Monday, June 30, 2008

Dump the Pump, Indeed

A letter to the editor in today’s Austin American Statesman suggests that the best option to reduce fuel consumption would be to drive a fuel efficient car rather than using mass transit.

I can’t imagine that our country would be better off in terms of fuel consumption, pollution, traffic congestion and even stress had many of the 10.3 billion trips provided on public transportation nationwide in 2007 been taken in individual cars instead.

Here are some additional mass transit benefits, courtesy of the American Public Transportation Association:
Energy Conservation - Reducing National Dependence on Foreign Oil:
  • Each year, public transportation use in the U.S. saves 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline. This represents almost 4 million gallons of gasoline per day.
  • The “leverage effect” of public transportation, supporting transportation efficient land use patterns, saves 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline – more than three times the amount of gasoline refined from the oil we import from Kuwait.
  • Public transportation use saves the equivalent of 300,000 fewer automobile fill-ups every day - 108 million fewer cars filling up annually.
  • Each year, public transportation use saves the equivalent of 34 supertankers of oil, or a supertanker leaving the Middle East every 11 days.
Individual Cost Savings:
  • Public transportation provides an affordable, and for many, necessary alternative to driving.
  • Each year public transportation households save over $1,399 worth of gas.
  • Transit availability can reduce the need for an additional car, a yearly expense of $6,251 in a household budget.
  • The average household spends 18 cents per dollar on transportation, and 94 percent of this goes to buying, maintaining and operating cars.
  • Americans living in areas served by public transportation save $18 billion annually in congestion costs.
Energy Conservation Benefits:
  • The “leverage effect” of public transportation reduces the nation’s carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons annually – equivalent to the electricity used by 4.9 million households. To achieve similar reduction in carbon emissions, every household in New York City, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles combined would have to completely stop using electricity.
  • People living in households within one-quarter mile of rail and one-tenth of a mile from a bus stop drive approximately 4,400 fewer miles annually as compared to persons in similar households with no access to public transit. This equates to an individual household reduction of 223 gallons of gasoline a year.
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Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Yesterday I came across a fun blog by one of our riders, Jessica, who has adopted a Capital Metro bus stop through the Adopt-a-Stop program. I thought you might enjoy it, too, quoted behind the cut in its entirety.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I love cigarette butts
Little things make me happy, and cigarette butts are pretty darn tiny. Actually, I think cigarette butts are one of the vilest creations on earth, they drive me up the wall, their putrid stench lingers, and they seem to be asexually reproducing, but fighting back against them makes me smile.

Yesterday was a great day for karma building (and I didn’t even plan it that way, it just happened which should get me bonus karma points…but then I’ve probably had a few deducted for bragging about it…sigh). After work I cycled (note: didn’t drive) to the library to return a dvd (note: checked out instead of bought).

Then I went back to work to store by bike, grabbed my yoga gear and a book, and strode off to “my” bus stop (note: not driving AGAIN). “My” because I’ve officially adopted it through Capital Metro’s Adopt-a-Stop program and the trash can proudly bears a sign with my name on it. So there I was on the side of South Congress picking up cigarette butts by the handful, with cars whizzing by wondering why this normal looking girl was groveling on the ground, and it struck me that I’m happy. Nobody will notice that for one afternoon this particular bus stop was cigarette butt free, it’s a pretty slim chance that anyone will notice my example and pickup a butt on their own or not put it there in the first place, but I don’t care. I saw something was wrong, I took action, and when my bus pulled up and I wiggled my way onboard I left a clean bus stop behind.

And the afternoon kept getting better. There was a gaggle of flustered looking ballerinas on board, and one of them whispered to the other one that none of them knew where to get off. I overheard, asked her where she was going, and told them exactly which bus stop to get off at.

After a relaxing yoga class I headed back to the office, grabbed by bike, cycled over to Barton Springs to meet John for a run. While I was waiting I noticed lots of bottles/cans in the trash cans RIGHT next to the recycling bins. Brushing bees aside I bravely picked them off the top of the can and put them in their rightful place. John’s always late, so I made it to 7 or 8 trash cans and saved dozens of misdirected recyclables from an unfitting end by the time he came for our run. My efforts were duly noted and John’s going to take a bag with him to his next meeting since he’s always been dismayed by the amount of recyclables his colleagues throw in the trash but never stood up to offer them another option.

And karma paid off, I got to end my day with a relaxing 3 mile run, good conversation, swim in Barton Springs, and bus ride home where I got to read instead of worrying about traffic.

Three cheers for cigarette butts! …now where did I put that hand sanitizer?
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Monday, June 23, 2008

Biking on the Bus

I’m Tina. I work at Capital Metro in government relations. A few months ago, I started biking to work a few times a week. I have definitely noticed more people biking around town and I have definitely, as just a regular citizen but also as a Capital Metro employee, noticed more cyclists boarding our buses. (We are getting more questions about bikes on buses lately.)

Just to let you know, all of our buses have the capacity to carry two bikes, except the ‘Dillos. We can store two bikes in the rack on the front of most buses except for the Express coach buses, which allow storage of two bikes in the luggage compartment. (If you have never used the racks, they are really easy. If intimidated, just ask the driver.)

Unfortunately, once the bike rack is full, there is no additional room on the bus for bicycles. We have to give priority to passengers without pedals. (Makes sense, yes?) Although it has not been common, riders should be prepared for the possibility that the bike racks on their buses will be full. So, as much as we'd love to tote everyone and their bikes around town, there are limits, so please plan accordingly. (Hey, look at it as strength-training. Miss the bus? Pedal faster. Just kidding. I know we all want to take our bikes on the bus but c'est la vie in a bike-ridin' town.)

Many other transit systems offer bike racks and all of us are experiencing an increase in bicyclists on the bus. Capital Metro did look at bigger bike racks but unfortunately they present some safety hazards. The larger bike racks that carry 3 bikes are wide and can potentially block visibility of turn signals and headlights. (This is a problem not just because we say it is but because we also have to meet certain federal safety standards.) There are also reports of bikes falling off of the three capacity bike racks in other cities. While we would like to have bigger bike racks, the current designs simply aren't safe enough. But we continue to investigate bike racks on future bus purchases and we always keep an eye out for better bike rack technology to accommodate more bikes. Let us know if you know of anything!

Bus, bike, walk, drive (sometimes it happens). I challenge you to do what you can, even if only once a week!
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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Rider Profile: Kim

Meet Kim. She's planning her first ride on Capital Metro tomorrow, Dump the Pump Day. Kim participated in our virtual Xtreme Transit Makeover and is shown here sporting her free 7-day bus pass. Experience her first Capital Metro bus ride tomorrow morning on KXAN between 5 and 7 a.m.
What tips would you give new riders? Read more

Monday, June 16, 2008

IVR Challenges

From my first week at Capital Metro, I heard about the issues facing our IVR system. While there was no shortage of anecdotes, the bigger challenge was figuring out the root cause of the problems. There was no point in putting a band-aid on the IVR when there were structural problems with the system. However the way issues were reported did not immediately reveal the source of the problems. And to further complicate things the IVR is not a single computer running in a closet somewhere. The system is actually made up of multiple phone related servers, the phone system (both on your end and ours), scheduling data stored in one database, and multiple route and reservations data stored in other databases. All told, the IVR system is made up of about a dozen vendors' products that all have to work together to present the data that Capital Metro puts into it. So when a problem occurs we have to go through the following steps before we can figure out what is causing the problem.
  1. Understand what problem is happening

  2. Reproduce the problem consistently

  3. Trace the problem back to the one or more systems causing the problem

  4. Get the vendor(s) responsible for that/those system(s) to take ownership of the problem and solve it

The easiest problems to solve are actually content problems (when we enter data wrong or incompletely). They aren't any easier to find, but at least we are the only ones accountable for these fixes. The issue here again is the size of the system, with the tens of thousands of data elements that have to come together to make it work, we are constantly finding items that need to be fixed.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the complaints about the IVR were anecdotal (certainly valid, but not specific enough for us to reproduce and therefore be able to fix). However, in recent meetings with the riding community (both at ACCESS and Customer Service Advisory Committee group meetings) I've captured the specific issues I've heard and we've been prioritizing them to address the underlying issues. In my next blog I will lay out the priorities and the next steps that we will be undertaking to make sure the IVR gets better. However, in the remainder of this post I am going to list the issues that we have captured so far so that I can fufill the promise I made to the ACCESS and CSAC groups a few weeks ago (I haven't forgotten):

Given the length of the list and the limitations of this blog, I am going to try to link to the Excel Spreadsheet. If this process doesn't work, we will regroup and try this a different way.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Getting Cozy on the Bus

We know personal space on some of the bus routes is getting...tight. Ridership has been increasing steadily since January. We don’t yet have the final ridership numbers tallied for May, but bus drivers and riders are reporting fuller-than-usual buses, some standing-room-only. Particularly on the Express routes, personal space is becoming a premium.

We’re working hard to provide some relief, and expect to have a number of supplementary services in place within a week. As of today, we have restored certain trips on Express routes 982 and 983 that were removed when UT's spring semester concluded. These routes typically go to a reduced frequency for the summer, when fewer people tend to ride. However, we have moved them back into a full-service schedule because of demand.

Wherever feasible, we’ve also made best use of our bus fleet to alleviate crowding. For example, if a 35-foot bus is assigned normally to a route, and that route is near capacity, but another route is not very crowded and uses a 40-foot bus, sometimes we can swap the buses.

By next week we expect to have additional buses assigned to provide some additional capacity on the busiest express routes.

Capital Metro is in a fairly good position to handle a large increase in ridership during the summer, because some routes are not in service while school and college are out. (Ergo, we have more resources available to deal with crowding on other routes). It becomes more problematic in the fall, when the majority of our buses and bus drivers are scheduled. And that doesn’t take into consideration the costs involved with adding frequency to a route… it’s expensive. I’ll post more about that in a few days.
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Thursday, June 12, 2008

National Dump the Pump Day is June 19th

With gas at $4 a gallon in the Austin area it seems like a great time for everybody to rethink how often we use our cars and give some thought to changing the way we commute.

Along those lines Capital Metro will be participating in next week’s National Dump the Pump Day. The idea behind Dump the Pump Day is to encourage everybody to find a way to get where they are going that day (school, work, shopping) that doesn’t involve a single-passenger car. It doesn’t have to be public transit – it could be sharing the ride with a neighbor that day, dusting off the bike and pumping up the tires and cycling, or even enjoying the fresh air and sunshine of a walk. The idea is to try something that breaks the “routine” of just hopping in the car and burning fossil fuel.

Capital Metro has two events planned around Dump the Pump Day. First off we’ll be out at Highland Mall this Saturday from noon to 4pm with a couple of laptops offering free personalized trip plans on Capital Metro (we’re calling them “Xtreme Transit Makeovers”.) Every new rider who sits down with one of our staff members that day and creates a plan will get a free 7-day bus pass. We’ll also answer questions about riding the bus, buying passes, loading your bike on the bus, or planning a trip. While supplies last we’ll also have system maps and schedule books to hand out to everyone who stops by. Then on Thursday, June 19th (Dump the Pump Day) we’ll be outside on the plaza at 100 Congress in downtown Austin with more passes, plans, and giveaways from 10am until 2pm.

You can also register to receive one of the 7-day passes on a special Dump the Pump area of our website -- Supplies of the pass are limited and the policy is one per new rider.

If you’ve never ridden the bus this is a great opportunity to give it a try. Even if you can’t make it to one of the events go ahead and Dump the Pump that day.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Facts on Bus Stop Accessibility

There seems to be some confusion out there about bus stop accessibility. On Fox-7 last night, it was suggested that Capital Metro is only going to spend half as much money as we used to on upgrading bus stops. Let’s set the record straight.

This year Capital Metro has budgeted and spent about $1 million on bus stop improvements. In each of the previous four years we spent about $750,000 per year. We are currently in the process of developing our budget for fiscal year 2009 which begins in October. In May our staff presented an aggressive bus stop improvement plan to our Board of Directors. If the Board decides to move in this direction, we would spend an additional $3 million per year (or a total of $4 million per year) over the next five years to improve bus stops.

There also was some confusion in the story about when existing bus stops must comply with the newest federal regulations. Again, let’s set the record straight:

According to the November 2006 federal regulation update, " existing facility that complies with the old standards does not have to be retrofitted to comply with the new standards. Of course, any future alteration to an existing facility would have to comply with the new standards." You can read the whole thing by clicking here.

The bottom line is that we're not required to upgrade existing stops to the new regulations unless we are making any alterations to the stops. But Capital Metro wants to move forward anyway and bring every stop up to the new standards to provide the best possible service to all of our customers.
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Goodbye Capitol Transfer Center

Pay close attention if you ride any of the routes that serve the Capitol Transfer Center located at 11th and Congress. Effective August 24, this bus stop will close; the routes will be relocated to stops in the area of 10th and Congress. Our Board of Directors approved this service change at a special meeting today. You can read a full description of all the upcoming service changes by clicking here.

If you’re not familiar with the history on this, here’s a brief summary: The Capitol Transfer Center is located on state property. In November 2007, the State Preservation Board notified us that we must close this bus stop by November 2008, citing safety and security concerns around the Capitol.

Since that time, Capital Metro has made every effort to keep the Capitol Transfer Center in place or find a nearby alternative such as the east side of the Capitol entrance. We were not able to reach an agreement, so our only option at this point is to move to 10th and Congress. We see this as the best possible interim solution until we can re-examine the alignment of all routes in the Downtown area in coordination with the City of Austin.

Our top priority is to minimize the inconvenience this change will have on our customers. We’ll work hard between now and August 24 to update you with new maps and schedules to make this transition as easy as possible.
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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Public meetings on proposed fare increase begin today

The first of three community open houses regarding Capital Metro's fare increase proposal begins today in Leander, at Pat Bryson Hall, 201 N. Brushy Street, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.

The second meeting is tomorrow, 6 p.m., at ACC South Austin Campus, and the third meeting is June 12, 6 p.m. at City Hall.

A public hearing (with the Capital Metro Board) is scheduled on June 27, 12 Noon, at the main facility of Capital Metro, 2910 E. 5th Street.

Watch KXAN's news story this morning about the fare increase.

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Monday, June 9, 2008

IVR Primer

I would like to begin my posts with a discussion of our IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system. For those not aware this is the “phone tree” or automated phone system that you have the choice to interact with whenever you call the Go Line (474-1200) or the STS information and reservation numbers. For the more astute readers out there the choice is not really a choice when calling after hours as the manned phone lines only offer automated options when no one is around.

To understand IVR’s one needs to understand the nature of call centers. IVR’s were invented to try to deal with the explosive growth of inbound calls that companies experience as their customer base grows without increasing call center staffing in a linear fashion. Many calls are common and request simple information that can be easily automated. The theory is that if you can answer these simple questions with an automated system, then you will need fewer people to respond to the types of questions that only a human can handle (and thereby lower the cost associated with customer or business growth). The problem comes when more complex questions are pushed to the IVR’s and/or the callers come to prefer the IVR and thus depend on it to answer more complex questions. The result in either case is a frustrated caller and a potentially lost rider. Like most things in life, the trick is in finding the balance between the purpose for which IVR’s were built, and the need to handle more calls on a daily basis.

For example, when a rider calls in to find out what hours the customer service line is automated, an IVR can and should handle this type of call. But when a rider calls in to find out how to get from Downtown to Highland mall in the shortest time possible, an IVR will not do a good job of handling this question (a lot of human judgment and discretion is required which an IVR just can’t muster). So why do I mention all of this? The simple answer is that the Capital Metro IVR is not currently meeting our rider’s expectations at the level we would like. What I hope to go into over the next few posts is why this is the case, and more importantly, what Capital Metro is doing about the situation.

Kirk Talbott
CIO – Capital Metro
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Hello and Thank You

Let me begin by saying thank you. Thank you for taking the time to read one more article and for taking the time to care enough about Public Transit in Austin to be involved. Hopefully this blog will prove valuable to the local community and will increase the transparency of Capital Metro as a public agency. My goals for the technology section of the Blog are two-fold.

1. I hope to be able to communicate more information, in a more meaningful way, without the inherent delays when we go through more traditional channels. Board meetings and newsletters are fine, but the reality today is that there is far more information and far more changes happening in any given space of time than can be communicated through older forms of dialog. Hence my strong desire to use this blog to get a lot more across to everyone who cares.

2. I hope to have 2-way communication and dialog around the topics of interest to you. Of course I will be writing on the topics that I think are the most central to the region’s transit interests, but the beauty of this format is that if I miss the target, you can let me hear about it. Without the formality of other mediums, I hope that this website can produce some real conversations about the things that matter most.

I will keep this brief, but I do truly hope to publish a lot of critical topics to supplement the other channels of information Capital Metro is using to communicate. I look forward to your responses and feedback, but if there is something you would like to see here, please feel free to drop me a line so I can discuss it with you in future posts.

Kirk Talbott
CIO – Capital Metro
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Welcome to Capital MetroBlog

Hi there. Welcome to Capital Metro's blog, Capital MetroBlog. Our hope is to engage the community in a frank, open conversation about public transportation in Austin. We're going for transparency, not perfection, and we hope that you'll join the conversation with your ideas, questions, and suggestions.

It's an interesting time to talk about public transportation in Austin, with $4-per-gallon gas looming, our ridership increasing, and Central Texas' population exploding. It's a dynamic set of challenges for Capital Metro, challenges that the entire community has a stake in. Let's dig in.
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