Monday, March 18, 2013

The Outsize Value of Fare Coordination

or, why NPT and the Freedom Card need to be compatible

a working paper à la Nate Hood

"Organization before electronics before concrete" is an important German concept that refers to both a means of subdividing solutions and a philosophy for applying those subdivisions. The best solutions have the most impact for the money, after all, and the ones that have the most impact are generally those that cost the least to implement properly. Note adverb: Cheapskate "solutions" generally tend to fail. Since we are looking at proper solutions, and it follows that those with the highest cost-benefit ratios tend to be optimal in any circumstance, this means that "organizational" solutions, with an extremely low capital cost* relative to benefits. Because of this, fare coordination is an essential organizational problem, and one which, when implemented properly, contributes massively to systemwide user-friendliness.

This can be directly applied to SEPTA's NPT travails. User desires for NPT are fairly simple--one card to get where you're going, no matter on what or when. One card for any train to Trenton, Wilmington, Downingtown. One card that connects to PATCO and the River Line. One card that does it all. London's Oyster system is a template.

Why is it so hard to just follow a goddamn template?

SEPTA's working protocol for NPT is generally commendable: contactless, open-loop, easily integrated with next-gen credit and debit cards^ like Tokyo's Suica as well as other next-gen fare systems. But that's where its technical edge comes to an end: NPT is attempting an (untested) rollout of Regional Rail fare payment that is not at all in accord with the best templates (e.g. Oyster, which uses a modified proof-of-payment system)--something which I'm sure Sic Transit Philadelphia will give more info on in the near future--and a total failure to integrate the Freedom Card. To hell with fare coordination! sayeth 1234 Market. We want to protect our agency turf at all costs!

Integrating the Freedom Card is basic fare coordination. While it may be more limited than what SEPTA has in mind with NPT, it is not so limited as needing to be back-compatible with tokens. Like what NPT will be, the Freedom Card is also contactless, chip card-based, credit- and debit-card-integrated. It already has features SEPTA has in mind, and was designed to be open-ended enough to be compatible with NPT, predictable since NPT itself is something that has been kicked around for the better part of a decade now. It is Universal Gravitation to NPT's General Relativity. Any implementation of NPT in a fixed-fare environment (buses, trolleys, the subway, el, and NHSL) is going to act, technically, in the same manner as the Freedom Card. So take it as the technical base, and build a variable-fare system on top that works like the Oyster Card! Or, at the very least, make sure it has basic back-compatibility--something that all software developers know full well. It is not hard.

And the users will thank SEPTA. Suddenly, instead of having several agencies at cross-purposes with one another, and discrete fare payment media to match, a single card becomes a gateway to the region. Want to visit the Mercer Museum? No problem! Want to visit a friend in Burlington? No problem! Want to check out that trendy place that just opened in Haddonfield? No problem! It is because, once implemented, fare coordination provides these real, tangible user benefits that even the handful of primitive fare coordination systems in use in the U.S. are expansionary--the Clipper Card, growing at a rate of two agencies a year, for example, or the SmarTrip/CharmCard nexus, which has effectively tied together a fare-coordination network spanning two major cities (Baltimore and D.C.) and the better part of two states. It is because of this that there is only one fare media--the OV-Chipkaart--in use anywhere in the Netherlands. Build a core and other agencies (especially smaller ones which see more significant boosts) will want to climb on.

The point is that while more advanced fare payment systems are more advantageous to the transit agency, fare coordination is more advantageous to the user. And user advantageousness is what, frankly, makes or breaks borderline users, what drives ridership up--or down. SEPTA is not so large as to serve the entire Philadelphia region the way the MBTA is to Boston. If SEPTA truly wishes to make getting around the region using its services advantageous, it must make sure its connections with the regions' other agencies are also advantageous to the user. It must invest in fare coordination.

Unfortunately, it says a great deal about American mass transit that agencies here are obsessed not with implementing proven, and working, templates, but rather with inventing new "standards" that are optimized for themselves and themselves alone (and thus not really standards). All SEPTA has to do with NPT is implement an Oyster Card clone**. Alas, if they keep on the course they're going, they're going to botch it.
* Organizational solutions usually also have relatively high human cost, because the nature of such solutions is that they require agency cooperation and/or integration, a difficult proposition in the U.S. environment where agency turf issues rule the roost. Regulation--requiring all agencies serving a particular metropolitan area to be fare-coordinated--may be a useful workaround, but on the other hand the integration of fare payment media with credit cards (already happening in Europe and Japan^) may well render the whole fare-coordination issue obsolete.
^ For example, D.C., where the SmarTrip system (itself compatible with MTA's CharmCard) is about to be phased out for a credit card-based payment system.
** See e.g. the YouTube link above for why.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Setting the Record Straight

Somehow it's unsurprising that, in our state's game of political brinkmanship between PennDOT and Amtrak, the right wing supports killing the daily Pennsylvanian. The right wing's op-eds are fact-free tiresome rehashes. So fact-free, in fact, that in an amusing inversion of the norm, the comments are more educated than the articles themselves.

It is interesting that both rags appear to hail from the Pittsburgh area, and of course one--the Tribune-Review--makes the leap that Pittsburgh's ridership situation was symptomatic of the line as a whole:
Total Pittsburgh station passenger counts are falling, and The Pennsylvanian — with just one morning departure and one evening arrival there daily — “almost certainly” is serving “fewer than 100,000 per year or 270 people per day” and losing riders, which means even higher future subsidies, he writes.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Only one Pennsylvanian station suffered from declining ridership last year; as I've already explained, Pittsburgh suffers from a scheduling quirk that necessarily undermines its boarding counts (that is, departures are either too early or too late).
And in direct contradiction to the article's claims,  the Pennsylvanian's total ridership rose last year, as it had the year before and the year before that. The most recent figure I know of is a ridership of 207,016, a 2.2% increase over the prior year. This is not the Fort Pitt, whose ridership was 30 a day when it was discontinued. Rising ridership means more demand for the train--implying the most harmful possible move is to cut it.

Third--again, as I've already explained--the Pennsylvanian is price-competitive to the Turnpike for cross-state trips. It's not I-80 it's competing against. At any given time the effective cost for traversing the state on the Turnpike is a $30 toll plus approximately $30 in gas--that is, $60 total. Yes, the Turnpike is faster to Harrisburg--but the Pennsylvanian clearly supports other niches.
Riding The Pennsylvanian to Harrisburg costs $40 and takes 51⁄2 hours with stops. Dr. Haulk notes that Megabus has three daily nonstop Pittsburgh-Harrisburg trips that cost $14 or $16 and take 31⁄2 to 4 hours.
Dr. Haulk misses the point. It's not Pittsburgh that is fueling the Pennsylvanian in its current iteration--it's Altoona, Lewistown, Huntingdon--places where Megabus doesn't stop. And guess what? Altoona, Tyrone, Lewistown, Huntingdon--all have mid-morning or midday departures! Again, Pittsburgh's ridership isn't suffering because the train is a bad train, per se--it is because the train's schedule is built around convenience for the other side of Horseshoe Curve. Or, to put it bluntly, Pittsburgh's Pennsylvanian ridership is so low because there's only one Pennsylvanian--and it's oriented to Philadelphia.

Don't agitate to cut a useful service for Altoonans, Tyronians, Lewistowners, and Huntingdonians, friend Pittsburghers. Agitate instead to add a train useful to you.

But it's the Sentinel that commits the most grievous sins. When it says
If the state’s going to spend money on rail transportation, it should do so where money would be better spent. Continuing to upgrade the Harrisburg-to-Philadelphia line, or investing with NJ Transit on plans to bring commuter rail to the Scranton area, seem more palpable than maintaining money-losing service to Pittsburgh,
it is comparing apples and oranges (at the very least). The Keystones are (supposed to be) hourly service; naturally, when the train comes once an hour instead of once a day, it is significantly easier to take it. Lancaster demonstrates this. The still-a-long-ways-away NJ Transit Scranton proposal would probably not even be hourly past East Stroudsburg. But these trains run as corridor commuter trains. The Pennsylvanian is, at its heart, an intercity train linking Pennsylvania's two great urban heartbeats.

The sad thing is that the Sentinel bulldozed through the truth on its way to its fatuous conclusion.
Rail experts say that the line could prove profitable and popular one day, but getting there would require tens or hundreds of millions of dollars — some subsidized at the federal level, to be sure, but some on the backs of Pennsylvania taxpayers — to realign and straighten the route to allow for high-speed access.
Probably Almost certainly not the best quote, given that running speed can be brought up quite a bit in the current infrastructural envelope--but this, at least, hints at where we can start. It is not eliminating what is very much a useful service; it is not by investing the many billions of capital needed to make it full-fat HSR into the line whole. It is by incremental additions, incremental improvements. You can't justify infrastructural investment by divesting the infrastructure you already have.

And the first of these improvements is a second daily train, oriented to Pittsburgh rather than Philadelphia. Do that, and be surprised by how suddenly useful the train becomes.