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Frequency’s value

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Kurt Raschke pushes back against the notion (which I suggested yesterday) that real time arrival data can serve as a substitute for frequency:

Telling people to plan their lives around a transit app just isn’t a good way to lure them out of their cars or endear them to transit. It’s much more compelling (and leads to a much more usable transit system) when we can simply tell people “show up at a stop, and there’ll be a bus in 10 minutes or less”. It’s also not a problem app developers can solve alone; as the cliché goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Providing reliable real-time passenger information is a good first step towards improving the usability of a transit network, and one that is often far less expensive than actually increasing frequency of service. But that doesn’t mean our work is done once the app goes live; on the contrary, we’ve only just begun.

I would add that one of the reasons I find real time data more valuable than marginal frequency increases is that I rarely have specific times I absolutely need to be somewhere. Exceptions might include an early morning meeting at work or going to a movie (when I’m scheduled to teach a morning class, I generally aim to be on campus about an hour before that). These make up a relatively small portion of my trips. If I a) had kids who needed to be places at certain times and/or b) had a job in which clocking in exactly on time was important, I might feel differently. He also spends quite a bit of time pointing out that the apps have to work well, and he’s right about that. (OBA has some quirks, but once you learn them it generally works well enough to be useful).

That said, it seems to me it’s an empirical question what people value more, and I haven’t seen any research on the subject yet. To me it’s marginal–as with the real example of the 15 local/D line, 20 minute headway + OBA was rather clearly better than 15 minute headways and no OBA. If the gap were much greater, maybe not. But it’s also worth noting that on really busy lines in which the buses share lanes with traffic, no amount of low headways can eliminate occasional long gaps. Even when the Metro routes like the 44 and the 8 was supposed to run every 8-10 minutes apart, bus bunching was notoriously and maddeningly common. There are known steps that can be taken to eliminate bunching, but they are not always politically available. So while I don’t disagree with mantra that “frequency is freedom” under some conditions no amount of scheduling frequency can eliminate frustratingly large gaps, but OBA and similar technologies can eliminate

The frequency uber alles approach to transit of Walker, Raschke, and others is based on a sound theory, but the notion that real time data has no potential palliative value for lower frequency seems like an empirical question to me. It depends on the decision matrices of actual riders (or would be riders) and can’t be determined a priori. Since the data is relatively new, and empirical work has not, to my knowledge, been done, I think this should be treated as an open question.  Our attitude toward frequency shouldn’t become dogma.

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