Thursday, July 31, 2008

Capital MetroRail is coming down the track

KXAN's Kate Weidaw reports on Capital Metro's progress on Capital MetroRail, including new construction that has begun on the Downtown Station.

Regarding the zoned fare structure for MetroRail, here is a map showing the boundary between the two zones.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Loyal riders caught on video!

A video produced by the Austin American-Statesman asks three Capital Metro riders why they ride.

Watch the video

All three of the riders indicate they've seen more people on the bus recently. It's true. This June, people made 200,000 more trips on the bus than last June.

Capital Metro has increased frequency and added service to the busiest routes, and is exploring options for purchasing additional buses that could be in place within the next year.
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Thursday, July 24, 2008

10 Lame Reasons to Delay Mass Transit

Who knew that discussions about mass transit could be so funny? Check out this excerpt from a guest column in the Seattle Times by Mayor and Sound Transit Board chair Greg Nickels:

As Sound Transit prepares to move forward with a proposal for the November ballot, there are those who favor more investments in mass transit, just not this year. We have helpfully compiled a "top 10" list of the reasons to wait:

10) Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it. A two-year delay will enable us to hear from those who are still mustering up the courage to make up their minds.

9) True, the 15-year Sound Transit plan would add light rail, commuter rail and regional buses. If we wait two years, though, it might include hydrogen-powered, personal hovercrafts. That'd be cool.

8) Local media need an infusion of advertising cash from a certain Eastside shopping center developer who wants another two years to tell you that freeways are still the best transportation for the region. No matter what.

7) More debate will give us more information. There's so much more to discuss, it just seems premature to have a vibrant light-rail system after only 40 years of talking about it.

6) There is so much room for new highways, it just makes sense to build new lanes. Interstate 5 through downtown Seattle seems like it is ripe for a little widening. And the Eastside and Montlake are united in wanting a bigger Highway 520, right? Right? Oh, wrong.

5) Mass transit is popular. So popular, you may not have a seat on the bus. But standing all the way home improves your calf muscles and physical stamina. This strength-building exercise works even better in high heels.

4) You can worry more about climate change. Need an extra two years to get your head around species collapse and widespread global drought? Waiting for mass transit will give you time to bone up on the latest news about how our indecision and bad habits are torching the planet. Books on tape are great for the car!

3) By waiting two years, we can do the same project but spend about $1 billion more. With the price of everything going up — steel, concrete, gas — a delay will cost big bucks. But indecision is worth it. Isn't it?

2) Congestion will only get worse. That leaves more time in the car to listen to talk-radio hosts jawbone about the lack of transportation alternatives.

And the No. 1 reason why we should wait for mass transit ...

1) Pumping the car with $70 of gasoline feels more special when there isn't an alternative. Let's face it — gas prices aren't coming down. Why ruin gas-station heartburn by giving people a way out of their cars and into light rail?

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Changes to Our Website

As promised, not every one of my posts will be about the IVR. It wouldn't make for very interesting reading no matter how much you love that technology. But while I am on the topic of apologies, there is one more area that I would like to discuss in terms of where we are and where we would like to be: the Capital Metro Web site. As I write, our Web site is being prepared for a number of changes and enhancements that should make it simpler and more useful for the community (and a lot easier for us to update and keep fresh, too).

The first thing our team did was look at other transit agencies to see what they had done that made sense and what mistakes they had made. This, along with many of the things we have wanted to do for a while but did not have the time or skills to implement, led to a list of things we wanted to build into our next generation Web site. While the brainstorming was easy, the prioritization has not been. We want to vet the list of ideas through the public to see which ones ring true and which ones are not worth pursuing (see below).

We are hoping to get a new look and feel to the page (to freshen it up) and to incorporate features that will take advantage of our new bus tracking system that we are rolling out this fall.

So, tell us. What features would be most valuable to you?

Ideas for new web features:
_____ Much improved Customer Comment Request system (inquiry, trouble ticket, etc.) entry, FAQ, and routing to/from the person that needs to respond.

_____ Ability to put performance metrics on the website.

_____ Ability to have the web visitor rate usefulness of content.

_____ A MyCapMetro page whereby personalized information is accessible based on what I’m interested in, such as: common trips (departure and arrival for common routes – such as to work or work to home), next bus for a few highly used (personally selected) routes – perhaps simply scrolling up to three ‘next departure’ times for certain routes at certain locations based off of GPS data, complaints entered and responses to them, and automatic feeds on topics of personal interest from the Web site, such as STS or Rail, or Board Meetings, etc.

_____ Mobile device button/section on first page, like BART’s, that allows phones and PDAs to download schedules.

_____ Aesthetically pleasing tourist section, like NJ Transit.

_____ Service Alert section at top of home page. Service alerts also listed on schedule pages.

_____ Easy online store.

_____ Language conversion like WMATA.

_____ Community Calendar with trip planner pre-encoded to destination.

_____ Trip Planner: enhanced graphic user interface, drop-down menus, links to interactive maps and service interruptions.

_____ Icons on the front page to distinguish modes (rail, express, local, STS, etc.) clicks through to page with pull down menus of routes and include fare information, etc.

_____ Less “What’s Happening” on the front page and more service information.

_____ Front page feature to click through to detours.

_____ Larger font size (currently 8.5 and gray).

_____ Ability to magnify web pages for those that are visually impaired (see for example).

_____ More white space on the pages – simpler, less cluttered design.

_____ Easier, more direct link to interactive maps.

_____ Overall ease in finding what you are seeking – no more than three clicks to any page.

_____ Clarity of pages – easier navigation.

_____ ADA: Bobby approved, 508 and W3C certified.

_____ Live chat with customer service.

_____ Front page link for meetings and events.

_____ Front page feature for project Updates (i.e. All Systems Go).

_____ Improved design on schedules page to reduce the long, undefined columns. Redesigned for easier reading and downloading to mobile devices.

_____ Text messages when my bus is late.

_____ How to ride videos.

_____ “Testing area” for new technologies (like Google Labs).

_____ Forum for dialogue with public.

_____ Orbital ITS (next bus and live tracking of vehicles) online.

_____ Web component for paratransit.

_____ Touchless transit pass or smart card that could be recharged online.
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Thursday, July 17, 2008

APD Officers learn to drive a bus

A group of seven Austin police officers have spent this week training with Capital Metro instructors, learning how to drive a bus. Part of the training was spent behind the wheel of Capital Metro's high-tech bus simulator, as shown in this video by KTBC last night.

Once the officers receive their commercial drivers licenses (they're taking the driving exam this morning), they'll be tasked with operating the City's new Breath Alcohol Testing bus, or B.A.T bus, which was donated to APD by Capital Metro.

Capital Metro has an ongoing partnership with APD to prepare officers to operate buses in the event of an emergency. We've helped a total of 21 officers obtain a commercial drivers license since 2000.

All new Capital Metro bus operators who were hired since 2006 (when we purchased the bus simulator), have had an opportunity to train with the high-tech equipment.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bus Schedule Webapp for iPhone

While at the Apple Store yesterday evening to scope out the *new* iPhone-–I’m still chapped that I just bought the *old* iPhone four months ago--I noticed a bus schedule Web site on one of the displayed iPhones. I was excited to learn of this great tool for my iPhone,, which provides Capital Metro bus schedules by route and stop. You navigate to your desired route and bus stop, and the program will tell you when the next bus is supposed to arrive, along with the next three buses after that.

The tool is not an application to install—it’s a Web site that will work on anyone’s portable device. I just checked it on my friend’s Blackberry and it works great, just without the images you will see when using it on the iPhone. It’s an extremely user friendly schedule book on the go!

Looking to the near future, when Capital Metro buses will have intelligent transportation systems (ITS) onboard, webapps like me2bus will be able to include real-time information about when the next bus will be arriving.
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MetroRapid Update

You may have not heard much about it lately, but Capital MetroRapid is progressing. We’ve been working hard the past several months on a revised proposal that could earn some federal funding.

At the end of the month, we’ll hold three public meetings to explain the proposal and gain some feedback. Just recently we submitted an initial findings report to the Federal Transit Administration. After community outreach, we plan to submit a formal proposal through the Very Small Starts Program.

Initial service will include two routes: North Lamar/South Congress and Burnet/South Lamar. This is just the first phase in the plan to have as many as 10 routes in the next 20 years.

Click here for more information on MetroRapid. Once the meetings have been set up, we’ll post the details online.
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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I can save $323!

The American Public Transportation Association has developed an easier-to-use online tool for calculating what you save by taking public transportation vs. driving your own car. The tool is pretty useful and realistic in that it doesn't assume you're going to sell your car and save the costs of a car payment and insurance, too.

Capital Metro has promoted a very comprehensive commute cost calculator on our Web site. It calculates what your commute actually costs annually, taking into consideration things like car maintenance, depreciation, car payments and insurance. It's pretty impressive.

The problem is that I have no intention of giving up my car altogether any time soon. It's true that I'm making a lifestyle change to incorporate public transportation into my daily routine whenever possible, but the transformation is slow. Baby steps. Making the leap to NO car is more than my feeble mind is ready and willing to embrace yet.

Anyway, if you are like me and use mass transit but not exclusively, the savings calculator from the American Public Transportation Association is pretty keen. You can input what it costs you round trip to ride Capital Metro (for most folks this is a mere $1, or $2 if you're taking an express route), and then how far you live from work and what size car you drive (another great feature--you don't have to know the specific maintenance costs for your vehicle), and it spits out yearly costs for taking public transportation to work vs. driving your own car.

My commute is about 4 miles each way, so by taking the bus everyday to work, I can save $323. I was fascinated to learn that the average round-trip commute nationwide is more than 24 miles! If my commute was as long as the average, I would save $981.

Those are real numbers I can take to the bank!
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Monday, July 7, 2008

Capital Metro Rises to the Challenge

Editorial from Saturday's Austin American-Statesman:

Capital Metro got it right this time. Earlier this week, the Capital Metro board approved a policy that would allow Cedar Park, Round Rock, Kyle, Elgin and other cities that are not participating in Capital Metro’s transit system a way to get in without using their sales taxes.

That was an important step because without that change, cities would not be able to buy full transit service from Capital Metro.

The new policy doesn’t mean that cities that opt into Capital Metro won’t pay for services. It just means that they don’t have to dedicate a penny of their sales taxes to Capital Metro, as Austin and Leander do. The sales tax requirement blocked cities from joining the Capital Metro family. Under the new policy, they can pay as they go.

Any arrangement for more cities to join the transit system, however, must not shortchange Austin and Leander residents. And that means that other cities must pay their fair share of costs for operations, maintenance, equipment and construction.

Austin Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken, a member of the Capital Metro board, said financing arrangements would require new cities to cover all costs. He also assured us that service to Austin and Leander residents would not be reduced to accommodate new users that are currently outside the Capital Metro system. That is good.

Cedar Park voted itself out of the Capital Metro system in 1998 but now wants back in as commuter rail comes on line late this year or in January. Though a rail station will be built in Leander and the trains would run right through Cedar Park, they would not stop there — unless Cedar Park buys back into the system.

Round Rock, too, wants service. The city and Capital Metro officials are in talks about replacing Round Rock’s limited bus service with regular and expanded bus service by Capital Metro. Officials are discussing adding express service to certain destinations, such as the University of Texas and downtown.

Other cities that have expressed interest for Capital Metro services are Kyle, Dripping Springs and Elgin. That interest has been spurred largely by population growth of those cities. It is typical for residents to live one place, such as Round Rock, and work in Austin, and vice versa. One of the region’s largest employers, Dell Inc., has its headquarters in Round Rock.
Other factors, too, have contributed to the growing clamor for transit service in Central Texas, including traffic congestion (Austin has been repeatedly rated as the most congested mid-size city in the country), rising gas prices and concerns about air pollution.

Under the old way of doing business, Capital Metro was unable to expand transit service to other cities. The change allows Capital Metro to move toward creating a true regional transit system.

That is exactly what Central Texas needs.
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Thursday, July 3, 2008

P.S. IVR, I Love You

I thought I was done with IVR posts. I was wrong. One of the wonderful things about the Internet is the way information gets shared behind the scenes. Since I started writing about our IVR problems I have now been contacted/referenced by two different IVR specialists that say there may be hope for what ails us.

Now I am more optimistic than most but I want to be realistic about what we can and cannot accomplish with our IVR and then I want to set the public's expectations realistically (don't worry, what the public has asked for is realistic, the gap right now is on Capital Metro's side). In order to do that we have to look at all possible options. Including the largest of all which is scrap the system all together and go in a different direction. Some have said this is the way to go. At this point I don't know if that is the right answer or not. But we won't know if we don't look at it. And we will.

To that end, I want to thank all those that have given and are giving us feedback. While no one likes to be told something they have responsibility for stinks, it is unfortunately the best way to get better. And that is what we are going to do. So please keep sending the ideas, and YES, vendors please keep contacting us so that we can eventually get to the best darned Public Transit IVR in the U.S. of A.
Okay, now for something completely different...
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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ride the Bus on July 4th

Want to see Austin’s fireworks show without the traffic and parking mess? No problem. Take the Bus.

The Austin Symphony’s 4th of July concert and fireworks has returned to its original location at Auditorium Shores this year. Similar to last year, we’re not doing shuttles; however, Capital Metro’s existing routes are a great way to get to there. In fact, we’re enhancing our service that night, including offering Night Owl Service at 10 p.m.
Click here for more detailed information about all of our July 4th service.

We’ve also created some cool interactive route maps that will help you plan your trip ahead of time. Routes Downtown Detail

Being a native Austinite, I’m excited that the celebration has moved back to the Shores from Zilker Park. Hope you enjoy the show.

Have a safe and happy 4th of July.
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IVR Solutions

So how do we fix the problems with the IVR? In a word, persistence. In a little less brevity we have a few layers to tackle and the plan is to tackle each layer in order. Naturally we want to hit the problems with the biggest impact, but some of the issue will take rebuilding the system from the ground up and some will take new software from the various vendors. Therefore, like other big Goliaths, we tackle the items that will be the quickest to resolve with the biggest payback for the effort.

- Fix the script errors as quickly as we find them. As mentioned before, the number of places that something can go wrong in a system this size is staggering. So while we are looking at the system regularly to find the errors we can, the fastest way to find the issues is to foster feedback from the community that uses the system. When we hear that there is an error in the IVR we have our team take a look and attempt to fix the problem. If it is a simple "misalignment" of the script we try to correct it immediately. If it is a more complex problem, then we often have to refer back to the vendor and are therefore more constrained by their schedules.

- Work on the source of internal data issues. Unfortunately some of the errors in the IVR system are squarely our fault. Bad data in = bad data out. When we forget to include a bus stop, or we misspell one of Austin's more creative street names, our customers feel the pain at the IVR. Along with the script errors above we will correct these as we become aware of them. But more importantly, our strategy is to work with each of the groups within Capital Metro to make sure everyone puts good data in.

- Add touch tone to every part of the script that we can. This I think is one of the biggest issues with the IVR today. When I first heard about the issues with the speech recognition, my initial reaction was to pull it. But then when I started floating the idea of dumping that feature, I had numerous reactions from people that liked that piece and that had positive interactions with the voice recognition component. In the end, the best solution seems to be ensuring that we put touch tone everywhere we can in the system along side the voice recognition, and give the callers a choice. (Shocking conclusion I know. Choices are good.)

- Rearrange the script to be simpler and easier to use. Include better structure for the voice recognition. By changing the way we approach the voice recognition prompts, by making it easier to "get out of" the IVR cycle, and by better communicating the options that a caller has at any point in the script, we believe that we will have a better product. This change will be tied in with the previous change so that what you get is a more effective tool and will allow us to better pair touch-tone and voice recognition throughout the system.

- Add additional, obvious, and beneficial functionality. This actually will be the hardest change, which is why I saved it for last. The reason new functionality is tricky is because it depends on pulling information out of other systems (sometimes 2 or 3 simultaneously) which requires coordination and boundary discussions. Of course, the easiest changes are the ones where the underlying database or application has the information you want. But it seldom seems to be that easy.

In a nutshell this is going to be a long process to fix the system. I am hoping that as we progress we can stabilize quickly, make some obvious improvements early on, and then continue to deliver a better IVR month after month into the foreseeable future. If you have ideas or suggestions, please let me know.
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