgary be the first transit system in the world to accept Bitcoin? Is the Connect system somehow related to a new arena for the Flames? Will Connect be delivered by unicorns?

The lack of clear information about the delays means there must be a conspiracy afoot, or it’s just another epic disaster they’re hoping we’ll forget about.

Rename routes so they make sense

I’m still routinely confused by the route naming conventions. Let’s forgo naming routes after their far off suburban utopian destinations and name them after the general direction that they’re going. We have a quadrant system in Calgary that everyone is familiar with, so let’s piggyback on that.

Tuscany → Northwest
Somerset → South
Saddletowne → Northeast
69th Street → West

Calgary Transit adds all sorts of unnecessary confusion when they occasionally refers to LRT lines as the Red line and Blue line.

A confused passenger once asked me if the blue trains (old ghetto train cars) only ran on the “blue line” and if the red trains (newer models) ran on the “red line”. I took the liberty of apologizing on behalf of Calgary Transit for the confusing mix of colour and naming choices and suggested t0 her the best way to get to the University was to get on the Tuscany train. She laughed and asked if it would take her all the way to Italy. We can dream.

Stop leaving before the scheduled time, or when people are running towards the bus

When a bus is supposed to be at a stop at a specific time, there should be no reason short of an act of God or an executive order from Nenshi that it leave early. I’ll speak on behalf of all Transit users that we are okay waiting a few minutes for a late bus rather than the panic that comes from running towards a bus that’s taking off from a stop early.

This “We have to stay on schedule, so it’s imperative we pull away as you run for the bus” nonsense is going to result in an accident.

In a perfect world, without traffic snarls, mechanical issues and cars hitting c-trains, we could hold Calgary Transit to account to a schedule. Because we all know that’s impossible, the focus should not be so much on a strict adherence to the schedule but we should hold them accountable for clear, accurate information that empowers us to make decisions about our commute.

Fix CalgaryTransit.com

Months after half a million dollars was spent on launching the new CalgaryTransit.com, it’s still a mess. Planned service disruptions are listed in one place right on the front page. If you’re looking for information about unplanned disruptions, you have to check Twitter.

The space-aged site uses a fancy auto fill function to predict what stop number you’re inquiring about. Except… it usually almost always doesn’t work.

Not to mention the advanced trip planner function that is so advanced it only shows me a small part of the page on my iPhone and doesn’t provide anything of value that Google Maps or Transit doesn’t do better.

My biggest beef with CalgaryTransit.com is that it fails to show both the real time location of the bus and the schedule information at the same time. All I want to know is where the bus is on a map, and then i’m empowered to make the decision myself of when I have to be at the bus stop.

Fix the little problems, then take a look at route optimization

Some routes, like the recently discontinued 31 had been redundant for years. That route was well served already by the C-train and other routes. Calgary Transit seemed to be afraid of a backlash from an angry mob of seniors who used that route as a sightseeing tour, and waited until budget pressures gave them an excuse to cancel it. Budget pressures should not the determining factor to optimize Calgary Transit’s routes.

Take a look at this mapping for Route 20 — a major cross city route that serves the Rockyview Hospital. However, for whatever reason, the 20 takes a 4–5 minute detour to also service the Carewest Care Home.

I’ve taken that bus dozens of times and i’ve only ever seen able-bodied people get off or on at the Carewest Facility. Why can’t a deal be made with Calgary cab companies that hang out at the Rockyview to bring the odd passenger to the Carewest facility if they need it? Calgary Transit could pay the cab companies, say .50 cents for each quick trip to the Carewest Facility. Everyone would win.

That’s innovation. But Calgary Transit seems afraid to innovate, just like city council is afraid to innovate — unless of course, you’re talking about regulations that social engineer the distance between payday loan outlets. Is it a city council? Or some sort of microcosm of practical marxism?

Here’s an experiment for you to understand the true opportunity that exists for route optimization. Enter your home address into Google Maps, and get directions to the Calgary Tower, or Chinook Centre. If you live outside the immediate vicinity, I’m willing to bet that it will take you at least twice as long to get to either destination by transit as it would be driving or cycling.

That isn’t an efficient transit system.

Calgary is a city with the engineering prowess to get oil from sand — it’s time we start applying this same engineering prowess to our transit system.

Onward, Calgary Transit. Let’s make this a system that’s an innovative as our ability to mine black gold.

Leave a note or a tweet to @atylo2000 and let me know what you think.

Visit my CV at atylo.com — and my other project, Calgary360.