My open letter to mass transit providers:

Dear mass transit providers,

We need to talk about the way you format your schedules on-line. I understand that most operators were in service before the Internet was popular, and as such had paper schedules before digital or on-line schedules. Now, the most efficient way to create a paper schedule is to fit the entire schedule on one sheet of paper. This makes the schedule accessible and convenient to carry around, and if a transit user has trouble reading it, he or she can ask an operator for assistance. No problem.

But in the digital world, it’s different. I’ve seen several transit services loudly advertise the fact that their schedules can be accessed on-line. And that’s great! I think that’s an excellent way to make the system more accessible and get people to PLAN AHEAD when using transit, rather than showing up at the bus/train/subway/light-rail/rickshaw station and staring dumbfoundedly at the schedule, realizing all too late that the mode of transit they wanted to take just left and won’t be comin’ ’round for another 45 minutes. No one likes to feel that silly, so transit providers put their schedules on the Internet. Brilliant!

But notice that I said the purpose of doing so was to make the system more accessible. And consider, dear transit providers, that you can put information on the Internet and worry less about getting it all on one page, because a visitor to your website can use the mouse button to SCROLL DOWN and it’s not a hassle. When you upload a PDF of your paper schedule on to your website, you think you’re being clever. You think that if the paper schedule worked so well at the station, it will work well on-line. And all you need to do is scan the thing in, create a link, and take off early for lunch while you wait for people to go to the website, download that sucker and come over in droves.

Well I STRONGLY disagree (and after all, I’m an INTERN so I know what’s what). Putting the paper schedule on the Internet does NOT translate into the same level of accessibility. An opened PDF copy of a schedule usually results in TINY text that, combined with the glare of a computer monitor, is a one-way ticket to a headache. And yes, I intended that pun. If I have to put up with your unintuitive on-line schedule you have to put up with my terrible wordplay.

But what’s worse is that making the schedule hard to read makes it very hard to understand. Scanning down one row of departure times and matching that time up with a different row of arrival times gets really difficult to do when the schedule won’t even FIT in the damn screen DESPITE BEING WRITTEN IN A FONT SO SMALL I COULD INSCRIBE IT ON A GRAIN OF RICE. Now admittedly, I haven’t done research on this topic aside from my own anecdotal (and extremely embittered) experience, but I imagine that such difficulties are ultimately going to discourage potential riders from using the transit systems. I’m a fairly Internet-savvy individual, and my eyes work just fine1, and I really love mass transit but after five minutes with a handful of on-line PDF transit schedules I wanted to close my computer and just go sit in a park and forget about my travels (I mean I usually want to go sit in a park anyway but this just added to it). If it happened to me, I’m sure it could happen to someone else.  Although I’m sure that this attitude is what’s killing health care reform–I don’t want to have the government run my health care so it shouldn’t run ANYONE’S health care!–so maybe I don’t want to extrapolate too much from my conclusion but WHATEVER, let’s just run with it.

I offer this constructive advice to you, transit providers: take the time and energy to properly redesign your transit schedules into a more user-friendly and INTERNET-friendly format. Make them in larger font sizes, arrange the text so that it all flows in the same direction (this crazy top-to-bottom-tilt-your-head-90-degrees-so-you-can-read-it just DOESN’T work), and use better organizing lines so that the viwer can more easily see where and at what time one departure leads to another arrival. Putting the PDF online and calling it an accessible schedule is like handing someone a can of delicious soup (I’m thinking chicken and wild rice or really good corn chowder) and a ROCK and saying that you’ve provided them with a meal. Sure, they can use the rock to open the can of soup, but it takes a long time and they lose most of the contents of the soup in the process. They may become so frustrated that they just walk away from the kerfluffle (that’s a real world and boy is it a great one) and go to McDonalds.

Transit providers, you’re all about planning and design. So think about what goes into the public’s planning. One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard in transportation planning is the concept of a transportation agency seeing an entire web of transit services and infrastructures (bus, train, light rail, car, rickshaw) as one seamless system, much like the actual consumers do (it wasn’t until I became what I am today that I really saw buses and trains as being separate entities serving the same populations. Ah, the ignorance of youth). This means designing things like one transit pass that works on all systems or intermodal transit stations that lets a commuter transfer from bus to train or from train to car or from light-rail to rickshaw. So if we think of one seamless system, think of a seamless system properly adopted to each medium. You wouldn’t run a light-rail train into the distant suburbs or plow a multi-lane interstate highway through the middle of a city (and certainly not a city’s ethnic neighborhood)2, so why would you assume that a paper format works fine for the Internet? Newspapers don’t make their on-line editions read like their print editions.

Follow their example, and stop giving me headaches each time I try to plan my trip into some new neighborhood. This nation was made great by explorers going into unknown territory3, and I’m just trying to follow in their footsteps.

1I don’t wear glasses or contacts, which is kind of a shame because I think that people always look better in glasses. But I say this as someone who has never had to rely on them, so I’m sure it’s much more of a hassle than I realize and I’m just romanticizing the situation.

2Those of you who know some history of highway design and urban planning (hundreds, I’m sure) know that I’m being really funny here.

3And finding indigenous peoples who didn’t have resistance to European diseases or bullets. To quote the Daily Show’s America: The Book, “Tomahawks?! They thought they could stop us with tomahawks?!”