On public transportation and information design

Adrian's recent post on frustrations with Athens Transit really hit a nerve with me as well.

See, I have certain neurological issues which affect my perception of things and make it dangerous for me to drive or bike independently, so I'm pretty much dependent on transit, walking, and the occasional car pool to get anywhere in this town.

And in my opinion, Athens Transit could really benefit from hiring someone with skills in usability design.

Usability is a very important concept to me. I'm a computer programmer, and...well, have you ever had to deal with computer programs that were so utterly unintuitive that they were a complete pain to use? (UGA students, I need only mention one word: OASIS. All the counter-intuitiveness of an IBM 3270 terminal, made even less user-friendly by sticking a fake GUI on top.) There's a whole field within computer science that's known as human-computer interaction, dealing with how to design an interface that actually makes sense to a typical user and not just to the programmer.

And most of Athens Transit's information, it seems, is designed primarily for the 'programmer,' not the 'user'— that is, it's far more meaningful and useful to those who run the bus system or who drive the routes than it is to anyone who actually rides the bus.

Case in point: Figure out which route goes to the Classic City High School (240 Mitchell Bridge Road) using only Athens Transit's web site in under 5 minutes. (I bring up this location specifically because, as it is a non-traditional high school, some of its students may very well be dependent upon transit to get there.)


Difficult, wasn't it?

First of all, some streets, such as the particular sliver of Mitchell Bridge covered by the bus system, are on routes that aren't immediately obvious from the route name alone.

Compound that with the fact that there is no system map showing how the routes intersect, and...well, it turns out to be quite a crapshoot.

Of course, it's even worse if it turns out that the place you need to get to isn't even covered by Athens Transit. I remember being shocked when I first found out that, because the bus system doesn't have authority to go over the Clarke/Oconee county line, none of the big-box stores on Epps Bridge are actually covered by a bus route whatsoever. But at least I figured this out when Athens Transit did have a system map a few years ago, badly designed as it might have been. How exactly is someone supposed to figure out that no buses run to a given part of town now without looking over every single one of the 18 route maps, other than breaking down and calling Athens Transit on the phone?

Worse yet, some of the information from Athens Transit is Just Plain Wrong. One such case that I discovered a couple weeks ago was the route map for Route 14. The whole section of East Campus Road between Carlton and Hooper is not even covered by the route; why, then, is it white like the parts that are on the route, rather than gray like the other intersecting streets shown for context? That's got to be particularly confusing to new Athenians, especially given that "East Campus" is even part of the route name!

And don't even get me started on the recent changes to route 6, route 20, and the Saturday version of route 25. I came back from visiting my family this summer to find out that weekend 25 doesn't even run west of the bridge on College Station anymore— which is a bit troublesome, since that's where I live. (Did they not get any input from people living in the Riverbend/East Campus area?) And of course, this change wasn't made clear at all on the site. There's only a time table that's...rather difficult to make sense of, honestly, as well as a link to a Word document (?!) textually explaining all three of the aforementioned routes in the same file (with no indication of what specifically changed from the older version, naturally). And matters are made only more confusing by the fact that route 6 and 20 were changed for weekdays, but not for nights and weekends, while again, this distinction is made about as clear as mud on the site.

And this, of course, is completely ignoring the fact that routes have to be further altered on football game days to avoid campus traffic— and of course, there's nothing about those changes on the web site whatsoever that I can find. Surely someone had to anticipate that a rider might expect route 5 to go by the Georgia Center or route 20 by Rutherford Hall? I know I expected that, given that there's nothing to the contrary on any information provided by Athens Transit, save for a few random signs inside buses that I saw last year but that I don't even recall having seen this year.

At least there's one bit of good news in the horizon: from what I read in Flagpole, Athens Transit will soon be partnering with Google Maps to provide transit directions via Google's trip-planning service. They're not there yet, but I anxiously await this addition; hopefully they won't screw it up as badly as everything I've mentioned above...


Polusplanchnos said...

Yeah, it is extremely confusing. The only way I was able to determine their night routes online was through your efforts in providing that to us, codeman. The website is completely opposite of helpful, and some enterprising young programmer could do wonders with the thing. With the increase in ridership, AT could make the money back in no time.

codeman38 said...

I need to submit a résumé to Athens Transit or something. Granted, I wouldn't necessarily have a lot of time to work on the site, being a busy grad student and all— but it doesn't seem like the current webmaster takes an awful lot of time updating things either...

Adrian Pritchett said...

You could start your own alternative site with Athens Transit information. It would be one of those kind of unofficial websites that are more useful than the official one.

codeman38 said...

Adrian, y'know, I don't know why I hadn't thought of that. Particularly given that I did the temporary site when Athens Transit was taking way too long to post the night routes...

I might just have to get started on that project before long.

Winfield J. Abbe said...

The Athens' public bus system is unsafe (buses block traffic lanes), wasteful(only a handful of riders), inefficient (forces tax subsidies of about $1.5 million from Athens' taxpayers), pollutes the air with diesel exhaust and service is not provided everyone although all taxpayers are forced to subsidize it. This violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Georgia Constitution but no one will force the government to comply with the law. Athens Transit has been asked repeatedly to disclose the current revenue figures but they seek to fool people by providing only those through 2000.

Olga said...

pixipTell me about it. I thought it would be easy living at the top of Baxter by Alps and use the bus, and it's fine until it hits the 6 pm mark. For 3 weeks now, I kept thinking there was this bus 20 that comes at 6:22, so I never bothered to run out there early for a 6:15 bus 6. Little did I know, I wasn't just "missing the bus every time" but ... it actually doesn't exist. The shift changes from 5 pm to 7 pm, and at 6 pm for an unknown reason bus 20 runs down Broad street instead! WTF. And all the times I've called them, too, asking when the bus will come, they said it will be there soon, but I guess they confused Broad with Baxter *every time they explained it to me*.

The bus back home comes only once every hour, so when I get out of class at around 3:10 pm, I must sit around on campus an extra 50 minutes just so that I catch the next one. And sometimes, like today, the bus won't even open the doors for me seeing me run for it as I'm right beside it!!!

Oh and of course add the fact that I can't stay on campus after 10 pm because the buses just don't run later than that.. WTF? They are catered to classes of people who may be working later shifts such as 11 pm, or have to go work around then, and to students who like to study at least until midnight. No good unless you've got a friend willing to take you home every night, yeah. Oh and of course, I don't dare walk up Baxter street after even 8 pm at night because I'm walking by two very low-income neighborhoods that are even intersected by a police station!! and always have crimes around that area.

(end of bitching session)

I guess the reason I stumbled on your blog is because I actually clicked through every one of the 18 route pages only to find that Epps Bridge doesn't have a bus system and I need to go shopping for a pair of pants before tomorrow night for work. I remember the fantastic large map they had, that was so much better than the bare bones they have now!

Thanks, I feel better now.

Adrian Pritchett said...

Thanks for sharing. I had no idea that Route 20 changed after a certain time. That is ridiculous. I thought the only change was just on game days.

E-mail us if you'd like to be kept in the loop on our inquiry into these problems.