Knowledge is power, especially on bad days

Quick thoughts on SEPTA’s response this morning to the fire in Kensington across from York-Dauphin Station that shut down the El:

Obviously, the root cause of the mess was an enormous fire on someone else’s property that SEPTA could not have prevented, but since “Large Fires in Kensington” seems to be the new normal, at least until someone makes L&I get its shit together, SEPTA might as well have some good plans in the can for dealing with it.

Basically, there’s no way that SEPTA can really have enough spare buses on hand to deal with a disruption this large, on this important a piece of its rail system, at rush hour.  That goes for the El, that goes for the Subway, and that goes for the core of the RRD system.  That being said, they did about as well as could be expected today, pulling buses from multiple depots and off of other busy routes to run the bus bridge between Huntington and Berks.  SEPTA probably could have improved by doing a better job of telling bus riders across the city that their bus service had just taken a minor cut on a cold day, but that’s a relatively minor strike to have as your worst sin.

One thing that I think would be worthwhile in future disruptions, but the technology is a few years away, is push notifications to riders that they should seek alternate routes.  Many El riders in Kensington and the Lower Northeast connect to the El from crosstown bus routes, and would have been best served if they could be instructed to head west to a Broad Street Subway station, which would crowd those buses in a more distributed way, and take some of the load off of the shuttle operation.  That wouldn’t even require pushing notifications to individual riders, although I’m sure that that is coming in the smartphone era, but for major disruptions like this one, having announcements on board buses and scrolling on information displays on buses and at bus shelters would be a major help.

That makes it all the more terrible that the City of Philadelphia didn’t specify any kind of realtime schedule information displays in the new bus shelters it just contracted for with Titan Outdoor — they’re a great improvement in quality-of-life on a daily basis, but in a major disruption like today’s, information is critical.  Why that bad contract isn’t an electoral issue in the upcoming Mayoral and Council contests, I have no idea.  Unlike schools and SEPTA Regional Rail, it’s something where the Mayor and Council have actual authority over, and doesn’t even require City money, but they still muffed it badly.

EDIT: Actually, there is one ongoing SEPTA screwup that exacerbates these problems: the $1 transfer charge.  Consider someone in walking distance of K&A, commuting back and forth to Center City near Market Street.  They use tokens because it doesn’t make financial sense to buy a Transpass unless you transfer or make extra trips on weekends.  Even if they are told what is happening, they are going to be charged $1 for the privilege of taking the 60 to Broad Street and going around the fire zone in reasonable comfort, instead of throwing themselves into the teeth of a chaotic bus bridge operation.  How many Kensingtonians are going to be doing that voluntarily?  A lot fewer than if a transfer was included in the base fare, that’s for certain.

Twitter helpdesks are too valuable to be turned off so early

I’d like to write an enormous longform piece on how, in the first five weeks of this year, SEPTA and PATCO have been handling the disruptions of winter weather, for better and for worse. In lieu of the time to crank out the 10,000+ words the subject could take, let me take some time this morning to write briefly on one simple facet: SEPTA’s realtime Twitter account, @SEPTA_SOCIAL, and its PATCO equivalent @RidePATCO. From what I’ve seen, I’ve come to the conclusion that those accounts need to be kept manned much longer than they are now.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had TweetDeck set up to provide a search timeline for everyone who uses the word “septa” on Twitter; this is one of the things that SEPTA does itself in its social media office. As disruption after disruption rolled in over the last month, there was a definite difference in the tone of the customer complaints, depending on whether the disruption was completely within @SEPTA_SOCIAL’s business hours (7:00-19:00 weekdays, 8:00-18:00 weekends), or if it was even partially while the account was dark. Informed riders are happier (if not necessarily happy) riders. That’s the point of the entire exercise.

SEPTA itself, of course, runs 24/7/365. So does PATCO. I’m not asking that either tiny team of social mediators be on call around-the-clock; that would be too much, too fast. But evening ridership is growing quickly. Occasional riders unfamiliar with the transit system tend to ride in the evenings. For that matter, if an evening rush melts down, it will often still be recovering as the sign-off messages go out at 19:00. That’s not a good thing for a Customer Service operation. So I would ask both agencies to prioritize expanding their social media teams to provide coverage of the Twitter desks through at least 21:00, every night. 23:00 or midnight would be even better. Similarly, PATCO signs on in the morning at 6:00; this might be a good thing for SEPTA to emulate.

I know that that is an odd request, when I’m usually banging the drum for much bigger and more expensive things. But the Twitter helpdesk is critical infrastructure for the early 21st Century, as strange as that seems. No other agency does it as well as SEPTA, and PATCO is obviously trying to learn its neighbor’s lessons, unlike other agencies that have yet to see the light about real-time information. And compared to many other things that make transit better for riders, well-trained Twitter handlers are relatively cheap, and are cost-effective. Something to think about as the finishing touches get put on the draft FY2016 budgets.